Robert and Jason
By Karen Kossie-Chernyshev
Associate Professor of History, Texas
University, Houston, TX
Life in Evacuee Shelters
"Ushering Robert and Jason to New
Beginnings: One History Professor's Experience with the Katrina
Relief Effort, George R. Brown Convention Center, Houston,
It is Saturday night, September 3, approximately 8:40 PM. My
husband and I have just arrived at the George R. Brown
Convention Center, the second public facility designated for
My goal is to pick up a schedule to plan my volunteer activities
and to help my Texas Southern University students do the same. I
want all of us not only to participate in this unprecedented
historical moment, but also to examine it within the context of
the many migrations shaping African American History from the
Middle Passage to the present.
As we cross the threshold of the center, we are immediately
guided to a registration table to the left, given name tags, and
asked to sign-in. Impressed with how well organized everything
is, we decide to do a short practice run.
"Barb," a woman volunteer, provides us with latex
gloves and an assignment. Given our energy level and initial
intent, we choose ushering over loading the docks. The latex
gloves are no longer necessary.
We walk toward a second volunteer entrance
and notice "the store" to our immediate left. Evacuees
select from hundreds of pairs of shoes and piles of clothes
arranged neatly according to gender and size. They also gather
toiletries, books, toys, diapers, strollers, walkers, and a host
of other items.
Further ahead, policemen stand on guard between the store and
living quarters. The elderly occupy the first section, families
the middle, single women the next, and single men the last
Evacuees choose from hundreds of air mattresses, cots, and
pillows covered with sheets, throws, and blankets of different
colors and patterns, including prints, plaids, and cartoon
characters like Winnie the Pooh. Evacuees either occupy or leave
their belongings in many of the spaces. Unoccupied beds are
identified by two unopened bottles of water and black and white
"Surviving Psychological Trauma," a
pamphlet published in 2005 by the Board of Trustees of the
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
On the wall behind the beds, stand green latrines with white
labeling and tables to charge cell phones. Additional outlets
are attached to the huge blue steel pillars that support the
weight of the Center.
To the left, volunteers man tables labeled
"PREVENTION." A few paces further, others register
evacuees as they enter. As directed, Greeters welcome them with
Texas-sized smiles. Thereafter, ushers show them the facilities,
staying with them until they are comfortable.
9:02 PM: We are queuing up for a brief orientation on ushering.
After a few minutes, my husband and I are assigned to Robert and
Jason, both single African American men in their twenties and
A lanky 6'2" with a narrow face, Robert is dressed in baggy
black jeans with a black belt anchoring them to his long thin
torso, hidden under a billowy white T-shirt. His movements are
slow and fluid.
Jason, a lean 5'4", has a round friendly face and
expressive eyes. He wears a large black T-shirt over black
jeans. As he rises from the registration table, he announces
right away that he wants to find his kids whom he has heard are
here. He tosses a heavy plastic garbage bag of belongings over
his right shoulder as he pins a box containing his personal air
mattress between his
torso and folded left arm.
"Let's find you a place first," I suggest in as kind a
voice I can muster. Meanwhile, Robert mumbles, "Man, look
at this. They got us sectioned off like prisoners." Two
teenage boys, one sporting an Afro, are throwing a football as
we move forward.
The more we progress the more Jason and Robert share their
experiences and express their desires. Details trickle randomly
but guardedly from their lips.
Jason reveals that they are from Uptown New Orleans. Robert
wants to know where to charge his cell phone and how he rent a
car for a drive to family in Dallas without credit card. Jason
wants to shower and find his kids.
When asked if they have just been evacuated, Jason answers,
"We were rescuing people. We stayed to help the old people
in our neighborhood get out. Didn't NOBODY show up, man. We
couldn't just leave those people there."
Robert agrees and adds, "I haven't been able to bathe in
six days, man. I was ALL WET." Avoiding eye contact, he
shakes his head from side to side and lowers it in frustration.
A few steps ahead, Jason spots friends from home who tell him
they have seen his kids. He approaches them and leaves some of
his belongings with them to lighten his load before shopping.
Robert mumbles as he pans the huge facility, "I'm keeping
all of my stuff with me. I don't know none of these
people." As he walks ahead, Jason assures us Robert is just
temporarily angry and will cool down after while.
We eventually reach the store, where volunteers acquaint us with
the layout. My husband helps Jason find underwear "in
unopened packages" because he "ain't wearing nobody's
used underwear." He then helps Robert find black baggy
jeans and a white T-shirt. Meanwhile, I go to find plastic bags
for their selections. Jason accepts my find; Robert does not.
As they are engaged in their brief shopping spree, an attractive
twenty-something evacuee catches Jason's eye. Forgetting his
original purpose, he stops in his tracks to trace her curvaceous
silhouette. For a few seconds, a quiet storm of a different kind
sweeps him off his feet. He asks flirtatiously out of her
earshot, "Is there a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g I can help you
find?" His eyes dim as
she fades into the distance. Thereafter, he resumes his search.
Their brief shopping spree now ended, Robert asks if evacuees
can use the red phones on the tables to our left. The answer is
yes. Whether or not they can call long distance, designated
volunteers will try to find out.
I point out the escalators to the third floor, where volunteers
are serving hot meals. Having almost completed the huge square
in clockwise fashion, my husband accompanies the young men to
the registration table just before we reach their prized
Once Jason spots the placard marked "MEN'S SHOWERS,"
he thanks us with a smile; Robert mumbles the same continuing to
avoid eye contact. The two men amble to manned tables, where
volunteers offer them fresh towels.
9:50 PM: Finally, both can release waves of fatigue and
frustration into gentler waters. Equipped with the heroic
resilience and generosity of their ancestors, may they migrate
to better times and prosperous places. God bless Robert and
Jason. God bless America. Klkossie@aol.com
posted 14 September 2006
* * *
* * * * *
Salvage the Bones
A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—
* * * * *
The New Jim Crow
Mass Incarceration in the Age of
By Michele Alexander
Contrary to the
rosy picture of race embodied in Barack
Obama's political success and Oprah
Winfrey's financial success, legal
scholar Alexander argues vigorously and
persuasively that [w]e have not ended
racial caste in America; we have merely
redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial
segregation has been replaced by mass
incarceration as a system of social
control (More African Americans are
under correctional control today... than
were enslaved in 1850). Alexander
reviews American racial history from the
colonies to the Clinton administration,
delineating its transformation into the
war on drugs. She offers an acute
analysis of the effect of this mass
incarceration upon former inmates who
will be discriminated against, legally,
for the rest of their lives, denied
employment, housing, education, and
public benefits. Most provocatively, she
reveals how both the move toward
colorblindness and affirmative action
may blur our vision of injustice: most
Americans know and don't know the truth
about mass incarceration—but her
carefully researched, deeply engaging,
and thoroughly readable book should
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update 12 January 2012