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Memories of Domesticity: Family Values and National Belonging in Katrina Oral History


This paper examines constructions of the “Katrina Diaspora,” a label for those displaced when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005, in the online archives of two oral history projects. It argues that these representations of Katrina victims uphold the heteronormative character of citizenship, portraying pre-Katrina homes and communities in which traditional gender roles and familial structures prevail and nascent American citizens are properly reared. Foregrounding the importance of gender and familial norms within the exclusionary logic of national belonging, this paper considers these portrayals in relation to the terms of redress for victims of a national crisis.

Memories of Domesticity: Family Values and National Belonging in Katrina Oral History

The devastation of New Orleans during and in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the circumstances that conditioned the disaster, and its potential as a nationally transformative event, have been topics of much scholarship since the storm hit in August 2005. The increased vulnerability of poor black neighborhoods in New Orleans prior to the hurricane has been attributed to long histories of local and national structural racism manifested most recently in the retrenchment of the welfare state and neglect of social and physical infrastructure. The resulting loss of life and widespread uprooting of residents can therefore not be understood as a catastrophic act of nature, but instead, as the work of scholars such as Henry Giroux, David Theo Goldberg and Stefka Hristova indicates, must be seen as a state-sanctioned biopolitical event. Building on these assertions, I examine how constructions of the “Katrina Diaspora” uphold the normative character of citizenship and biopolitical processes of neglect and endangerment. Foregrounding the importance of gender and familial norms within the exclusionary logic of national belonging, I consider these portrayals in relation to the terms of redress for victims of a national crisis and the potential, or lack thereof, for transformative politics in the wake of a national devastation.

As Siobhan Somerville, Ann Stoler, and others have shown, gender and sexual norms are integral to the production of racial and class difference and vice versa. Similarly, many queer theorists point to the deployment of normative familial behavior as a tactic of marginalized groups in attempts to convey proper and deserving Americanness (Warner 1999, Puar 2007). As Katrina was a globally visible crisis that evidenced the contingent quality of state protection, discursive treatments of its victims are sites of contestation over culpability for victims’ hardships and their level of incorporation into the nation. In representations of poor and racialized displaced New Orleanians, gender roles, parenting skills, and homemaking practices assume critical importance. As such, Katrina victims’ claims to rights are often articulated (both implicitly and explicitly) in opposition to enduring figures of domestic deviants—the homeless person, the welfare queen, the criminal urban youth—figures that emblematize poor communities of pre-Katrina New Orleans. These instances are interesting for the ways that precisely those who were most negatively affected by Katrina, suffering the most intense forms of loss, harm and displacement, were those who would formerly have been cast within mainstream political rhetoric as the undeserving criminal and poor. As such, this specific strategy for making claims to the imagined entitlements of citizenship, I argue, serves primarily to prop up the exclusionary logic that produces structural inequalities and thus helped to create the disaster in the first place by underwriting the state’s systematic failure to secure the safety of certain neighborhoods.

To examine this discourse, I have chosen online oral history and other interview-based projects, analyzing both the framing of the projects and interview excerpts for the ways they participate in constructions of Katrina victims as desirable national subjects. Both oral history projects discussed are volunteer-based and began interviewing evacuees only weeks after the hurricane. Alive in Truth: The New Orleans Disaster Oral History and Memory Project is based in Austin, Texas and The Katrina Experience: An Oral History Project is based in Houston, Texas. In looking at oral histories and interviews, I am not reading for the authentic voices of the victims, but for emergent themes to be identified in the particular interview excerpts that are accessible and displayed. I am interested in the circulating strains of discourse and their implications for national social, political and economic policy, rather than proof of Katrina victims unmediated experiences or feelings.

Narratives that Katrina victims present about their former homes in New Orleans often include explicit appeals to normalcy framed in contrast to some type of domestic undesirability. As Tami J. states,

The hardest part for me, the part that I can't stand -- I'm a taxpayer, I pay taxes. And you're calling me a refugee. That hurts. Like hell. And like I said, I never in my life grew up in a house with millions of people. You know, I've always had my own room, my own, you know, my own, I was always -- just -- And then, looking at your kids filthy dirty, it's horrible, it's horrible. It's just, I'm not used to looking like this. (Alive in Truth)

As a taxpayer and “owner” of private property, Tami J. is a productive and contributing member of society in opposition to the needy masses of refugees who are apparently accustomed to unhygienic and cramped living situations. Citizens theoretically have a straightforward and mutually beneficial relationship to the nation-state that is grounded in a specific household structure. To be a refugee, on the other hand, is to occupy an “interstitial position” in “the system of nation states” (Masquelier 737). Along with this liminal positionality comes improper, perhaps un-American, lifestyle and domestic practices.

