Chapter two of Joseph Roach’s book Cities of the Dead Circum Atlantic Performance is entitled “Echoes in the Bone”. In this chapter, he writes that “…violence is the performance of waste.” (Roach, page 41) Our class (ENGL 111/468) spent many days evaluating this quote and finding its relation to our multitude of course concepts. In this essay, I will be talking about many of our course concepts including violence, death, memory/forgetting and beginnings, and how they relate not only to Joseph Roach’s quote, but to the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina.
More often than not, when we see the word violence, we associate it with being caused by a human or a group of them. Violence by itself can be defined as an act used to intentionally cause harm to someone or something. This act of violence doesn’t have to be the act of a human, though. When Joseph Roach describes violence as the “performance of waste”, I interpret the waste as being a symbol of negativity (along with negative emotions) or destruction. Hurricane Katrina was destructive not only to people’s mental health, but their physical health as well. In class, we watched a film entitled When the Levees Broke. This film was split up into four acts, and each act showed multiple Katrina survivors as they shared their personal experiences and traumas. Hundreds of individuals waited for multiple days without any sources of clean water, food, clean clothes, or even a place to use the bathroom. Every day they were told that help was arriving and was around the corner, and every day that help seemed to be prolonged. This caused many people to become sick due to the unsanitary conditions. Those in poor conditions health wise prior to Katrina only worsened over time. Many individuals died, which brings me to our first course concept: death.
Death, although it can be traumatizing, is inevitable. Whenever you hear about a death, even if it’s someone you don’t know, it takes a toll on you. It makes you think about your life in more depth, who you could have been spending more time with and so on. When these people lost their families during hurricane Katrina, it took a tremendous amount of courage to keep going and fighting for their own lives in the midst of their suffering. Also shown in the film When the Levees Broke was numerous dead bodies that were left out in the open and covered by blankets. Their families had no choice but to leave them behind and move forward to save their own lives. The worst part was the fact that it took days, and sometimes even weeks for these bodies to be taken away. Their family members are left with this everlasting image of their love one left behind for everyone to see. This concept of death, and anger followed by death also relates to Joseph Roaches quote that “…violence is the performance of waste.” (Roach, page 41). Many people were angry about the fact that, after many days, their loved ones still weren’t being properly taken care of, or removed from public view. After the storm was over, the town was in shambles as there was waste everywhere and destruction in every sight. It wasn’t fair to those left behind, because they are now being viewed as part of the waste and destruction of the disaster, even though their life was so valued by so many people.
Being a part of such a disaster is surely something that is hard to forget, which is why memory/forgetting is one of the many important course concepts we have discussed in class. No matter how hard you try to forget the bad things that have happened to you, your mind always finds a way to come back to it. For those that suffered such catastrophic events, these memories can sometimes lead to severe anxiety, and in many cases PTSD. Around the time of Katrina, racism was still prominent in New Orleans, specifically targeting Black Americans and those of African American descent. The film When the Levees Broke did an excellent job at illustrating how these people were, in a way, forgotten about when it came to getting help after the hurricane struck. Many people described feeling as though they weren’t cared about, which oftentimes left them feeling hopeless. Feeling hopeless in a time of struggle is something that nobody should have to experience, especially when you are seeing others get the help that you need as well. In class, we read a text entitled Blood Dazzler, written by Patricia Smith. This is a book of poems that were written to try to provide a better understanding of some of the personal thoughts and experiences of those that had suffered through Katrina. In the poem entitled “Ethel’s Sestina”, the author writes, “We wait. Ain’t no white men or buses come, but look–see that there? Get me out of this chair, help me stand on up.” (Smith, page 46) These words spoke to me louder than any others, because it showed that these people were waiting patiently for help for so long while watching others get the help they also needed and deserved. Using Joseph Roach’s “violence is the performance of waste.” quote, the performance in this case is the open suffering of these people whilst others are getting help. The film When the Levees Broke also illustrated how many people began to steal items such as food, water, and clothing from stores that were nearby in order to help them and others around them survive. This “looting” as some people called it was viewed as doing the wrong thing, however, the people needed to do what they thought was right in the moment to help themselves. This relates to our course concept of memory/forgetting because the people of New Orleans will never forget the extremes that they had to go through to make it through this disaster.
Beginnings is another one of the main course concepts that we have been working with this semester, and the last one I will be talking about in this essay. Little did the people of New Orleans know, Hurricane Katrina was going to be the hardest of new beginnings they’ve ever had to endure. In class, we read multiple pages of Unfathomable City written by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker. On page 133, an excerpt entitled The Beginning of This Road was written by Maurice Carlos Ruffin. In relation to beginning, she states, “But the water betrayed them: 15-foot-high pilings didn’t prevent an unfathomable sea from sweeping their homes away like wet leaves from a porch. Still, after an ending there is life. Or so it is said.” (Ruffin, page 133) Ruffin refers to life after death as a new beginning, or as hope for a new beginning. After the people of New Orleans got to safety on the buses, they were transported to new places and distanced from their families. As described in the ending credits of When the Levees Broke, most of the survivors of hurricane Katrina were born and raised in New Orleans. Of these people, a majority of them have never traveled outside of New Orleans, either. To them, having to leave their homes was the first chapter in their new beginnings. Many of the people that were being interviewed in the film reported being scared and distraught due to the separation from their families and what they thought was their forever home. Hurricane Katrina changed the lives of so many people, and especially changed the way that people spoke and felt about New Orleans.
When Joseph Roach wrote that “… violence is the performance of waste.”, it is assumed that many people will have multiple different interpretations of these words. So why does my interpretation and analysis matter? As a student that is enrolled in ENGL 111 with professor Beth McCoy, I have gained background knowledge of the personal experiences that people faced through Hurricane Katrina. I used the information and course concepts that I’ve learned in this class thus far to interpret my understanding of Joseph Roach’s words. Like I said before, not all violence has to be human related violence, although that is what we mostly think of violence to be. The survivors of Katrina have firsthand knowledge of this, too. They know that the violence in their case was caused by the breakage of the levees, and by the destruction of the hurricane itself. Using my personal experience of being in a hurricane was helpful in this understanding of his quote, too. In 2013, my family and I traveled to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina for a family vacation. While we were there, there was a severe hurricane warning. I remember feeling terrified every time I felt the house shake from the wind. The thunder in the sky cracked so loudly, and the lightning lit up the entire house without leaving a single speck of darkness anywhere. This storm only lasted a few hours, and luckily everybody was okay and safe. Having my own experience of being in a hurricane, even if it wasn’t as corrupt as Katrina, truly helped me to understand and sympathize with the fear and anxiety that these people experienced, and why my analysis of Joseph Roach’s words truly do matter.