Performance of Waste: The Dehumanizing Treatment Faced by The People of New Orleans After Katrina

Hurricane Katrina, a devastatingly impactful storm, left the city of New Orleans and its people turned upside down. After the Levees broke, walls were put up to protect the already below-sea-level city, and New Orleans drowned. What came after Hurricane Katrina was not only visible physical destruction, but the inequality faced politically and socially by residents of New Orleans. The media portrayed these people as helpless, while our government’s response showed to be not just unbearably slow, but insufficient. These people were left to their own devices. Throughout this essay, the concept of “violence as the performance of waste” (Joseph Roach) in relation to the devastation faced after Hurricane Katrina will be analyzed, using Joseph Roaches Cities of the Dead: Circum Atlantic Performance “Echoes in the Bone”,  Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler, and the documentary: When The Levees Broke by Spike Lee. These sources allow us to examine just how the people of New Orleans were treated as waste, and how they were dehumanized and cast aside after Hurricane Katrina. Though despite the unimaginable hardships faced, the resilience of the New Orleans people refused to perform as the victims that society and the media were portraying them as.

So far in this semester’s course on Hurricanes, a lot of important concepts have circulated in and around discussions about the course content. In Joseph Roaches Cities of the Dead: Circum Atlantic Performance “Echoes in the Bone”, the concept “violence is the performance of waste” is presented. One way to interpret what Roach means by this statement is to look closer at what would be classified as waste, and then again at violence. Waste is typically tossed to the side after being expended, used up, and forgotten about. The people who suffered through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina were expended, cast aside during the time of a natural disaster. Abandoned, neglected, and left without basic survival necessities, the people of New Orleans became expendable waste at the hands of a disorganized government response to a crisis among its own people. After failing to meet the basic needs of these people, the individuals of New Orleans were forced into a position of performance. Humanity was thrown out the window as these people were thought of, and portrayed by the media, as victims. In the documentary When The Levees Broke by Spike Lee, news reports were shown of struggling city folk, who weren’t being helped by the government, and the people of New Orleans were consistently referred to as “refugees”. This is an incredibly frustrating label for these individuals displaced within their own nation because, during that time, military forces that would have been called on to help the people of New Orleans were focused on another country, and not the agony being faced at the time by people in their own country. The People of New Orleans, after having to face traumatic events from Hurricane Katrina, were to perform as weak victims of the storm.

A poem from Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler, a collection of poems highlighting the devastation of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, tells a story of a child after Katrina in a new community just trying to adjust to the sudden new life they were thrown into during the diaspora (a scattered population separated from the place of origin). Smith writes, “They keep touching him, brushing past his scarred arms, tugging lightly on his clothing, some boldly reaching out for his cheek, sorry, so sorry. And he wonders how long he can stand this still, be this sort of trophy, how long he can stay bended, going from one to the other, slipping their winged feet into God’s loafers, slipping deftly into his role as child who drowns, again and again, who opens his mouth to scream, but river rushes in.” (Smith, page 71). This poem allows the audience to grasp an idea of the pressure put onto a child who has no choice but to disperse from their original life. Phrases like “trophy” and “role as a child to drown” scream volumes to the forced performance the people of New Orleans are unwillingly apart of. Portrayed as victims just taking handouts who, in the words of Barbara Bush, “were underprivileged anyway”, the origin of these strong human beings was forgotten, and they were treated as waste. I like how Roach quotes Dido’s Lament, Roach writes, “‘Remember me, but ah! Forget my fate’ (Purcell and Tate, 75).” (Roach, page 45). This quote emphasizes that for the people of New Orleans, they are more than just the fate of Katrina. In New Orleans, there is a custom at funerals to perform the dirge, followed by the second line. Sad, mournful music is appropriately played for the funeral, but in a city of parades, there is always something to celebrate. The life that person lived, how blessed everyone was to know and love them, and now moving on to the next life. The dirge and the second line are a powerful New Orleans tradition, just as the people of New Orleans are powerful. 

Despite everything, the pain, the loss, and the slander of the city, the people of New Orleans continued to persevere through it all. Through the lens of Joseph Roach’s “violence is the performance of waste”, it is clear to see how the people of New Orleans were treated as waste, forced into a position of performance as victims, and then the violent emotion felt by these people who refused to be portrayed as such, they rebelled against this judgment. The power of their community and the resilience of human spirit fought back against the wrongful portrayal, these individuals refused to be defined by the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and continued to celebrate life in New Orleans culture. Overall, the New Orleans people have shown they are far more than just the fate of Hurricane Katrina. While many will see a Hurricane as a “cleanse” or a “resetting” of a narrative, Katrina should be seen as a lesson. One to the government that nearly failed the people of New Orleans, and especially humanity as a whole. As a society, it is our responsibility to make sure that what we witnessed during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is not forgotten, and that no one is expended during future times of crises.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.