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Good mornin' blues

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Title:
Good mornin' blues a cultural study of African American responses to natural disasters
Creator:
Erlacher, Jeffrey Leon
Publication Date:
Language:
English
Physical Description:
vii, 129 leaves : ; 28 cm

Subjects

Subjects / Keywords:
Natural disasters -- Social aspects -- Southern States ( lcsh )
African Americans -- Southern States ( lcsh )
African Americans -- Music -- History and criticism ( lcsh )
African Americans ( fast )
Natural disasters -- Social aspects ( fast )
African Americans -- Music ( fast )
Southern States ( fast )
Genre:
Criticism, interpretation, etc. ( fast )
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )
Criticism, interpretation, etc ( fast )

Notes

Bibliography:
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 122-129).
General Note:
Department of English
Statement of Responsibility:
by Jeffrey Leon Erlacher.

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Source Institution:
|Metropolitan State University of Denver
Holding Location:
Auraria Library
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
166267992 ( OCLC )
ocn166267992
Classification:
LD1193.L54 2007m E74 ( lcc )

Full Text
GOOD MORNIN BLUES: A CULTURAL STUDY OF AFRICAN
AMERICAN RESPONSES TO NATURAL DISASTERS
by
Jeffrey Leon Erlacher
B.A., Moody Bible Institute, 2000
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts in English
2007


This thesis for the Master of Arts in English
degree by
Jeffrey Leon Erlacher
has been approved
by
Date


Erlacher, Jeffrey Leon (M.A., English)
Good Momin Blues: A Cultural Study of African American Responses to
Natural Disasters
Thesis directed by Associate Professor Philip Joseph
ABSTRACT
This thesis considers the cultural responses, through literature and song, to
three natural disasters that greatly affected Southern African Americans. It begins
by placing the discussion of disaster and African Americans in the recent context
of Hurricane Katrina and by linking this context to the eighteenth-century poetry
of Phyllis Wheatley. Then it delves into an historical examination of the boll
weevil infestation, the 1927 flood of the Mississippi River, and the 1928
Okeechobee Hurricane. Later, the majority of the thesis is dedicated to close
readings of various literary and lyrical cultural responses to these three disasters,
which are divided into two musical genres specially outfitted for particular types
of disaster response: Spirituals and blues. Spiritual responses are those that see in
the disaster the opportunity of a utopian outcome, while blues responses are those
that are sorrowfully yet comically based in discussions of the deplorable
conditions leading up to, during, and after a disaster. The spirituals chapter takes
into account not only traditional and new spirituals written in the wake of the
aforementioned disasters, but also two novels by Zora Neale HurstonTheir
Eves Were Watching God and Jonahs Gourd Vineand Claude McKays novel
Banana Bottom. The blues chapter considers disaster-related songs by well
known artists such as Paul Robeson, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Charley
Patton in addition to the blues poetry of Langston Hughes. In this section, I
examine their lyrics in the desire to understand their perceptions of the disasters
and the society in which they occurred. In the conclusion, I return to the context
of Hurricane Katrina and contemporary recovery efforts in light of the prior
discussion of the historical and cultural contexts of the historical disasters.
Ultimately, it is my hope that the perspective on previous disasters provided by


African American literature and song will contribute to a more effective focus on
future disaster mitigation and prevention.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I
recommend its publication.
Signed


DEDICATION
I dedicate this thesis to my wife, Marisol, who has continuously supported me
throughout my education. I also dedicate this to my grandpa, Lawrence Francis
Erlacher, who taught me to question everything.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
I wish to express my gratitude to my advisor, Philip Joseph, for his willingness to
guide me through this process, his encouragement of my scholarship, and his
expertise in the field of literature. I also wish to thank Gillian Silverman and
Cynthia Wong, the members of my committee, for their dedication to teaching,
invaluable insights, and involvement in this process.


TABLE OF CONTENTS
CHAPTER
1. INTRODUCTION..........................................1
From Phyllis Wheatley to Kanye West: African American
Cultural Responses to Natural Disasters.........1
2. HISTORICAL REVIEW.....................................8
The Boll Weevil Infestation.....................9
The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927............14
The 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane..................22
3. THE SPIRITUAL RESPONSE TO DISASTER...................29
Disaster and Mobility: The Potential to Inhabit New
Environs.......................................34
Disaster and Deliverance: The potential to Inhabit Old
Environs in a New Way..........................42
Divine Disaster: God as Deliverer..............55
4. THE BLUES RESPONSE TO DISASTER.......................64
The Spiritual Blues?...........................68
The Near-tragic, Near-comic....................77
The Individual as the Disaster.................92
5. CONCLUSION..........................................100
APPENDIX........................................................110
vii


A...........................................110
WORKS CITED......................................122
Vlll


CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION
From Phyllis Wheatley to Kanye West: African American
Cultural Responses to Natural Disasters
When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf coast in August 2005,
people throughout the world were astonished at the level of destruction it wreaked
on southern Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and particularly on the city of New
Orleans.1 As the devastation of the storm slowly came to light, millions of people
over the internet and their televisions witnessed much of the horror being
experienced by the thousands upon thousandsmainly poor African
Americanswho were left stranded throughout much of the city. Countless
numbers of people, unable to evacuate in anticipation of the hurricane, abandoned
their homes and apartments for their roofsthe only vestiges of higher ground
they could find in a city where many neighborhoods are below sea-level. And
many of the destitute, elderly, and children who did manage to be evacuated were
sent to the now infamous convention center and the Louisiana Superdome, where
the atrocious and sub-human living conditions have been well documented.
1 In the September 4, 2005 Washington Post article How Could This Be Happening in the United
States? Kevin Sullivan pieces together several international reactions to Katrinas devastation. In
it, he quotes a Kenyan reporter as writing that there is a disproportionately high number of visibly
impoverished blacks who were made victims of the storm, a Pakistani reporter who writes that
the government for three days sat smugly apathetic to the peoples plight, and a Turkish reporter
who found the looting to show the other face of USA. It became clear that the number of poor
and unemployed people is seriously high and their problems had been ignored.
1


While many viewed the disaster as a horrendous event, some saw in the
storm and its attendant destruction a blessing in disguise: Louisiana Congressman
Richard Baker viewed the storm as a chance to clean up public housing in New
Orleans, an interesting proposition for a city whose public housing complexes
were inhabited entirely by African Americans (Woods 1014, The Brookings
Institute); noted conservative evangelist Franklin Graham also perceived an
opportunity in the hurricanes disruptive effects on the area, that of a religious
revival for a city that had a dark spiritual cloud hovering over it (qtd. in Woods
1014). Many others, however, saw in the storm and its disproportionate effects on
African Americans a different, less generous view of the citys future.2
Certainly one effect of the hurricane was a widening of the discourse
surrounding natural disasters such as Katrina. Hip-hop artist Kanye West
declared in a September 2005 nationally televised fundraiser that George Bush
doesnt care about black people (qtd. in Violanti), a biting criticism of the Bush
administrations handling of the relief effort that seemed to spark greater
2 Arloc Sherman and Isaac Shapiro report that one in three victims of Hurricane Katrina were
African American.
2


discussion about the potentially racist undercurrent to the hurricane and recovery
effort.3 But if one effect of the hurricane was a more robust debate about race,
another contingent effect was an unmasking of the historically high vulnerability
of certain populations to disaster. Thus, while Wests comment points to
contemporary anger over a racist response to the disaster, it also points to older
and broader issues of power dynamics within American society, and especially,
how they play out in the wake of disaster.
One important avenue through which we can begin to make sense of
Katrina most certainly lies in an historical examination of past disasters, and, just
as importantly, the cultural responses from the disaster victims and their
communities. The cultural history of disaster among African Americans is broad
in its scope and surprisingly untapped by cultural studies scholarship, yet it is a
record of perceptions and beliefs not simply about disaster but about the history of
race and power issues in America. An examination of cultural responses to
disasters evinces that these events are perceived in at least two ways: At times,
they are seen in more spiritual terms, as divine intervention and a source of
3 Interestingly, given the upcoming analysis of African American cultural productions around
disaster, as Clyde Woods notes, Wests hit song Gold Digger was later remixed by Houston-
based group The Legendary K.O, also known as K-Otix. It was entitled George Bush doesnt
Care about Black People and its lyrics argue that Bush neglected and abandoned Katrina victims
largely because of issues of race and class (1006-1007). At the time of writing, the song has not
been released on an album, but it can be heard at:
http://ia300135.us.archive.Org/0/items/George_Bush_Doesnt_Like_Black_People/GeorgeBushDo
esntCareAboutBlackPeople.mp3
3


deliverance from ones circumstances; more often, however, they are seen in a
bluesy manner, as occurrences that further exacerbate already deplorable and
racist conditions that existed prior to the catastrophe (Huddy and Feldman 105).4
While many scholars have chosen to focus on the themes of power and
powerlessness in relation to natural disasters, they have done so from either a
natural science or a social science perspective. Still others have focused on
literature dealing with natural disasters in a rather isolated, text-by-text manner.
By contrast, I intend to approach the topic from a cultural point of view, in the
desire to gain perspective on events such as Katrina through examination of a
broad spectrum of African American literary and lyrical responses to disaster.
These cultural responses to disaster are powerful and important since they speak
to particular desires and frustrations of the victims in their own words and in their
own ways. While they reveal the relationship of social position and power to the
effects of disaster, they also serve as compelling rebukes to the extreme
powerlessness experienced in a disaster and to the racist society in which these
disasters occur.
Indeed, African American cultural interest in disasters and their meaning
has a long and rich history that extends at least as far back as 1772, when Phyllis
4 According to Leonie Huddy and Stanley Feldmans research into racial reactions about Katrina,
this is how that hurricane is perceived. They found that, even when factors such as income and
education are accounted for, there is very clear evidence of a racial divide over Katrina (103).
4