As this and other excerpts show, the proper American home is constructed as one in which specific patterns of consumption undergird domestic life. In the context of actually excusing the people who looted houses and businesses in order to survive or make a profit, Richard states,

I'm twenty-four, just started working, and I worked for everything I wanted and I got it. I felt like it was more than just material things to me because it was my first time being able to do this on my own. Everything in that house I accomplished on my own, so don't tell me it is of no value. How is it of no value?! Because I went out there and I busted my ass getting it. I worked my butt to get it. (Alive in Truth)

The connection between hard work and entitlement to material possessions and private property differentiates him implicitly from those who do not work for what they have. He later states,

I mean like if I get my Identification, can't nothing stop me. Because in the city, I wasn't receiving no benefits. I wasn't receiving no financial help. All I needed to do was find a restaurant. I started as a dishwasher and worked up. I'm a monster in the kitchen. I can cook, I can clean, that's what I do. So I don't receive any free benefits. (Alive in Truth)

In opposition perhaps to the “deadbeat dads” of welfare reform rhetoric who abandon their responsibilities, rely on government assistance to fund their families and households, or resort to crime, Richard establishes his “monstrous” work ethic and upward mobility in the formal economic sector, further proving his deservedness of both property and respect.
Normative economic and familial practices are intimately intertwined. In lamenting her current predicament Tami J. states, “I had a family. Me and my family sat together and ate. You know, I mean, it's just ridiculous” (Alive in Truth). In her home, Tami J. practiced that which is often purported to keep a family united: eating together. In opposition to the stereotypical lazy and unhealthy poor, she asserts her family’s healthy practices: “I mean, food stamps, that's no good if you don't have a refrigerator. I cook! My kids are used to eating red beans and rice, pasta, you know, baked chicken - you know, we're not fried chicken, McDonalds-eatin people - I cook!” (Alive in Truth). Food stamps only make sense if you are able to cook, she asserts. However, those who normally receive food stamps, America’s poor, routinely engage, according to popular conception, in irresponsible consumption by eating at fast food establishments instead of enjoying a home-cooked meal together at the dinner table. By implication then, regular welfare recipients are not only unhealthy and unwilling to nurture the bonds of their families, but they are also misusing government resources. Responsible homemaking displaced Katrina victims, by contrast, are not.

In some accounts, images of pathologized, racialized communities of poverty in New Orleans are elided almost entirely. The “Sample Oral Histories” page of The Katrina Experience website, for example, includes thirteen links that lead to the samples, each of which displays a photo and short bio of the interviewee. They are each afforded a label: the Point Person, the Survivor, the Citizen Activist, the Holdout, etc. Two of these are noted as medical doctors, while the professions of widely published writer, acclaimed musician, nonprofit director, and middle school teacher are attached to some of the others. Most are pictured with pleasant facial expressions and relaxed posture. Their labels construct them as productive community members with strong, yet diverse, interests and values. What these people share, the page suggests, is a close connection to New Orleans and the events of August 2005. Discounting the four who are not evacuees, this predominantly white and upper to middle class sampling of displaced Katrina victims goes sharply against emblematic depictions. The website bypasses pre-Katrina urban blight and the racialized effects of the disaster by presenting its victims as paragons of average melting-pot Americanness, all with common interests and experiences in their respective private spheres.

These thirteen generic labels help to erase difference and project connections between and among the interviewees and their audience. For example, Asna Rooshi, a displaced New Orleans resident who is also an Indian immigrant, is deemed “the Homemaker.” Rendered knowable and proper through gendered tropes of citizenship, Rooshi actually explains in the first few sentences of her oral history that she worked at home: “I did carpeting in my house because I have small kids” (The Katrina Experience). Although it is important according to the laws of heteropatriarchy that she be at home with her children, the performance of labor in the home for market exchange does not fit within the conventional definition of “homemaker.” Shortly after this admission, however, Rooshi goes on to explain in elaborate detail the beauty and domesticity of her home. She describes her kitchen, living room, children’s bedroom in which she hangs all of their certificates and honors, her rose garden that is the envy of her neighbors. After stating that she is Muslim, she describes her prayer room, citing the carpet she made and the flowers all around. She later explains that it is her religion that helps her to realize that she still has what is important: her family. This oral history appeals to many of the norms of citizenship that correspond to the gendered division of labor in which women are the keepers of the private sphere. She is not, however, in danger of passing too far into what are considered the antiquated and confining gender roles of Islam. First, her language in the transcribed interview is presented as impeccable, resulting from assimilation and education. Second, her description of her home in New Orleans incorporates details that point to her and her children’s Americanization. For example, she notes that the children’s room is filled with “Disney books and Highlights,” children’s literature of well-known, long-standing American tradition (The Katrina Experience). Ultimately it is with her longing for the re-creation of that home (not the material possessions, she notes, but one’s own place and opportunities for good education for her daughters) that the interview ends. In this account, what often emblematizes the un-American in mainstream media, the Muslim, is rendered domestic through overt appeals to womanly domesticity and the sanctity of home.

