Care and Violence as a Hurricane

This course provided me ways to think on and improve how I engage with classmates and literature of all kinds through the framework of learning about hurricanes.  I learned that what I do best is observing and drawing connections, even though it takes time for me to gather the churning thoughts out of my head.  Through this circulation I was able to think more on the relationship between care and violence and pick out the examples that I thought would help my self-reflection.  Throughout this course I learned that there are times when care is attempted but accidentally results in violence, and when violence is performed in order to achieve care, especially when confronted with surviving a natural disaster or recovering from one. 

I noticed that the idea of violence appeared many times in our discussions and in several of the books we read and films we watched.  As unsettling as it may be, violence must come up in a course about hurricanes because of the natural destruction they bring, followed by human recovery.  Saidiya Hartman’s quote “care is the antidote to violence” fits in this situation, with rebuilding communities and lives after an enormous natural disaster.  For example, Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke details the entire timeline of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, showing footage of floodwaters, rescues, survival, and recovery.  His documentary is filled with accounts from people that lived in the Lower 9th Ward and surrounding communities in New Orleans that were affected the most, the first responders that got people to safety, politicians that were in power at the time, and many more.  The ending credits of the documentary show every person that was interviewed with a picture frame around them, presenting them as equals that all had a place in the story of Hurricane Katrina.  This documentary shows the way that care is an antidote to violence by showing the recovery and the care provided to the affected communities after surviving the hurricane and the negligence that followed.  In class we even started with the end credit sequence to ensure that we saw it, so we would not get stuck in the grief of the rest of the documentary.  This care given to us by Dr. McCoy and the care Lee gave to portray the people he interviewed as individuals and equals was a part of the antidote to healing from Hurricane Katrina.

I still subscribe to Hartman’s view that care is the antidote to violence, but I want to examine how care can be attempted but in a way that still results in violence.  A passage in Davina Ward’s essay about how violence can exist as care stood out to me, as she describes a scene in When the Levees Broke where a mother buries her young daughter after she drowns in the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina.  Ward writes that “[the mother] had to bury her daughter in an act of preserving her memory, however, it was a great violence to herself. Burying her daughter was a violence that she had to inflict on herself, her body wracked with sobs is a testament to that. However, in this violence is the last act of care she can perform for her daughter. Here violence is also an act of care.”  Laying her daughter to rest was a final act of care that the mother can give but it hurt her to do so as shown by her weeping.  Ward describes how it felt to watch this part of the documentary in class, saying that it was a raw moment that made many people emotional.  I found that this scene resonated with me because my own mother had to bury my older brother two months after he was born after he died from health problems, and the hymn that was sung during the procession in the documentary was one that I hold very close.  I personally associate the hymn “Soon and Very Soon” with hope and family because of how I often hear it sung in church during the Advent season, having the song mean that soon the savior will be coming to us instead of vice versa, and it was one of the many hymns my mother would sing to me as a child.  Hearing it in this context and with my family history made watching this scene difficult for me, even though I was warned that the death of a child was coming.  I thought that by staying and watching the scene I would show that I care and empathize with the tragic event, but ended up inflicting violence upon myself in the form of emotional memories.  A similar story from When the Levees Broke that came up when I thought about care resulting in violence was one about a man and his elderly mother at the convention center.  The high temperatures and lack of food and water was making it difficult for him to get help for his mother, and he was receiving no answers other than the promise that busses would soon arrive to bring people to better shelters.  It was heartbreaking to watch him recount how he looked over to her and saw she had died in her wheelchair and how her body was left outside the convention center under a sheet until it could be dealt with.  A major theme of the documentary is that the response to Hurricane Katrina was not adequate, and that letting people suffer like this is the worst form of violence a government can do to its people.  This man did not intend for his mother to die even though he did his best to care for her in this situation.