Wheatley wrote the poem To a Lady on Her Remarkable Preservation in an
Hurricane in North-Carolina. The poem describes the sinking of a ship off the
coast of the Carolinas in the midst of a tremendous hurricane. Wheatley writes
the poem from the perspective through which she most certainly experienced the
hurricanes landfallfar away from the brunt of the tempest, receiving news of
its destruction. In the poem, she envisions herself on a peaceful shore although
she can imagine the sound of the storms tumultuous roar / And how stem
Boreas with impetuous hand / Compelld the Nereids to usurp the land (86). The
protagonist of the poem, a woman named Maria, is preservd from sinking (87)
by the assistance of one of Nereus daughters. Eventually, Maria is brought back
to land safely where she is reunited with her daughter, although she learns that her
husband has not survived the ordeal.
Barring the possibility of a smaller, historically overlooked tropical event,
this poem most likely describes the early September hurricane of 1769, which
ravaged the eastern coast of North Americafrom North Carolina to southern
Maineover a three day period. David Ludlum records the storms devastation
in his book Early American Hurricanes. He writes that for the Mid-Atlantic and
the Northeastern states, the September hurricane is among the more destructive
storms of the century (25). While this was the case from Virginia northward,
one gains further perspective on the scope of the storms destruction when
5


Ludlum records that the hurricanes effect on North Carolina far exceeded
anything farther north (24-25).
Wheatleys poem is important to the discussion of cultural responses to
natural disasters in African American literature and song, in part, because of her
iconic status in African American history and literature. But the poem also says
something about how African American artists have interpreted calamities. While
Wheatley emphasizes a more classical approach to the hurricane through the trope
of Greek mythology, and the race of her protagonist remains unverified, her
portrayal of a female who survives the hurricane encapsulates many of the same
anxieties that are made apparent in later cultural manifestations such as blues
lyrics: Chiefly, the vulnerability of certain populations to disaster, the uncertainty
of ones place in society after such calamity strikes, and the powerlessness of the
individual in and after disasteronce the initial effects of the catastrophe subside
and the task of rebuilding begins.5
As Kanye West so stingingly intimated, and Wheatley as understood well,
disasters have their roots in historical conditions related to social class and
5 See At Risk: Natural Hazards. Peoples Vulnerability, and Disasters by Piers Blaikie et al.,
Race. Religion, and Ethnicity in Disaster Recovery by Robert Bolin and Patricia Bolton,
Anthropological Studies in Hazardous Environments: Past Trends and New Horizons in Current
Anthropology by William I. Torry, Demographic Effects of Natural Disasters: A Case Study of
Hurricane Andrew in Demography by Stanley K. Smith and Christopher McCarty, and Through
Womens Eyes: A Gendered Research Agenda for Disaster Social Science in Disasters by Elaine
Enarson for more detailed accounts of disasters effects on marginalized people groups.
6


political power. Therefore, in the following chapters, I examine three major
natural disasters that occurred between the early 1900s and 1930 that had a
significant impact upon the Southern African American community. From those
disasters, I have gathered various cultural products such as poems, novels, short
stories, and songs in the desire to see how disasters are perceived, experienced,
and recovered from, given the fraught ethnic and cultural landscape of the early
twentieth-century Jim Crow South. Ultimately, whether the responses are
spiritual in nature or bluesy, they share common and important ground in that they
serve as an attempt to gain a measure of control over circumstances at a moment
when destiny seems to be shaped by forces beyond the control of anyone, black or
white.
7


CHAPTER 2: HISTORICAL REVIEW
Prior to a discussion of African American cultural responses surrounding
natural disasters, it will be important to consider the historical circumstances of
some of the most destructive and intrusive disasters that the Southern United
States has seen. Therefore, the following is a synopsis of three disastersthe boll
weevil infestation of the 1910s and 1920s, the 1927 flood of the Mississippi River
and its tributaries, and the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane, which affected central
Florida. I focus on these disasters in large part because of their effects upon the
African American community, but also because many noteworthy cultural
responses emanated from these events. In addition to the impact the disasters had
at the local level, they also captured the attention and imaginations of African
Americans throughout the nation, which led to their appearance in novels, poems,
songs, and short stories. Many of these responses originated in the area of the
disasters, but some of them did not, as was the case with Wheatleys poem. These
disasters, therefore, became much larger than their local context and spoke to
circumstances that were broader and older than those connected to the specific
events.
8


The Boll Weevil Infestation
It is well documented that the boll weevil infestation of the early twentieth
century presented an enormous obstacle to the agricultural South. Writing on the
subject of eradication, W.D. Hunter of the U.S. Department of Agriculture stated
that no insect pest has involved greater difficulties than that of the boll weevil.
This enemy of a great staple crop works in such a manner that it has seemed
beyond the usual means that have been followed in insect control (151). But the
problems that arose from the boll weevil must also be considered in the context of
the agricultural South, whose prowess largely rested on the backs of African
American laborers. While these laborers were slowly becoming landowners, they
remained in large part sharecroppers, performing the fieldwork for the great
Southern cotton machine. It is in this context, therefore, that one must understand
the words of Alfred H. Stone, who in 1909 stated, The boll weevil is the greatest
enemy which has yet appeared in the history of cotton (167). In his estimation
as a Mississippi cotton farmer with fifteen years experiencethe infestation
presented the South with a two-part test: It called into question the mettle of the
South to defeat this foe, and it also served as a test of the capacity and efficiency
of negro labor in the field of southern agriculture (Stone 167). In short, Stone
worried that the weevil, combined with the freedoms given to African
9


Americansparticularly mobilitywas going to be the downfall of the South
(173-74).
The historical record evinces that the weevil caused substantial damage to
cotton production. The Mexican boll weevil crossed the Rio Grande into Texas as
early as 1892, and it migrated into the Deep South over the next few years. As
Robert W. Jones indicates,
[bjetween 1892 and 1922 the boll weevil advanced relentlessly by
40 to 200 miles a year. By 1916 it had reached the Atlantic
seaboard, and five years later it had spread throughout the Cotton
Belt, from west Texas to North Carolina and as far north as
southeastern Missouri. The beetle eventually settled virtually
everywhere cultivated cotton grew. (31)
The states that were the most affected by the infestation were Louisiana,
Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and the southeastern portion of Texas (Osband
640). The local impact of the weevil on the cotton industry was substantial. Kent
Osband records that losses of 50 percent and more were not uncommon in newly
infested areas, and plantings of new cotton were cut back sharply (627), and
other sources point to even greater losses (Jones 32).
Exacerbating the fraught racial milieu of the Jim Crow South was the
weevils impact on the growers and cultivators of cotton. Jones points out that
scholars often recognize the boll weevil infestation as one cause of the massive
migration of fanners and farm laborersparticularly African Americansfrom
10


the rural South to northern cities in the early twentieth century (32). While this
cause/effect view is somewhat simplistic, the boll weevil is also considered to
have had another important effect on Southern agriculture; it is deemed to be a
primary catalyst for the movement away from King Cotton in the South to a
more diverse agricultural outlook.6 Nevertheless, the increase in mobility among
southern African Americans and the rise of the weevil were conjoined threats to
the Southern economy. As Stewart Tolnay and E.M. Beck assert, African
American migration at the time correlates with what they term precipitating
causes, such as floods and the boll weevil invasion, in addition to festering
economic dissatisfaction. These conditions, they argue helped to trigger the
black exodus (348) out of the rural South.
Thus, in addition to being an economic hardship borne by both black and
white, the crisis precipitated by the boll weevil was viewed as an opportunity to
test the efficacy and resoluteness of the freeand mobilerural African
American. Stone recalls that the poor conditions in other parts of the South led to
a migration of day-laborers and sharecroppers who had abandoned their lands and
plantations to seek other areas in the South that were not as yet affected by the
weevil. He writes,
6 However, there is not unanimity on this point as some scholars see the weevil as only one
element in a larger circumstance of international economic and agricultural menaces to affect the
South in the first few decades of the twentieth century (Osband 643).
11