Another way in which some Katrina victims are differentiated from perceptions of un-Americanness and pathologizing depictions of pre-hurricane New Orleans is through appeals to intricate community bonds through gendered cooperation. In her article “Getting Out or Staying Put: An African American Women’s Network in Evacuation from Katrina,” Jacquelyn Litt uses interviews with a family of displaced Katrina victims to make an argument about the importance of women’s roles in solidifying the communities that preexisted the hurricane. Championing the “family and kin ties” formed in the homeland and mobilized during the disaster, Litt forwards her subjects’ connectedness to that community as crucial to countering images of them irresponsible mothers (45). She writes, “Indeed, my respondents give testimony to the capacity of a resilient and responsive network to expand, rather than deteriorate, in the urgency, when values of collective support, network exchange, and mutual assistance were marshaled in a new way, to include new individuals, in an exceptional time” (42). In opposition to images of poor black mothers in New Orleans who, purportedly mired in the deviant culture of poverty and cycle of dependency, waited too long to evacuate, Litt portrays these women as “steady, forceful, and responsible which represents longstanding practices and commitments” (46). In doing so, however, she draws on categories such as “responsible” and “steady” in ways that reinforce them as objective standards of measurement, instead of destabilizing them. Therefore, the specter of the undeserving poor and criminal continues to haunt her analysis.

Hearty American masculinity is also portrayed as key to the handling of the disaster in some accounts. Rachid L. describes an experience in New Orleans directly after the hurricane:

At times, I remember one time after the storm was over, there was water everywhere. Somebody set the building on fire, and everybody panicked, and everybody--you got three hundred people in this hotel that had been there for days, and all of a sudden, they've got a fire at night. We had no fire extinguishers, nothing, so everybody panicked. My first instinct was to panic, but I said, No: my wife and my son here, you know--that's gonna look bad. So I just kind of like said a prayer, and all the men went upstairs with the garbage cans and went outside after water and put it out. You know, what came to my mind like us jumping into the water to survive the fire. But I was like, No, that's not what's gonna happen. And that's what I kept saying, and we put it out. (Alive in Truth)

In this account, the cooperation that New Orleanian men achieved is a testament not only to their community bonds, but also to their shared paternal instinct to protect. Unlike those men who would panic and jump into the water, these displaced Katrina victims acted as true American male heads of family would.

In these texts, the proper American home, made up of specific gender and parenting behavior, homemaking methods, and consumption patterns, is the key to American normalcy. These portrayals thus participate in discourses of what it means to be a US citizen in ways that reinforce established norms. In so doing, they reflect and generate a logic that undergirds current biopolitical projects in which certain groups of people are to be protected and cultivated for the benefits that they afford the nation, while others are rendered disposable in their purported deviance and draining of national resources. Although these discourses have important utility for those seeking immediate redress, in that they counter dominant demonizing images of the city, represent hurricane victims’ experiences, create and convey ties between and among displaced people, and produce people in the Katrina Diaspora as worthy of assistance, only a politics that seeks to overtly disrupt the normative mechanism of citizenship has a chance of affecting the processes by which poor New Orleanians came to such a fate. A politics that recognizes the ways that pre-Katrina poor New Orleans both embodied the nonnormative in its extreme status as a domestic Third World, and epitomized the national norm of urban poverty, is necessary to spur on new approaches to urban development, welfare policy, disaster relief and social organization in general. These texts show how in a moment touted as holding potential for national self-reflection, inclusion into the imagined national homeland nevertheless requires the production and marginalization of unseemly members, a reality that reinforces, rather than transforms, the powers of the biopolitical state. In the context of redevelopment projects in New Orleans that seek to prevent the return of poor racialized residents and rebuild the city as cleaner, safer, and more marketable, the representations of the Katrina Diaspora discussed here are both understandable and harrowing.

Works Cited

Abb, Stacy Parker. The Katrina Experience: An Oral History Project. 2008. (accessed March 3, 2009).

Alive in Truth. Alive in Truth: The New Orleans Disaster Oral History and Memory Project. 2006. (accessed March 3, 2009).

Giroux, Henry A. “Reading Hurricane Katrina: Race, Class, and the Biopolitics of Disposability.” College Literature 33.3 (2006) 171-196, 2006.

Goldberg, David Theo and Stefka Hristova. 2007. “Blue Velvet: Redressing New Orleans in Katrina’s Wake.” Vectors Journal, 3.1 (2007). (accessed January 12, 2011).

Litt, Jacquelyn. “Getting Out of Staying Put: An African American Women’s Network in Evacuation from Katrina.” NWSA Journal 20.3 (2008) 32-48.

Masquelier, Adeline. “Why Katrina’s Victims Aren’t Refugees: Musings on a ‘Dirty’ Word.” American Anthropologist 108.4 (2006) 735-743.

Puar, Jasbir. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.

Somerville, Siobhan. Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000.

Stoler, Ann Laura. Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.

Warner, Michael. The Trouble With Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Clare Daniel, M.A.

Clare Daniel is a doctoral student in American Studies at the University of New Mexico.