In my thinking I realized that another part of the relationship between violence and care is that violence is sometimes performed in order to achieve care, especially in times of survival.  Self-defense is a common way of carrying this out, like in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One where survivors of a zombie plague must clear out the remaining undead to rebuild society.  The leftover “stragglers” are described as harmless and only interested in staying in familiar places they once went to when they were alive instead of chasing after flesh.  The main character, Mark Spitz, is sympathetic to the stragglers yet knows that they must be disposed of quickly, unlike others who do not see stragglers as formerly human or potentially dangerous and often make fun of them.  There are even instances where a character that has been infected will kill themselves to not become a skel and harm others.  The characters in Zone One perform the necessary violence needed to rebuild after a traumatic event.  The theme of necessary violence in order to provide care for the sake of survival continues in the 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow when characters must burn books to keep warm during an apocalyptic winter storm.  The act of burning books has long been associated with hate and the erasing of ideas, which the film acknowledges by choosing not to burn certain books in order to preserve the past if human society does get wiped out.  Rebuilding a community after a disaster is an arduous task that no single person or group can do alone, and sacrifices in the form of violence must be made.  The more I thought about committing acts of violence with the intent of care, the more I thought about my second semester at Geneseo when I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved.  Morrison uses the story of Margaret Garner, an enslaved woman who escapes with her family to freedom but makes the choice to kill her daughter rather than see her in slavery again as the basis for her character Sethe, who endures the same thing.  Violence with the intent of care has stayed with me throughout my time as an English student and it feels appropriate that I choose to include it now.

I would like to go back to what I said in the beginning of this paper about the course concept of circulation, circling back to it if you will.  When one thinks of a hurricane, the image of a vortex of clouds comes to mind, along with waves crashing over shorelines and trees bent in the wind.  Many times I have found myself much like those trees, unable to stand as strong as I can against the storm of thoughts that form and not fighting to make sense of what I was thinking.  This semester I realized that I do not always have to sound smart or perfectly eloquent when contributing to discussions, and I found that the best way for me to get my ideas out is through writing.  I value the practice of stepping back and thinking through what I want to say, and I feel like I can properly do that when writing a paper.  I can slow my churning thoughts and find the best ways to communicate what I want to say.  I can now say that care and violence swirl together like a hurricane, and I have found myself in the eye where I can collect myself in the calm of the storm.

All the World’s a Stage: A Hurricane’s Role in “Violence is the Performance of Waste”

In Chapter 2 of Joseph Roach’s Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance, Roach examines how performances of all kinds are ways of keeping the memories of the dead, whether they are loved ones or strangers, alive.  The city of New Orleans, an important location in circum-Atlantic history because of its role in the slave trade and because of the cultures and communities that have risen there, is a main area of focus for Roach.  The name of the chapter, “Echoes in the Bone” is borrowed from the play An Echo in the Bone by Jamaican playwright Dennis Scott that shows how a ritual the allows spirits of the dead to enter their past homes or even the body of a living person (Roach 34), and that “…the voices of the dead may speak through the bodies of the living” (34).  Performance is so deeply rooted in New Orleans and circum-Atlantic culture that not even the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 could stop it.  This connection of performance and a natural disaster is deepened by Roach’s statement that “violence is the performance of waste” (42) and by the course concepts of memory, performance, sacrifice, and violence.

A performance is not worth the trouble if it is not seen by someone.  Roach further elaborates on his “violence is a performance of waste” statement by writing, “To that definition I offer three corollaries: first, that violence is never senseless but always meaningful, because violence in human culture always serves, one way or the other, to make a point; second, that all violence is excessive, because to be fully demonstrative, to make its point, it must spend things- material objects, blood, environments- in acts of… “unproductive expenditure”…; and third, that all violence is performative for the simple reason that it must have an audience- even if that audience is only the victim, even if that audience is only God.  A natural disaster like a hurricane or flood could be counted as a performance in this case, even though scientifically a natural disaster is not sentient no matter how many poems personify them, and they do not have the sense to perform anything meaningful or senseless.  If anything, the meaningfulness in this violent performance of a storm comes from the victims, how through their decision to stay or inability to leave they witnessed the loss of everything they knew.  Going off that, the victims were the firsthand witnesses of this event, along with others watching the broadcasts and getting updates.  The documentary When the Levies Broke directed by Spike Lee contains footage from before, during, and after the storm, as well as many interviews of people ranging from politicians, celebrities, and regular citizens all with different stories to tell.  It gave viewers a look at the destruction Hurricane Katrina caused and what led to it.  It showed what had to be spent as well and what there was an excess of.  1,392 people perished in the hurricane and its aftermath, hundreds of miles of city and neighborhoods were leveled and then flooded when several of the levies around the city broke.  Hurricane Katrina caused a colossal waste of human life and resources, all under the watching eyes of the world.