They [African Americans] poured into the Yazoo-Mississippi
Delta regions by the hundreds... But of what permanent value is it
to the section, [sic] They fled from Louisiana like rats from a
sinking ship; what warrant have we to imagine that they will not
similarly desert us when we are attackedand resume the childish
effort to find a country to which the weevil will not come. (171)
The problem, at least from some white farmers perspectives, was not simply the
infestation of the weevil from Mexico but also the system that had as its
foundation predatory whites and noncommittal and childlike African Americans,
upon whom they depended for their livelihood (Stone 172). Interestingly, for a
much maligned labor force, in only a few years time states across the South
created laws in an attempt to deter the mass migration of African American
laborers (Johnson and Campbell 88), evincing their true power in the Southern
economy and the utter disaster it would be to lose this labor force.
White southerners were not the only ones discussing migration alongside
their discussions concerning the boll weevil. Albin Holsey, recording the
activities of the Tuskegee Conference held on January 17th and 18th of 1923 for
the Journal of Social Forces, found that the discussion of the boll weevil by black
farmers preceded a discussion of the mass movement northward. He writes, Of
equal importance with the question of the boll weevil was the question of negro
migration (287). The conference, under the direction of Dr. Moton, concluded
that there were ample opportunities for blacks in the South and that African
12


Americans indeed loved the South. However, thousands were leaving, in the
words of the conference attendees,
because they believe that in the North they will have an
opportunity not only to earn more money than they are making
here but also that in spite of other difficulties they will get better
treatment, better protection under the law, and will have better
school facilities for their children. (Holsey 287)
It is unlikelyand there is little evidence to support the notionthat
many African Americans cited the boll weevil as the main reason for their flight
from the South. Sentiments like those expressed by the Tuskegee Conference,
which can most easily and broadly be characterized as economic and
opportunistic in nature, seem to overshadow the role of natural disasters as the
catalyst for migration; however, it is precisely the effects of the disaster and the
race-infused solutions and recovery efforts in the post-disaster milieu that
underscore the maltreatment and lack of economic opportunities for African
Americans in the rural South at the time. As the anonymous blues lyrics say:
Boll Weevil in the cotton
Cut worm in the com.
Devil in the White man.
Im good and gone.7
If, as Dr. Moton and the Tuskegee Conference would have one believe, there were
ample reasons for African Americans to stay in the South, there were also ample
7 Quoted in Farah Griffins Who Set You Flowin?, page 5.
13


reasonsand the boll weevil disaster and its attendant social fallout being one of
themto leave the South for what must have appeared to be more fertile
economic opportunities in the North.
There is also some quantifiable evidence that supports the correlation
between the boll weevil and migration on behalf of Southern blacks. Jack
Temple Kirby shows that as the weevils movement across the Cotton Belt
increased in the late 1910s, so too did African American migration (590). And, to
illustrate that this is not merely coincidence, during the mid-1920s, Kirby states,
the weevil was relatively quiescent and migration ebbed once more; but between
1927 and 1929 the weevil surged again, and so did Southern blacks to the North
(591). Therefore, even though the subsequent social and economic fallout it
fostered cannot be considered as primary catalysts for the Great Migration, the
weevil did play a significant role both in reshaping the agricultural South and in
the relocation of African Americans from the rural South to the industrialized
North.
The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927
If the measure of a disaster is its geographic scope and the number of lives
affected, the most far-reaching and devastating catastrophe of the twentieth
century is the flooding that occurred along the banks of the Mississippi river and
14


its tributaries in the spring and summer of 1927. The statistics of the flood are
staggering: Over 16.5 million acres in seven different states were covered by
water, resulting in over 100 million dollars in crop losses; some 162,000 homes
were flooded; over 41,000 buildings were annihilated by the flood waters; more
than 600,000 people were cared for by the Red Cross either in concentration
camps or were fed by the organization in private homes, and hundreds of people
were reported dead, although that number is quite likely far lower than what
actually occurred (Daniel 10,14). As the flood was most prevalent in rural areas,
there was also a heavy toll paid by livestock and other farm animals: More than
one million chickens drowned in the flood; some 9,000 beasts of burden died
along with 26,000 cattle, and over 125,000 pigs; and in addition to feeding the
refugees, the Red Cross also fed nearly a quarter of a million animals in the wake
of the disaster (Daniel 62).
The catastrophethough caused by torrential rains throughout the
Mississippi River drainage basincan hardly be classified as a natural disaster.
Rather, it was precipitated by years of levee building along the banks of the
Mississippi and its tributaries, in an effort to corral the river for the purposes of
fanning and commerce. Pete Daniel explains that as white settlers moved into the
area they attempted to out-build the levees of their neighbors, until they finally
15


decided that it would be more advantageous to work together to protect their side
of the river against those on the other side. He writes:
the battle was directed not against neighbors, but against the
settlers on the other side of the river; as in a poker game, one side
would raise and the other would call. The stakes were high, for if
the levee on one bank caved in the other side would be relieved of
the rivers pressure. (5)
The desire to protect ones own interestsand to struggle against the wishes of
the riverled to years of overbuilding of levees, which placed an inordinate
amount of pressure on the river, pressure that increased exponentially as the river
moved southward.
With a slower moving disaster such as a flood (reports of flooding upriver
had been coming for weeks; when the flood created a crevasse in the levee, it
moved an average of fourteen miles a day), protection of the levee system was
paramount (Daniel 15). In order to maintain the integrity of the levee, police led
raids through African American neighborhoods where men were forcefully
conscripted to buttress eroding levees (Barry 195). The work was compulsory,
grueling, and dangerous; but it was perilous not to perform the work as well, since
armed white men made sure the task was completed (Barry 193). John Barry
explains how the levees were reinforced:
Each weak spot required thousands of sandbags, each one filled by
hand, carried by hand, placed by hand. To fill a sandbag, two men
held it, a third shoveled earth into it, then tied it. Dry, each filled
16


sandbag weighed from 60 to 80 pounds; wet, earth weighed much
more. (193)
Additionally, the bags had to be carried up the slope of the levee by hand, and
then be placed near the treacherous water (Barry 193).
With the majority of the levee work falling to forced laborers, African
Americans suffered disproportionately more of the fatalities. One example that
typified this deadly and discriminatory practice occurred at Mounds Landing,
Mississippi, where the worst crevasse in the entire Mississippi river levee system
took place. The levee failure resulted in the flooding of an area 50 miles wide and
100 miles long with as much as 20 feet of water in some places (Barry 206). This
monstrous breech occurred in the midst of the levee being reinforced by a cadre of
conscripted black men, resulting in a tremendous loss of life, though there are
several conflicting accounts as to how many were killed. Barry writes that the
Red Cross official report of the incident claims that two people died when the
levee failed; the official National Guard report only states, No lives were lost
among the Guardsmen, although a National Guard Sergeant in charge of the
rescue was quoted as saying that he estimated more than 100 African Americans
were killed in the incident (Barry 202). One newspaper, however, reported that
Thousands of workers were frantically piling sandbags ... when the levee
caved, while another stated that refugees coming from the site claim that there
17


is not the slightest doubt in their minds that several hundred negro plantation
workers lost their lives in the breech (qtd. in Barry 202). Given this single
incident, the oft quoted notion of a few hundred deaths caused by the flood is
likely far too low, and more likely a reflection of the race and the circumstances
of the deceased than the actual occurrences on the ground.
Like Mounds Landing, race and class were considered in who was to be
spared in New Orleans. There, with the impending disaster approaching, a group
of influential businessmen and real estate owners met in order to devise a plan to
dynamite the levee south of the city in order to alleviate the pressure on the levees
in the city and, thereby, save their financial holdings. The event was planned and
word got out quickly; the blasting was even viewed by the smart set of New
Orleans as if it were a celebration. Members of the national press and the
National Guard were also present (Barry 256). The influential group, after
meeting with the governor, decided to pay each victim of the flooded area
trappers and farmers, mostlyless than $20 ... for the destruction of his or her
home, property, and livelihood (Barry 247). Given these examples, there seems
to be ample evidence to suggest that with the disaster approaching, social
inequalities took on more pronounced and dangerous consequences than normal.
Unequal and discriminatory treatment was also the case during and after
the flood devastated much of the southern Mississippi drainage basin. In
18


