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The Katrina Papers is a profound meditation on the emotional, intellectual, and psychological effects

of a natural disaster—exacerbated by human failure, if not  criminality—on the body and mind of a

“displaced scholar” who struggles heroically to transcend the trauma and, in the process, to transform his life.



Books by Miriam DeCosta-Willis

Daughters of the Diaspora: Afra-Hispanic Writers (2003  / Singular Like a Bird: The Art of Nancy Morejon (1999)

  The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells (1995) / Erotique Noire/Black Erotica  (1992) / Homespun Images ( 1989)  /

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Rising and Recovering from the Water Logged Ashes

A Review of The Katrina Papers by Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

By Miriam DeCosta-Willis  

February 16, 2009


In the December 21, 2005 entry of The Katrina Papers, entitled “Notes on Book Reviewing,” Jerry W. Ward, Jr. writes:

Book reviewing long ago lost its purpose of shaping tastes and educating readers. . . . The reviewer uses the occasion of talking about the book to spew the fetid, festering content of his or her psychology; class identity is worn like armor, and the lance of random desire pierces the reader” (58-59)

With trepidation, then, I approach the daunting task of reviewing a difficult, complex, and multilayered work of brilliance, honesty, and heroism. I shall not pretend to shape tastes, assuming that anyone who reads this piece has tastes of his or her own, and it certainly is not my intention to educate readers, because I retired from higher education several years ago. No, my purpose is quite mundane: to stimulate interest in a fascinating and illuminating book.

First, the event. Called one of this country’s deadliest and most destructive hurricanes, Katrina, which made landfall on August 29, 2005, wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast, causing over 2,000 deaths and the dispersal of one million people into the largest diaspora in U. S. history. Who can forget the images of poor folk, children, and the elderly—mostly African Americans—trapped in the New Orleans Convention Center or stranded on the Danziger Bridge? As Ward notes in his prologue, the dispersed recorded passionate stories of survival to bear witness to the tragedy and to theorize about the personal, political, and economic consequences of the disaster.

These ur-stories, as he calls them, include cinematic narratives, such as When the Levees Broke, which he discusses in TKP, and Trouble the Water, as well as written texts—Mourning Katrina: A Poetic Response to Tragedy and After the Storm: Black Intellectuals Explore the Meaning of Hurricane Katrina, for example.  

A significant addition to this body of literature is Ward’s story.

The Katrina Papers is a profound meditation on the emotional, intellectual, and psychological effects of a natural disaster—exacerbated by human failure, if not  criminality—on the body and mind of a “displaced scholar” who struggles heroically to transcend the trauma and, in the process, to transform his life. Katrina, for Ward, is a life-altering event. The text covers a year, from September 2, 2005, four days after he fled New Orleans and found refuge in the First Baptist Church shelter, to August 29, 2006, the first anniversary of the day that the levees broke in the Crescent City.

During that year, he spent two weeks in a Vicksburg, Mississippi shelter, another three and a half months in a Vicksburg apartment, six months in the Hilton New Orleans Riverside Hotel (called the Dillard Hilton because college classes were held there), and, finally, on Saturday, July 8, 2006, he returned to his home at 1928 Gentilly Boulevard, which he dubbed Camp 1928, because of its primitive conditions. There, he slept on an air mattress under a naked ceiling, while weeds choked the lawn; later, he described the ruined floors, mold-infested walls, and the smell of dying in the house.

As the sub-title, A Journal of Trauma and Recovery, indicates, Ward’s self-narrative is structured like a journal, a genre with a long literary history, including works as diverse—and as literary—as tenth-century Japanese pillowbooks, Emerson and  Thoreau’s nineteenth-century diaries of self-reliance, and the twentieth-century psychological journals of Carl Jung and Ira Progoff. Because it is an open genre that allows complete freedom of expression without formal rules with regard to content, structure, or style, Ward includes such disparate forms of writing as e-mails, poems, lists, letters, lectures, epiphanies, conversations, book reviews, conference notes, and even dialogues with himself.

Each entry is a discrete unit, but what provides unity and coherence to the various segments is the rhythm of the narrative: memories of his mother, father, and Vietnam; frequent allusions to the same people and places; and repetition of certain rituals such as his morning cup of coffee, Sunday morning Mass, and the weekly tête a tête with Kalamu ya Salaam. The textual rhythm parallels and undergirds “the rising and falling rhythms of [the author’s] life”: writing, teaching classes, attending conferences, and performing civic duties.

This rhythm is frequently disrupted by uncontrollable events and existential despair, which leads to silence, panic, feelings of isolation, and even thoughts of suicide. The trauma of the hurricane, flight from New Orleans, and retreat to a shelter culminate in four days of complete silence, the significance of which he does not elaborate on until his first lengthy entry on September 13:

Writing. Help! I have not been writing the way I want to write. I have been thinking about writing, the fragility of writing, how personal it is (12).