The course concepts of memory, performance, sacrifice, and violence all come together to form an effigy.  Roach defines an effigy as “a noun meaning a sculpted or pictured likeness.  More particularly it can suggest a crudely fabricated image of a person, commonly one that is destroyed in his or her stead, as in hanging or burning in effigy” (36).  An effigy is often created to destroy through violence, sometimes in front of witnesses as a performance of anger or protest.  The creator of an effigy makes it to remember the person it is of, either after they have passed or to remember the feelings they have associated with that person, and the likeness is sacrificed by the creator to make a statement or to be cathartic.  Roach notes that “Effigy’s similarity to performance should be clear enough: it fills by means of surrogation a vacancy created by absence of an original,” (36) meaning that an effigy takes the role of what it is meant to represent.  I remember in the last part of When the Levies Broke when a group of people were doing a funeral procession for Hurricane Katrina, some men were carrying a coffin that was labeled “Katrina.”  They sang and danced their way down the street while others watched or joined in.  This act was made to represent Hurricane Katrina being dead and about to be buried, no longer a physical threat but still something that lingers in memory.  It feels symbolic to lay Katrina to rest in a way that so many people were after the destruction, at one point in the documentary Spike Lee interviewed a woman whose daughter drowned in the flood waters and was allowed at the funeral.  There was still a procession with singing, but it was very solemn.  Roach elaborates on the connection between effigies and death, writing, “No doubt that is why effigies figure so frequently in the performance of death through mortuary rituals—and why the ambivalence associated with the dead must enter into any discussion of the relationship between memory, performance, and substitution” (36).  A performance is not wasted if it has an audience, but things created through death are waste products of violence.

There are even times when people are treated as waste after an act of violence.  The aforementioned victims of Hurricane Katrina are an obvious example, with people being found in wrecked houses or floating in water alongside other waste, but the living can be seen as waste too.  Many hurricane survivors and victims were scorned for not choosing to leave when the evacuation order came, even though they did not have the means to leave on their own and depended on others for help.  All throughout When the Levies Broke there were claims that the people of New Orleans were forgotten by FEMA and the United States government, as well as statements that the flood waters washed away filth from the city, the filth being people.  Katrina victims were being framed as criminals, looters, and lazy for not waiting for help and for not helping themselves even though they had no means to.  The victims and survivors of Hurricane Katrina were unwillingly made into performers and the people standing by were the audience.  People were treated as statistics, not as a living person that died but as something to be cleared away with the rest of the wreckage.  When a person is treated as waste, it is time to reevaluate the systems that led them to be considered as waste.

Possibly the most recognizable performances that New Orleans puts on is Mardi Gras, a vibrant celebration before the church season of Lent begins.  Street maskers are popular performers there, such as the New Orleans Baby Dolls and Zulu Krewe.  However, an article from 2017 states that 46 tons of Mardi Gras beads were found in a drain after the celebration.  This performance led to 46 tons of waste that took an immense toll on the environment and water systems of the city, an act of violence that was not intended to be so that produced waste.  A hurricane does not intend to perform violence, it is simply formed one day, moves several miles over land and sea, and then dissipates.  While it unintentionally performs violence that results in waste, it is people that can do it intentionally.  Roach’s belief that violence is the performance of waste rings true in the course concepts of performance, memory, violence, and sacrifice and in the actions of humans that we have studied in class.