Greenville, Mississippi many whites stayed on the second stories of hotels or
other buildings and some were even able to stay in their homes, since they were
built on higher ground. Even during the worst of the flooding some restaurants
were open and the newspaper was being delivered to less affected areas of town
by boat (Barry 311). The African American part of the community, however,
fared quite differently. Barry explains that as many as 13,000 of Greenvilles
black residents lived on an eight-mile stretch of the levee that was now an island
amid the receding waters of the deluge. Thousands more lived in cramped
quarters in town, huddled in warehouses, mills, or wherever they could find
shelter (Barry 312).
Even in the chaotic midst of fleeing the floodwaters, the decorum of Jim
Crow remained firmly established in many instances. On a train leaving the
flood-ravaged area, witnesses reported that the Jim Crow car was only half full
with white patrons while the remainder of the train cars were, packed with
Negroes some sitting three in a seat, aisles filled with men standing (Daniel 111).
There were rumors of police abusing or killing African Americans, such as the
police chief of Greenville who, it was believed, shot blacks accused of looting and
then towed their bodies behind a boat, dragging them through the streets as a
warning to others (Barry 311).
19


Life at the refugee camps further illuminated the deplorable treatment of
black refugees. The food given to them was of poor quality and not much more
than what was needed to stay alive (Barry 313). This was done partly out of the
fear of spoiling black refugees with treatment that may have been better that that
which they had in regular circumstances. Another greater fear, that of mass-
migration out of the flood area, prompted some campsall of the camps operated
in Mississippito be watched by armed members of the National Guard.
Peonage arrangements that had previously existed also exacerbated the issue of
African American mobility. The devastated areas would only be further
devastated if they lost the cheap labor that would be necessary for the rebuilding
effort; therefore, a system of registration was put in place to ensure that indebted
tenants would have no choice other than to stay in the local area and return to
their original plantation, often financially worse off than before (Daniel 106-107).
In some cases, camps in which black residents lived were closed down earlier
than camps where whites lived; in the case of Vicksburgs segregated camps, the
black camp was shut down seven weeks before its white counterpart and the
refugees were sent home to work in the fields in spite of the fact that the land was
still under a foot of water (Barry 388).
20


For those who were able, returning home was perhaps the worst aspect of
the flood. Pete Daniel summarizes the gloomy mindset of those who waded
through the mud and water to start over:
Devastated cabins, insufficient furnishing, losses of treasured beds
or cattle or crops, the long remembrance of other scores unsettled,
or overcharges for supplies bought under compulsion at the
plantation store ... Plantation blues of an order not traditionally
associated with these humble black folks were everywhere
apparent. And on every hand one hears from white lips, There is
no way out. (127-28)
Despite these circumstances, there was little in the way of relief from the Red
Cross once life got back to some semblance of normal and the national spotlight
was turned away from the plight of the flood victims. For many sharecroppers
and day-laborers, a difficult life had just become that much more difficult (Daniel
140).
The flood of 1927 saw the Mississippi river pour into the Mississippi
Delta, into Arkansas, Tennessee, and Louisiana, washing away many of the hopes
and dreams of a better, more equitable life for its black residents. Seven years
earlier in Philadelphia Negro. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote that African Americans
should travel North and flow into the open doors of mine and factory in
increasing numbers (qtd. in Collins 614). It was in that same decade that more
than 900,000 African Americans migrated from the South, mainly to the urban
centers of the North (Collins 608). While the flood, like the boll weevil before it,
21


certainly was not the primary mover or cause of the Great Migrationor even
this particular phase of it in the 1920sin the words of John Barry, it
accelerated (422) the movement of blacks northward. If the South was going to
move backwards into white hysteria in the post-disaster milieu, then many of the
African Americans who lived there were going to move away.
The 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane
The Florida hurricane of 1928 ranks as the third most powerful category
four hurricane to make landfall in the United States (Blake et. al. 10). And, given
the official Red Cross body count of 1,836which was subsequently changed to
2,500 by the National Hurricane Center in 2003the storm ranks as the second
deadliest natural disaster this country has ever undergone (Kleinberg xiv).8
Furthermore, if the numbers of deaths and people left homeless by the storm on
many of the Caribbean islands, including Puerto Rico, are added to the toll taken
from the storms carnage on continental American soil, in total the hurricane took
the lives of more than 6,800 people and made refugees of more than 875,000
(Kleinberg xiv, Aftermath). The storms economic impact was also substantial;
8 Eric S. Blake et al. think that the death toll from the hurricane could be as high as 3000 (7).
22


an estimated 19.5 billion dollars in damage occurred, making it the seventh
costliest storm on record (Blake et al. 9).9
Despite the magnitude and nearly unprecedented loss of life associated
with this storm, it remains largely unknown and overlooked in discussions of
American natural disaster history. The most recent and definitive book on the
storm is Eliot Kleinbergs Black Cloud: The Deadly Hurricane of 1928. In it, he
describes the context in which the storm took place and the population it affected
the most: Black laborers working in the agricultural industry amid the fertile soil
of the Lake Okeechobee muck. Although at times Kleinberg seems to feel the
need to explain away the racial undercurrent of the disasters immediate effect
and its aftermath,10 he makes an interesting point as to why the storm is often
overshadowed by other, lesser storms, such as the 1926 hurricane that primarily
affected Miami, and for which the university named its sports teams (Kleinberg
29). He notes, The hurricane may have ... accounted for the most deaths of
black people in a single day in U.S. history (xiv). Perhaps if the storm had
9 This estimate is from early August 2005, just prior to hurricane Katrina, which hit in late August
and Rita, which made landfall the next month.
10 On page 228, Kleinberg explains, its important to note that no official sat behind his desk and
said, Lets embark on a conscious and conspiratorial effort to treat blacks separately and without
dignity. Later on that same page, he goes on to explain that the forced conscription of black
labor and the burial of whites in coffins in cemeteries and black bodies in mass graves was merely
the outcome of those who suddenly found themselves in charge of an unprecedented crisis .. .
simply following] the critical needs of the moment and the mores of the era. This natural
racist reaction to a disaster, however, is precisely where I want to focus attention.
23


affected wealthy white citizens in a similar manner, he posits, it may have had a
greater chance of being recognized for the truly devastating event that it was (xv).
A Time magazine article from October 1,1928 further describes the
damage caused by the storm and the reason the death toll primarily consisted of
poor black migrant workers from all over the Calypso Magnolia region. It details:
On the seacoast [the Palm Beach area] few lives were lost. It was
not so inland. Fifty miles west of Palm Beach lies Lake
Okeechobee in the tangled Everglades. It is 45 miles long. The
surrounding country is lower than the lake and is protected by
dikes. There are hundreds of small farms, sugar cane fields,
blackamoor shacks. During the hurricane Lake Okeechobee burst
the dikes. The rich land became a morass; in certain places the
water rose to the height of 10 feet. Hundreds, mostly Negroes,
were drowned. Relief workers found the water filled with floating
bodies, so decomposed that skin color was no longer determinable.
One surviving family had lived on peanuts for three days.
Throughout the whole region the air was noxious with fumes of
decay. Immediate cremation of the dead was ordered. Quarantine
of the entire district was imminent. It was a nauseous vale of murk
and putrescence. (Aftermath)
Those who had come for seasonal work, and consequently, to live in the shadow
of Okeechobees dikes, were the hardest hit by the storm. The hurricane, rather
than taking its toll as most dothrough high winds and storm surge along the
coastlinehad killed thousands farther inland in an unprecedented manner. The
wind forced the water of the lake towards the dikes, causing crevasses through
which the water exploded down onto the low-lying land, creating a situation
similar to that seen in river flooding. As Kleinberg explains,
24


Had the water poured out of the lake gradually, it would have
killed many. But by building up behind that five-foot dike, then
bursting out, the water washed people and houses away and killed
thousands. (140)
Given the precarious geographical circumstances surrounding the migrant
workers, they stood little chance of avoiding the disaster that ensued.
The immediate aftermath of the storm and the period of recovery, like
after effects of the aforementioned disasters, was overtly racist both in its
conception and implementation. Mass gravessometimes unmarkedwere dug
for the black victims of the tragedy, and the bodies were buried, without any delay
that would have enabled identification of the deceased by family members.
Conversely, in West Palm Beach white bodies were to be held for twelve hours at
Woodlawn, the white cemetery (Kleinberg 148). Additionally, in the city of Palm
Beach a relief headquarters being run by the Ku Klux Klan had been established
at the offices of a socially conservative newspaper; and, in an attempt to expedite
the clean-up effort, conscriptionoften at gunpointof black workers by local
authorities and businessmen had begun (Kleinberg 159,187).
News of the storm and the plight of its victims spread quickly, as did
concern for the treatment of those hardest hit by the hurricane. Not long after the
storm, some Northern African American communities raised concerns about Jim
Crow ethics being infused into the relief effort. For instance, The Negro Workers
25