The implied “you” in the command “Help!” invites the reader into the author’s private, intimate world, and it is Ward’s openness and vulnerability that is one of the hallmarks of his journal. The reader, especially one who shares his love of writing and research, can feel his despair on returning home for the first time, in early October, to discover that his papers, manuscripts, and rare books—the possessions that define him as a scholar—have been destroyed. The resulting “depression and periods of near-insanity” recur throughout the journal and eventually prompt him to seek psychiatric help after a brief hospitalization.

The depression also creates a profound sense of dislocation and alienation from others, and even from the person—stable and disciplined—that he once was, an alienation that  he expresses very movingly through dialogues with himself and with his body. Ward often writes in the second person, in what he calls “the other voice, the italicized me, [who] provides copious backtalk in my mind (116).” Here, the other voice speaks to him:

After Mass, you did not walk back to the hotel. You floated in rainlight. You floated as the thunder roared over New Orleans” (166).

This poetic passage is followed, several pages later, by an hilarious call and response between the writer and his body:

Your body reminds you that even in a shelter it had the pleasure of a hot shower. You remind your body that it had endured cold showers during the summer after its freshman year in college and in Vietnam. Your body gives you back talk: “Yes, but I was young, young, you hear?” You’d think your body would appreciate the fact that it slept on an air mattress rather than in a sleeping bag. (170)

These passages—one poetic and the other humorous—indicate that Ward experiences both trauma and recovery through language, through the act of writing. His journal, like  that of painter Frida Kahlo, is an artistic workbook in which he employs various forms of creative writing, including poems and prose narratives. Unlike the daily diary of a novice, his journal is a literary work, carefully organized and structured, edited and revised by the author, and reviewed by other published writers. The reader can almost look over the author’s shoulder as he constructs his text. On page 52, for example, Ward lists entry ideas for TKP, including such provocative titles as “Having an argument with St. Paul” and “Cornel West and the Laundry Room.” Throughout the journal, he writes about the benefits of writing, sending entries to friends for their comments, and drafting more entries for The Katrina Papers . . . as the reader views the work in progress.

Some days, he writes, I have no words to describe feeling. When words fail him and prose seems inadequate to express his emotions, he writes poetry to convey feelings of grief, outrage, or nostalgia. The poems scattered throughout the text range from short verses, such as a haiku and a satiric couplet, “we drink syrup, we chew salt / if sorrow sings, it ain’t our fault (198),” to longer, free verse poems, like "When It Rains: Morton Salt Poem for Quo Vadis Gex Breaux," about the aftermath of Katrina, and "POEM 63," about a homeless woman on the corner of Canal and Claiborne. I particularly like his witty riff on Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools,” entitled "Poem 227, or Change, change, change / change of tools."

He also employs fictive devices—foreshadowing, dramatic descriptions, and staccato sentences—in discrete stories, including his sojourn in a  shelter, the psychologist from New Jersey, and the trip to Mama D’s house. The longest and most moving of these narratives is the account of his arrest and imprisonment in the holding cell at Tulane and Broad. With complete honesty (“I can not lie . . . I broke a law.”), he bears witness to the dehumanizing experience, comparing the prison to Arab slave caravans, European slave ships, and slave cells on the Isle of Goree; and he reflects on the defects of the criminal justice system—the filth, corruption, and psychotic officers  of the law. Language is a metaphor of the misery:

In jail, language breaks into little pieces; it ignores syntax and grammatical standards; it transgresses for the sake of transgression (178).

In his prison narrative, Ward’s own language—his five-word  sentence, for example: “Body odor, shit, piss, vomit.”—is hard, tactile, and physical; it conveys the smell, taste, sight, and feel of that hell hole. His metaphoric language evokes the effect of his physical contact with filth. He writes:

I am beginning to smell. I no longer smell Catholic. I smell Sunni or Shiite. I should wash me (180).

Language, then, is the medium in which Ward communicates his trauma and recovery, and he is a master of the art. He employs various linguistic registers; he writes phrases in Spanish and prefers Latin Masses, noting, humorously, that “there was just enough Latin in today’s Mass to induce a high.” For the most part, he writes eloquently in the language of the Academy, but, when the occasion calls for it, he can get down and dirty:

Can’t you motherfuckers see that I am still breathing? Goddamn.

He creates pithy neologisms–“hurrication (a hurricane vacation) and traumaticalize” (129)—and pungent witticisms:

Truth is an adult who does not sit in a playpen with stupidity” (216).