Collaboration using Dante and Morrison

The novel Paradise by Toni Morrison is the tale of the town of Ruby once thought of as a safe haven for its citizens but now facing a generational divide.  This novel, like many of Morrison’s works, draws heavily from Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy”, in particular the cantos from “Paradiso”.  One important part of “Paradiso” is the eagle of divine justice, which Dante meets in the nineteenth canto.  The eagle is described as being made up of souls “like a ruby”, an obvious connection to the name of the town.  Many other group members noticed this connection as well, though there are deeper connections to be made about the eagle.  One of these connections has to do with what the eagle really stands for, that being divine justice.  It makes the readers of Paradise wonder if the citizens of Ruby enacted their own version of divine justice when they decided the fates of the women living in the convent outside town.

Another important part of the symbolism of Paradise is the brick oven that stands in the middle of Ruby.  It was originally built in the town of Haven, where it was often used for cooking.  After Haven died out, the oven was moved brick by brick to Ruby.  The oven is meant to be a symbol of how the men of Ruby are willing to let go of the past.  An inscription on the oven was mostly lost in the move but a few words remain: “the Furrow of His Brow”.  The elders of Ruby believe it read “Beware the Furrow of His Brow”, meaning that humans should be fearful of God.  The youth of the town believe it to read “Be the Furrow of His Brow”, meaning that they are acting as God’s instruments on Earth.  One group member pointed out that this divide goes further than just generational because of how the men of the town are obsessed with the oven while the women “see it most literally as a large object that isn’t needed anymore”.  Morrison could have crafted the phrase “the Furrow of His Brow” from the eagle of divine justice because of how the brow of the eagle is made up of stars representing great past rulers.  The night that the men of Ruby kill the women of the convent the oven begins to slide off its foundation, showing how Ruby is falling apart because of their actions and how divine justice is crumbling.

This interpretation of the text on the oven’s lip seems to drive the town farther apart.  The elders claim that the youth do not understand their interpretation because they weren’t there when Ruby was first built, just as the eagle of divine justice claims that humanity will never understand what divine justice truly is.  Another important part of this interpretation is that one person in Ruby thinks about the oven reading “the Furrow of Her Brow”, especially when the oven is defaced with an image of a black fist with red fingernails.  Women in this story seem to get the short end of the stick, with men running Ruby and deciding to keep the oven and eventually the women of the convent being shot.

The oven’s readers have a difficult time using collaboration to reconcile their differences in their interpretations of the oven.  When a meeting is called to settle this matter, the elders talk over the youth and preach about holding onto tradition and rejecting change to their way of life.  An important part of collaboration is listening to other ideas as well as stating your own, but the people of Ruby aren’t considering the other side’s interpretation in favor of their own interpretation being right.

Paradise’s appropriation of Paradiso tells us a lot about the both/and of interpretation and collaboration.  Both/and is used when comparing two different views of the same thing, like how the citizens of Ruby were quarreling over the meaning of the words on the oven.  Both groups had good meanings for their interpretations, the elders believing it has to do with where Ruby came from, while the youth believe it means that they are the only ones that can control their lives.  The elders claim that the youth will never understand their interpretation and how Ruby came to be, just like how the eagle of divine justice tells Dante that humanity would never understand God’s justice; though the eagle is made up of “soul[s] like a ruby”.

In a way this essay is like Morrison’s appropriation of Paradiso, taking parts of the story and putting it into our own work, albeit with permission.  When I was presented with the fact that we would be writing collaborative essays in this class, I was a bit skeptical because I wasn’t sure how multiple people could write one essay.  It turned out to be not as difficult as I thought.  I enjoyed hearing what others thought of a point that I was struggling to understand.  It helped knowing that I wasn’t doing this essay completely alone. 

Even though the collaboration in Paradise ended in murder, ours didn’t.