Relief Committee, based in New York City, wrote a scathing report on post-
disaster conditions, primarily aimed at the Red Cross, entitled Hurricane
DevastationThen Jim Crow Discrimination (Kleinberg 170). Kleinberg
summarizes the report, which consisted of photographs, letters and first-hand
accounts of discrimination, in this way:
The committee said that most black victims had received no aid
from relief groups, including the Red Cross, and blacks had to
depend on their own ranks and with the white class-conscious
workers who have from time to time co-operated with us. (170)
The Chicago Defender, just as in previous disasters that affected the South, also
ran articles highlighting the maltreatment of black refugees. Allegations were
raised that black families with multiple children were given, in some instances,
grocery vouchers for one-third the amount of their white counterparts (Kleinberg
171). Kleinberg notes that the Red Cross did much to refute these allegations, and
he spends considerable time questioning the validity of many of them (172-180);
but if prior disaster relief efforts are any indication, many of these reports are
probably accurate.
One story of post-disaster brutality that captured peoples attention was
that of Coot Simpson. Simpson was an African American man who was forced to
work in the clean-up efforts in West Palm Beach; seven days after the storm made
landfall, he was shot in the back by Knolton Crosby, a National Guardsman, when
26


he attempted to return home to see after his family (Kleinberg 185). There was an
investigation and a hearing into the matter with the outcome being that Crosby
had killed Simpson, in the words of the final report, while in the lawful discharge
of his duty (qtd. in Kleinberg 187). The next year, Crosby received a state
service medal from the Florida National Guard for his participation in the
hurricane disaster relief effort, and six months after that he was honorably
discharged from service (Kleinberg 188-89).
Each of the aforementioned disasters raise several questions about
disasters, their effects, and the relationship of those effects to race and power
dynamics within society. As far as pre-disaster preparedness and vulnerability is
concerned, it raises questions of how race and class influence both land use and
disaster mitigation efforts, what sort of preparation there is, and how it is carried
out in catastrophe-prone areas. It also raises questions of how and why African
American labor and freedom of movement are the subjects of scrutiny both in
short-term as well as long-term disaster recovery schemes. Finally, and most
importantly for this essays focus, it raises questions of how disasters are
represented in African American cultural artifacts. For a people whose history in
this land has been largely determined by forces beyond their control, how does the
trope of natural disaster play out in song, in poem, in story? Are disasters a
metaphor for ones experience in white supremacist slavocratic and segregationist
27


lands? Are disastersin that they disrupt or destroy the man-made systems that
perpetuate discrimination and inequalityseen as potential devices of deliverance
or portents of further calamity and suffering? In short, how did the affected
African American communities, and those communities that received news of the
calamities, react to these disastrous events through literature and song in light of
the preexisting hegemonic contexts? These questions will be the focus of the next
two chapters, as I first examine spiritual responses that see in disaster the
possibility of deliverance from negative environs and, in chapter four, the
bluesy responses that depict disasters as further exacerbating already miserable
conditions.
28


CHAPTER 3: THE SPIRITUAL RESPONSE TO DISASTER
The real spirituals are not really just songs. They are unceasing variations around
a theme. Contrary to popular belief their creation is not confined to the slavery
period. Like the folk-tales, the spirituals are being made and forgotten every day.
... The nearest thing to a description one can reach is that they are Negro
religious songs, sung by a group, and a group bent on expression of feelings and
not on sound effects.
- Zora Neale Hurston11
All things being equal, perhaps the most natural reaction to a disaster is
to view it as a terribly destructive force that threatens ones personal assets and
the way of life that ones society has hitherto enjoyed. As was evidenced in the
previous historical section, though, all things are not equal in societies or in the
effects disasters have upon different segments of them. In the three
aforementioned cases, it is clearas it is in disaster research as a wholethat
disasters disproportionately affect marginalized groups of people, both in terms of
their immediate effects and in the victims individual and corporate ability to
recover from the ensuing economic and social fallout.12 Clearly, the type of
11 This quote is from pages 79-80 of Hurstons essay Spirituals and Neo-Spirituals in The
Sanctified Church. New York: Marlowe & Co., 1981. 79-84.
12 See Revealing the Vulnerability of People and Places: A Case Study of Georgetown County,
South Carolina in Annals of the Association of American Goeeraphers by Susan Cutler, Jerry T.
Mitchell, and Michael S. Scott, Let Them Eat Risk? Wealth, Rights and Disaster Vulnerability
in Disasters by James K. Boyce, and Worlds Apart: Blacks and Whites React to Hurricane
Katrina in Du Bois Review by Leonie Huddy and Stanley Feldman for more detailed information
on the trajectory of past and current disaster studies than I can provide in this cultural studies
context.
29


natural reaction that envisions the disaster as equally bad for all, and the society
as a common good has more to do with codified ideological notions of a given
society than with the disparate experiences of a societys members. Additionally,
this type of reaction presupposes some notions that are, at best, tenuous when
analyzing the relationship of marginalized individuals and groups to the dominant
society. It supposes: 1) that all those affected by the disaster live in a society
towards which they feel a similar amount of affinity; 2) that the victims of the
disaster believe that the society in which they live deserves to continue on much
in the manner that it did in its pre-disaster manifestation; and 3) that no one in the
affected society gains anything significant by it being destroyed or greatly altered.
The responses to disaster are, of course, highly variable, as ones definition of
what entails a disaster is largely a matter of perspective gained through ones pre-
disaster experience within a particular society.
A disaster, then, is only a disaster if it destroys something worth saving;
therefore, it is quite probable to expect different individuals and segments of a
disaster-affected society to have different reactions towards the disaster and its
proper, or natural interpretation. Interpretations of such events by African
Americans reveal the perspective of a community whose place was predetermined
to be outside of the larger society, and this subservient position was maintained by
public and private infrastructures that a disaster could potentially limit or even
30


destroy. Given this context, one must ask: Can disaster, though tragic in its
personal and communal devastation, be cast as a catalyst for deliverance from
ones hegemonically predetermined place of subservience in society? In other
words, can disasterwith the attendant epistemological uncertainty it bringsbe
seen as a potential source of deliverance for a marginalized and maligned people?
The notion of deliverance has been central to African American
expression, appearing most visibly in the form of the spirituals. In The Souls of
Black Folk. W. E. B. Du Bois describes spirituals, or sorrow songs, thus:
Through all of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hopea faith in
the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair
change often to triumph and calm confidence. Sometimes it is
faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes assurance of
boundless justice in some fair world beyond. But whichever it is,
the meaning is always clear: that sometime, somewhere men will
judge men by their souls and not by their skins. Is such a hope
justified? Do Sorrow Songs sing true? (162)
The hope of deliverance as seen in sorrow songs, Du Bois suggests, is a complex
idea with many facets. But whether it is faith in this life, in this lifes conclusion,
or in a life to come, deliverance from ones present circumstances is the ultimate
hope within the songs. Despite the evidence that disaster and recovery largely
played out as an extension of Jim Crow praxis, some African American responses
infused the moment of crisis with the hope of deliverance, not only from present
circumstances but from the inequalities of life as a whole.
31


The traditional spiritual Deep River exemplifies Du Bois notion of the
spirituals faith in something other than that which is accessible in the present
circumstances. According to David Evans, prior to the 1927 flood the song was
part of an eponymously entitled 1926 opera, and it gained further notoriety in the
wake of flood when Paul Robesons version of the song was released. While the
song has nothing to do with a flood, because of the timing of the release, Evans
asserts, it was widely interpreted in connection with the flood (15). The
following version, which is Robesons, follows the traditional lyrics but is a
highly stylized, operatic adaptation of the traditional spiritual, which some
Hurston, for example13found lacking in authenticity:
Deep river, my home is over Jordan,
Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.
Deep river, my home is over Jordan,
Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.
Oh, dont you want to go to that gospel feast,
That promised land where all is peace?
Oh, deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.
13 In her essay Spirituals and Neo-Spirituals, Hurston cantankerously argues that there never
has been a presentation of genuine Negro spirituals to any audience anywhere. What is being
sung by Robeson and others, she argues, is an adaptation based on spirituals that is beautiful, but
not the spirituals. She even identifies the work of composer Harry T. Burleighthe composer
for this version of Deep Riveras typical of the neo-spiritual that she finds inauthentic (80,
Evans 15).
32