Ward revels in wordplay (“Some writers lie for a living and are quite successful. Other writers lie in wait for a living, like Godot” [167]) and his repertoire of metaphors, similes, synecdoche, and other figures of speech is formidable. This serious work is leavened by his unique combination of humor and sardonic wit. I laughed out loud when I read the long paragraph that begins with this analogy:

After our daily thunderstorms began, the weeds got religion. Newly sanctified by the drenching, the weeds tried to outdo one another with praise hymns to the god of growth. (208)

In a letter to his friend, Julius E. Thompson, written in the final pages of The Katrina Papers, Jerry Ward reflects on the significance of his work and of writing, in general. He notes:

If I have learned anything from the year-long process of keeping a journal of trauma and recovery, it is a valuable lesson about writing and the world. Writing helps us to possess “worlds” that the inhabited world would deny us. Although these worlds vanish with our minds when we die, perhaps someone will find something useful in the traces (225).

For me, that “something useful” is the knowledge that a person can survive a harrowing experience with grace and dignity, can write about the trauma with insight and passion, can share his personal feelings with complete honesty, can reflect on the broader, human implications of that experience, and can transform his life through the process of writing.

Miriam DeCosta-Willis, author and college professor, was born 1 November 1934, in Florence, Alabama. She received her B.A. at Wellesley College in 1956; her M.A. Johns Hopkins in 1960; her Ph.D. Johns Hopkins in 1967 in Romance Languages. In 1967 she joined the faculty of Memphis State University as the first African American member, and while there agitated for more black staff members. When King was assassinated in 1968 she was in the march that erupted into violence and the police used mace on her. more

posted 18 February 2009 

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What We Need to Revisit this [2010] Katrina Anniversary

The Katrina Papers: A Journal of Trauma and Recovery
By Dr. Jerry Ward, Jr.

Published by UNO Press (2007) / ISBN: 0972814337 / 233 pgs, paperback
Cover Art: Herbert Kearney

This journal begins on Sept. 2, 2005 and ends August 29, 2006 containing a year of the author's struggles, defeats, and triumphs in the face of the destruction of his city and home. In a larger and more poignant sense, Dr. Ward tackles the destruction of one's faith in the face of disaster, a faith beyond the borders of religious ideals, it's a simple faith in the way that the world should work, in the way that the day should hold its shape. There are so many beautiful insights, so many heartbreaking truths laid bare on the page. The journal is a gumbo, a composite of the professor in his academic world, a man breaking bread with his friend, an African American responding to the coded speak of those who hold forth in the recovery of New Orleans.

Dr. Ward pours it all in: the suffocating days exiled in the shelter, the catalogue of things lost to water, the anger, the depression, the weight of trying to move forward into the next actual entry in the journal's progression. In there as well lies the keen eye poised on literature and what it teaches us; Dr. Ward shares peer reviews, colleague emails, letters of recommendations and advice to young teachers. His schedule to appear and speak, to grant interviews and to be present civically in this tumultuous year is admirable and exhausting. There is a return again and again to the body, its need to slow down, and the mind, which cannot sit still long enough to let the sorrow seep in.

Dr. Ward tends to his "post-Katrina" heart in the journal, aware of the tenuous thread anchoring him to the city and to the life he can lead within its recovery. He responds with the poet's declaration: "I elect . . . to exploit language and my own emotions" (38). This will be difficult to read if you were here, if you too have a post-Katrina heart. You will feel it in your skin, be it color or non colored, the prickly anxiety and fear that shadowed that first year back.

You will be forced to recall the smells of your moldy possessions, the loss of your home, the sounds of the empty streets, the joy of each returning business and neighbor, the frustration of insurance contacts and FEMA paperwork, the endless lines, and the falling asleep truly not knowing what the next day would bring. You will be taking a strange boat like the one on the cover, "all mothers are boats," is its name, and you will be rowing toward an island where we keep these things tucked away for they never truly leave us.

The mother in this case is your city, your survival; she weeps for you even as she turns her back. "The perpetual wonderment of tragedy is that we do not tire of looking into its fractured surface to see ourselves as we really are" (150).

Source: Solid Quarter

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Notable Black Memphians (Miriam DeCosta-Willis)This biographical and historical study by Miriam DeCosta-Willis (PhD, Johns Hopkins University and the first African American faculty member of Memphis State University) traces the evolution of a major Southern city through the lives of men and women who overcame social and economic barriers to create artistic works, found institutions, and obtain leadership positions that enabled them to shape their community. Documenting the accomplishments of Memphians who were born between 1795 and 1972, it contains photographs and biographical sketches of 223 individuals (as well as brief notes on 122 others), such as musicians Isaac Hayes and Aretha Franklin, activists Ida B. Wells and Benjamin L. Hooks, politicians Harold Ford Sr. and Jr., writers Sutton Griggs and Jerome Eric Dickey, and Bishop Charles Mason and Archbishop James Lyke—all of whom were born in Memphis or lived in the city for over a decade. . .  .

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as "the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field 'cut their teeth'."

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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