The movement across the river in the song is suggestive both of moving
from this present form of life to a new existence as well as of a final baptism rite
in which the promises of redemption are finally consummated. Robeson tells his
listener that their present dwelling is not their real home; instead, their home is in
a protected land over Jordan, where they can find rest in the campground.
The song implies that the present conditions of violence and toil being
experienced are not representative of the listeners true cosmic condition; instead,
their promised inheritance is the biblical land of milk and honey. Furthermore,
the song suggests that their future conditionso completely juxtaposed to the
present oneis one of ample provisions in an opulent gospel feast that occurs
in a land where all is peace.
The type of faith evinced in Deep River corresponds to Du Bois notion
of the spirituals containing a faith in the ultimate justice of things that can only
be realized in a world that is beyond the world of the here-and-now. The song
breathes a hope into those whose lives have been made most complicated,
especially in light of the difficulties of Jim Crow made worse by the
circumstances of disasters. The song speaks to the hope that, wrapped up in the
floodwater, there is the potential for deliverance from the present plight. It is the
hope that as the society reels from the effects of the disaster, it will move in the
33


direction of the Promised Land of freedom and plenty; but if this is not possible, it
points to a land beyond the reach of Jim Crow to which they truly belong.
Spiritual-inspired responses to disaster like that of Robesons version of a
traditional song can be found not only in actual spirituals, but in African
American literature as well. Three examples of such responses in novels are Zora
Neale Hurstons Jonahs Gourd Vine. Their Eves Were Watching God, and
Claude McKays Banana Bottomall of which treat disaster in a spiritual-like
manneras a vehicle for bringing down an old and oppressive order. Therefore,
in the following section, I juxtapose these novels with Negro spirituals. Through
an exploration of these prose responses to early twentieth-century disasters
responses that have as their principal message the hope of deliverance through the
effects of disasterI hope to shed light on a particular type of coping mechanism,
characterized by a view of the devastation as divine intervention on behalf of the
meek and suffering.
Disaster and Mobility: The Potential to
Inhabit New Environs
As evidenced in the prior discussion of the effects of the boll weevil and
the 1927 flood, one of the most common repercussions of a disaster is the mass-
migration of people away from the disaster-stricken area. This movement,
34


however, can have an effect akin to that of a second disaster on the region, as the
labor force and the human infrastructure necessary to rebuild and recover flee
these environs. In the case of Southern African Americans, a natural disaster
could enable departure from the Jim Crow South; yet that very departure could
have devastating effects on all those who remained in the region, both black and
white. It is this idea of an associative relationship between disaster and
deliverance, devastation and free mobility that Zora Neale Hurstons novel
Jonahs Gourd Vine investigates. In it, she casts the notion of deliverancein
the form of mass-migration away from poor conditions in the Southas a form of
disaster itself.
The novel deals with the mobility of the protagonist John and his efforts to
make something of himself despite the limited opportunities offered to a black
man in the Jim Crow South.14 He is fascinated by mobilityspecifically trains
and is constantly moving throughout the novel. Yet Hurston makes certain to
show that the movement has negative effects for all of the principal female
characters. Johns first movement comes as a result of his decision to work for
Alf Pearson on his plantation. And, while this decision is more personally
14 Gary Ciuba also writes about the novel as following Johns advancement. In following Gates
notion of African American literature as being speakerly text, he argues for an interpretation of
Johns attempt at self-improvement as being a sermonic text based on a biblical text about a
preacher of texts who himself requires textual interpretation (120). In this way, as John becomes
more educated, he becomes a text in need of unraveling in the same manner as the biblical text of
Jonah to which the novel alludes.
35


liberating than working for his malevolent sharecropping stepfather, it is a disaster
for his family. John, who as Pearson surmises, would have brought five
thousand dollars on the block in slavery time (17), can now take his economic
viability and work for himself, attend school when there is no field work to do,
and expand his social horizons by interacting with the other field hands on the
plantation. The fallout of his decision to relocate across de Big Creek (10)
interestingly, a water crossing just as in Deep Riverhowever, is a brutal
beating of his mother by his stepfather. And a further fallout of his decision is an
altercation between John and his stepfather in which John is threatened with death
should he ever return home. The original context of migratory movement in the
novel, then, is escape from a disastrous family situation,15 but the desire to escape
ends up exacerbating an already terrible situation.
Distance becomes a form of escape for John when he is jailed for stealing
a hog. At Pearsons suggestion, John flees Notasulga for west Florida so he can
begin anew with his wife Lucy and their burgeoning family. Shortly after
relocating to Eatonville, however, John flees the family unit he created on account
of his inability to cope with their youngest daughter Isis suffering from typhoid
15 John F. Kanthak traces the dysfunctional family dynamics in the novel in his article Legacy of
Dysfunction: Family Systems in Zora Neale Hurstons Jonahs Gourd Vine. He posits that
Johns stepfather, Ned Crittendon, was affected by his childhood having been spent in slavery,
which Kanthak deems the true architect of his childhood (115). Asa result of having a master
as a father figure, he argues, Ned passes along a master/slave family system to his stepchild John,
which he deems to be the root of much of Johns later behavior toward Lucy and his children.
36


fever. Believing she will die, he declares, Ah got tuh go way till its all over.
Ah jus cant stay. So John fled to Tampa away from God, and Lucy stayed by
the bedside alone (117). With this movement, Hurston suggests a Jonah-like
pattern of trying to escape from ones duties and of failing to achieve any real
form of deliverance. As a result, the women in Johns life are forced to face the
dilemmas he finds too difficult to confront while John further compounds his
emotional tribulations.
Johns philandering, his migration from woman to woman, also causes
many disastrous situations, especially once he becomes pastor of a church in
Eatonville and an itinerant revival preacher throughout Florida. Interestingly, he
now relies upon travel for his paycheck, but his wandering ways with women
threaten the cohesiveness of his local congregation, while breaking the heart of
Lucy, partially causing her early death. Furthermore, the pressure of his
impending dismissal from the pulpit again causes another woman in his lifehis
former mistress and current wife, Hattieto suffer a brutal beating by his own
hands. Whereas before he slapped Lucy only once and immediately regretted his
action, with Hattie he beat her whenever she vexed him (145), suggesting that
Johns inner struggles are only becoming worse with each migration away from
trouble.
37


It is this notion of escape from family, from communities, from cultural
institutionsand its ultimate ineffectivenessthat follows John throughout the
novel, and is mirrored on a larger scale by the mass migration of blacks to the
North. Hurston links the personal narrative of John and his travels to the
collective narrative of Southern African American men, who were migrating to
the North, spurred on by opportunities created by World War I and the
industrialization the war induced. Throughout the novel, movement has been
construed as both freeing and disastrous. On the one hand, John would never
have achieved his position in life without having migrated in search of better
prospects. On the other hand, that same desire for relocationthe pull of the
North upon the Southern black population as a wholebecomes a greater threat
to the church and Johns way of life than any other factor. As Elder Hambo
explains to John, Lawd, Sanford getting dis Nawth bound fever lak eveywhere
else.. .[Y]ou know we done lost two hunded members in three months? (149).
In this way, the novel seems to suggest that just as Johns personal migration
throughout the South carried with it both liberating and unintentionally
destructive elements, the so-called Great Migration has as an unintended
consequence the possible destruction of Southern black families, communities,
and institutions.
38


For Hurston, the enormous pull of the migration is both a social and a
natural force, just as is the case with a flood or hurricane and its inevitable effects
on a region. She writes, The wind said North. Trains said North. The tides and
tongues said North, and men moved like the great herds before the glaciers
(148). In this way, Hurston combines natural forces outside the realm of human
controlwind and tideswith forces under social controltransit and speech
to evince that the movement is an all-encompassing one. Together, these forces
cause great herds of men to flee one region for another, safer one. This massive
shift in population is, for Hurston, tantamount to the ostensibly natural reaction of
people to any other disaster; the great tide of migration is construed as a natural,
survival-based reaction to the perception of unfavorable environmental and
societal conditions.16
The consequences of movement on such a grand scale are delineated later
in the same section of the novel when Hurston writes of the losses to an
agricultural economy inflicted by the departure of cheap black labor. Two
nameless voices inform us: Houses empty eveywhere. Not half nough people
16 In this way, I am arguing against Anthony Wilson, since in his article The Music of God, Man,
and Beast: Spirituality and Modernity in Jonahs Gourd Vine. he contends that the migration has
as its motivation purely social bases. He argues that the migration is Hurstons rendering of
modernitys effects on southern African Americans (76). While I agree with his assertion that
with progress and possibility [of migration] comes an implicit loss of spirituality and thus
humanity (77), I believe that through the content of chapter 19, Hurston points to a much more
natural cause in the shift and socially-based effects as a result of that shift.
39


tuh work de farmscrops rotting in de ground. Folks plantin an aint eben
takin time tuh reap (150). Hurston does not tell us if these voices are from
black sources or white, perhaps because the effects of the migration are far-
reaching for every segment of society. For Southern African Americans, the idea
of freedom of movement is in direct opposition to the system of peonage, which
depended upon a sedentary population. But as the novel suggests, this same idea
contains various adverse effects for the black population as well. In fact, for
blacks the fallout from the migration is perhaps worse. As migration leads to
economic collapse, those at the bottom of the economic hierarchy suffer
disproportionately. If white landowners can no longer sustain their businesses,
then blacks, already challenged by a dearth in resources, will find their own
survival that much more of a struggle. From the white perspective, there is little
room for any sort of positive portrayal of migration. This mass movement has
simultaneously unearthed and threatened the true source of power in the South:
The ability to restrict the mobility of black laborers. When there are not enough
people to rent the houses or work the farms, whites suddenly find themselves and
their society at the mercy of their labor force.
In order to underscore the shared destruction as well as the sense of new
possibility for a population of former slaves, Hurston ties the shifting power
40


dynamics into the biblical narrative of Moses leading the Israelites out of bondage
in Egypt:
Do what they could, the State, the County and City all over the
South could do little to halt the stampede. The cry of Goin
Nawth hung over the land like the wail over Egypt at the death of
the first-bom.... [R]oads were in the minds of the black South
and all roads led North. (151)
The plagues upon Egyptmany of them natural disastersare recalled at
this moment, and Hurston is quick to identify that the infrastructure of the South,
and its history of total power over black mobility, could do little to affect the
tide of migrants. The very sound of others deciding that they are Goin Nawth
is tantamount to the death of something precious: The future of the region. Once,
mighty Egypt succumbed to the pressure of Moses and the Israelites demand to
let them go; so too, Hurston posits, must the South now allow African Americans
the freedom to leave, and to take with them the hope of inhabiting new environs,
of reaching the promised land of the North while laying waste to Southern
institutions. By writing in a way that conflates the great migration of the early
twentieth century and the biblical narrative of the plague upon the first-bom of
those in Egypt, Hurston shows that black mobility can be seen as affecting a
society in a manner similar to a natural disaster. At the same time, however,
Hurston reveals the complex relationship between deliverance and disaster; for
her, while black migration is simultaneously a source of deliverance from
41


oppressive places and an invitation to inhabit new environs, it is also a disastrous
occurrence for everyone involved.
Disaster and Deliverance: The potential to
Inhabit Old Environs in a New Way
In Jonahs Gourd Vine, deliverance, in conjunction with disaster, requires
the inhabiting of new environs. By contrast, Claude McKays Banana Bottom
and Hurstons Their Eves Were Watching God depict disastrous hurricanes as the
catalysts for inhabiting old, previously oppressive environs with a newfound
freedom. In his novel, McKay employs the trope of natural disaster to suggest the
capacity of calamity to remake both the physical and psychic landscape of
colonial Jamaican society. In this way, his protagonist, Bita Plant,17 is able to find
her placeboth literally and figurativelywithin rural Jamaican society.
Through Bita, and her attempt to reconnect to her homeland after having
spent the past seven years in England, McKay is writing against the effects of
colonial hegemony upon his native island and its inhabitants. Bita is an
interesting figure as she is someone who has lived in the colonial homeland and
17 Much is made of Bitas last name of Plant by both Paul Jay in Hybridity, Identity, and Cultural
Commerce in Claude McKays Banana Bottom and Kay R. Van Mol in Primitivism and
Intellect in Toomers Cane and McKays Banana Bottom: The Need for an Integrated Black
Consciousness. They argue that her name evinces her connection to nature and, as Jay explains,
it suggests Bitas hybrid character (179) resulting from her having been transplanted to England
and then replanted in her native Jamaican soil.
42


rejects much of itits religion, its customs, its opulence, even, to a certain extent,
her beloved education.18 Despite this superior schooling gained in England and
her relationship to Malcolm and Priscilla Craigan English missionary couple
who provide Bita with her opportunity to study abroadupon returning home,
Bitas ultimate desire is to reconnect with her native culture and people. In the
Craigs mind, the experiment of taking a simple native girl and attempting to
make a proper lady out of her, has failed.19 But for Bita, and for McKay, the
colonial experiment of Jamaica is what has failed, and it is her mission to discover
her true self now that she has returned to live in Jamaica.
The hurricane, then, is the source of power disruption within the society
that makes it possible for Bita to extricate herself from the Craigs colonial
machinations and inhabit her native island in the manner she chooses. This
rather powerless figure of Bitaa rape victim who is indebted to the colonizer
is able to assert herself only when the surrounding environment has been greatly
18 The notion of Banana Bottom as an anti-colonial text is written about with some regularity.
Paul Jay asserts that in the novel there is a commerce in ideologies and discursive strategies... in
which die values of the dominant, colonialist ideology continually reappear in subtly disruptive
ways (177), and in Decolonisation in West Indian Literature, Kenneth Ramchand places the
novel in a discussion of texts that he considers to be part of a process of decolonisation that
includes other authors such as V.S. Naipaul, Jan Carew, and Andrew Salkey (48).
19 The notion of Bita as an experiment is elaborated upon by David G. Nicholls in The Folk as
Alternative Modernity: Claude McKays Banana Bottom and the Romance of Nature wherein he
argues that the Craigs attempt to better Bitas existence by countering her atavistic nature with
civility (84).
43


altered, when the Craigsand England, by extensionare no longer in control.
The hurricane achieves its interventionary purposes by inflicting the greatest
change on the non-native elements of Jamaican society; and, in this way, the
effects are seen as a cleansing agent working on the land to restore it to a more
original state. As the storm makes landfall, McKay writes:
The soil softened, landslides came down into the roads, spreading
away like enormous fans. In the little towns some frame houses
were blown clean off their foundations. In the rural regions all the
better houses of the peasants withstood the storm. These were all
locally constructed and often the foundations were of wooden
pillars of Jamaica hardwood driven deep into the ground... .The
great market traffic was interrupted. And throughout the colony
the hurricane and flood had wrought havoc. Telegraph poles were
down and the country was cut off from the city. (280-281)
In McKays description of the storm, that which is more foreign in its
construction is devastated more thoroughly by the hurricane, as if it were only
superficial and had never laid down roots into the Jamaican ground. McKay
points out how roads disappear, homes built in a more European style fare worse,
and commerce and modem forms of communication are halted. Most striking is
the juxtaposition of the Jamaica hardwood foundations that are rooted deeply in
the native soil with the non-native telegraph poles that cannot withstand the
storms onslaught. It is as if the storm is purging that which is not indigenous to
the environment, reshaping the land and the way it is used to conform more
44


closely to some idea of an original landscape. And by erasing the old order, the
hurricane allows for new ways of inhabiting the Jamaican environment.
The storm, full of destruction and possibility for Bita, also removes non-
native people, in addition to the colonizers physical infrastructure. Malcolm
Craig, upon hearing a rumor that the roof has been tom off of the missiona
rumor he cannot corroborate due to the communication dismptiondecides to
make haste homeward to see after his wife and his lifes work. As he, his driver,
and Bitas father approach the Ginger River, they realize that the bridge has been
swept away. Importantly, against the advice and without the assistance of his
experienced native driver, Craig advances into the river, where he is drowned. In
the subsequent uncertainty, he also drags Bitas father to his death in a botched
rescue effort. Ironically, the damage to the roof is minimal, making his haste in
returning home unnecessary. And in a further result of the post-storm confusion
that completely frees Bita, Priscilla Craig suffers a lethal stroke upon receiving
word of her husbands death.
The passing of the Craigs allows Bita and her love interest Jubban to
pursue their heretofore illicit relationship. Jubban, a simple farmer like Bitas
father, was considered an ill-suited match for the highly cultured Bita in the
pre-disaster context; now, however, he and Bita are free to pursue the natural
longings of their hearts. Certainly against the civilizing will of the missionaries
45


and against the conventions of a proper colonial marriage ceremony, Jubban
and Bita consummate their relationship in the buggy they procured to bring her
fathers body back for burial. McKay writes,
She was not oblivious of her fathers body in the back, but her
conscience fortified her with a conviction of the approval of his
spirit. He who had seemed to understand her all her life would
understand now. Her spirit was finely balanced between the
delicate sadness of death and the subdued joy of love and over all
was the glorious sensation of life triumphant in love over death.
(289)
Bitas actions have the tacit approval of her father, and more importantly, they are
unequivocally her own actions, her own desires. In the shadow cast by her
fathers body, she is able to give her body to the man she desires to have it. For
all of her searching, she has discovered the inner balance she soughtin the place
she desired to bein the wake of the hurricane.
The personal and communal toll the hurricane wreaks in McKays novel is
ultimately supplanted by the notion that the storm brought some kind of
deliverance and agency to Bita. Debts and allegiances, both monetary and social,
have been upset by the storm. In this period of uncertainty, then, Bita is free to
redefine and rediscover herself and her culture. The death of the Craigs allows
Bita to explore her neo-native self without regard for their expectations of her; the
death of her father redefines the family center, and creates the opportunity for
Jubban to enter into her life. The victory brought about by the storm is not only a
46


personal one, however; also embedded in the text is the notion that massive
destruction of the colonial legacy is possible, with wind and rain sweeping away
some of the British influence in a small comer of Jamaica. For McKay, the trope
of natural disaster contains within it both possibility for the individual and a
counter-referent to racist colonial society. The force of the hurricane is able to
produce conditions favorable to change, and for those who are thwarted by the
previous ordering of society at large, it has within it the potential for deliverance
70
from their prior conditions.
Ultimately, the novel suggests that disaster is more powerful than white
power or the colonial past, and in so being, it is a source of deliverance for those
who have hitherto been oppressed. In the end, Bita turns Malcolm Craigs
patronizing notion that education and material progress should not preclude the
possibility of simple living (42) into a uniquely post-colonial Jamaican reality,
one that he never could have imagined. Bita has gone to the mother country,
learned its ways, and chosen to meld only those ways she finds agreeable with
that of her ancestors. Just as the storm shook off the non-indigenous British 20
20 Jay correctly asserts that the novel should net be seen in the simplistic colonial versus
indigenous binary. Since Bita is aware of a larger world, Jay argues, the real question of the novel
might to be: How will she negotiate the space between the cultures in which she is enmeshed?
This, he continues, is along the lines of Paul Gilroys argument in The Black Atlantic of being
both European and black (qtd. in Jay 190).
47


elements of Jamaican society, so too, does Bita lay to rest any notion that she
needs to be anything other than herself.
If for McKay, it takes a disaster to bring about deliverance in the form of
the freedom to live in ones own land, the same is true for Hurston in Their Eves
Were Watching God. Bita and Hurstons protagonist Janie are both similar
figures in that neither one of them fit congruently into their environs at first.
Whereas Bita is able to discover a place for herself in post-disaster Jamaica, Janie
must continue her journey southward through Jim Crow countryand through
three male relationshipsuntil God decides to [tear] down the old world (44) in
the form of a tremendous hurricane.
The old world that is in need of being tom down for Janie is that of her
slave-era grandmother, in which the highest aspiration of a woman is to be
tethered to a man so that one day she might attain the porch just as the white
mistresses do. In her misguided attempts to escape from Nannys world, Janie
binds herself to men, thus reinforcing the governing assumptions of that world.
Janie thinks she believes differently than her Nanny, or, at least that she has a
different intuition of the world: She possesses the pear tree vision; she stands at
the threshold of an open gate and expects things; she listens to the conversations
of seeds as they fall to the ground. The world Janie believes in is one of potential,
one in which creation of new ways of thinking and being and living are possible.
48


Compared to the world of her grandmother, Janies world is expansive and
inviting. Hurston writes that Janie had been getting ready for her great journey
to the horizons in search of people, it was important to all the world that she
should find them and they find her (138). Unlike Nannys slavocratic and
patriarchal vision of the future, sittin on porches lak de white madam (172),
Janie desires adventure and intrigue; she finds only erroneous paths, however, in
the form of her three husbands: Logan, Joe, and Tea Cake.
Janies intuitive expectations about the world are directly responsible for
her leaving her first husband Logan Killicksalong with his sixty acres and two
mulesand attaching herself to the rising star of Joe. Hurston recounts that to
Janie, Joe does not at first represent the every day geographical surroundings of
work and toil. Rather he speaks for the existence of that far horizon of
community she so ardently desires to find (50). His horizon, while more
appealing than Logans, is a false one since his vision of the future is nearly
identical to that of Nannys; it is still built on rigid gender and class boundaries
that mimic the world and individual identities hitherto dictated by the slavocratic
system. Joe is viewed as the new slave master: His house is deemed to be the
big house while the rest of the town looked like servants quarters (75); all
monetary transactions in the black utopia of Eatonville occur through him; he
even frees a mule from its life of toil while he entraps his wife in a life lived in
49


de home (69). In fact, for all the amassing of wealth through her association
with Joe, Janie never even fulfills her grandmothers desire for her to attain the
porch.
The appearance of Tea Cake, then, brings Janie closer to the elusive
horizon of identity and belonging. For her, Tea Cake seems to be full of the
potential she intuits about her world:
He could be a bee to a blossoma pear tree blossom in the spring.
He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps.
Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took. Spices hung
about him. He was a glance from God. (161)
With the death of Joe and the advent of her relationship to Tea Cake, Janie is able
to free herself from Joes vision for her and partake in Eatonvilles community
events such as playing checkers, swapping tall tales, and fishing; through Tea
Cake, she is able to become an insider for the first time, but it is still through Tea
Cake that this is possible. Janies world, Hurston suggests, is still a patriarchal
world that renders her a dependent.
As Janie and Tea Cake move to the muck of central Florida, Hurston is
careful not to idealize life on the muck or their relationship. Tea Cake is a better
husband than Joe, just as Joe was better than Logan, but Janie remains a
possession of Tea Cakes; to demonstrate this, he beats her upon hearing that a
rival man has returned to the muck, so that the bruises mark will mark his territory
50


(218). Furthermore, the shortcomings of Tea Cake are evidenced as the hurricane
moves closer. Rather than listening to all of the signs in nature and to the advice
of the Seminoles and the black Bahamans, he looks to white authority for
vindication of his decision saying, De white folks aint gone nowhere. Dey
ought know if its dangerous (231).21 Ultimately, Tea Cakes deference to white
authority over signs in nature and the advice of friends leads to his death.
With Janie stuck in the cycle of seeking new men to attain personal
fulfillment, Hurston employs a hurricane to disrupt and deliver her. The
description of the storm in the novel follows closely the historical accounts of the
1928 hurricane. Hurston writes that the storm woke up old Okechobee [sic] and
the monster began to roll in his bed. Began to roll and complain like a peevish
world on a grumble (234). Interestingly, at this same moment, Hurston points to
the intrinsic trust Tea Cake and others on the muck have in the white
infrastructure that has always surrounded them. She writes, [t]he people felt
uncomfortable but safe because there were the seawalls to chain the senseless
21 In this way, I disagree with Jennifer Jordans comment that [i]t is Tea Cake who frees her
[Janie] (111) as I also disagree with her overall reading of the novel as a failure of the black
feminist demand that a heroine achieve both self-definition and social commitment (108) The
death of Tea Cake and Janies return to Eatonville alone, but having secured physical and
spiritual freedom, as Missy Dehn Kubitschek argues in Tuh De Horizon and Back: The Female
Quest in Their Eves Were Watching God. is a fulfillment of both of Jordans qualifications to
view Janie as a feminist heroine. The freedom Tea Cake represents in the novel, as I argue, is
only better in degree than that of Logan or Joe, but it is still a repressive form of liberation Janie
eventually overcomes.
51


monster in his bed (234), and they believed if the castles thought themselves
secure, the cabins neednt worry... .The bossman might have the thing stopped
by morning anyway (234). The assumption is that the white power behind
society has always ordered their lives for them and it would not allow such an
affront to its power to occur. The storm, however, shatters (at least temporarily)
the notion that white power is always in charge of ordering life; it also shatters the
notion that a manwhatever color he may beknows best.22
In addition to showing the tenuous hold white power structures have on
society, the storm is able to challenge previous notions of natural categories, and
in so doing, it opens up the potential to create new categories and modes of
perception in their place. Hurston writes that the wind and water had given life
to lots of things that folks think of as dead and given death to so much that had
been living things (236). Like a god, the storm has the power to breathe life into
inanimate objects and take life from previously living entities. Furthermore, the
storm is able to cross boundaries of race, class, and gender as it metes out its
wrath; white and black alike are killed in the storm, the economic impact on the
22 Daphne Lamothe also has a spiritual reading of the storm in her article Vodou Imagery,
African-American Tradition and Cultural Transformation in Zora Neale Hurstons Their Eves
Were Watching God. She traces the hurricanes origins to the goddess Ezili Danto, who uses the
hurricane as a violent reminder to the folk that their passive faith in Euro-Americans, or
Christianity, to determine their fate is misguided (166).
52


agriculture industry is a disadvantage to all, and the once strong, though
unreliable, Tea Cake becomes a threat to Janies personal safety.
The storm is the realization of Janies vision of the world being tom down
in order to be built up; unfortunately, the aftermath of the storm leads to white
hysteria at the prospect of old categories being tom down and new ones being
created in their place. The original order must be established as quickly as
possible to preserve the society to the greatest extent possible. Thus, Tea Cake is
subjected to what is tantamount to slave labor; he must bury the dead without pay,
at the risk of being shot for refusal.23 The black cultural enclave of the muck has
been erased, and underneath its foundation is the looming superstructure of the
white world upon which it was built. Hurston writes that the guards, when
questioned as to how to distinguish the race of bloated, rapidly decomposing
bodies, respond by saying, Look at the they hair, when you cant tell no other
way. And dont lemme ketch none uh yall dumpin white folks, and dont be
wastin no boxes on colored (253). Even those who died in the same chaos of
the storm must be separated, re-ordered again, even if they can only be identified
by their hair type.
23 In the book Killer Cane: The Deadly Hurricane of 1928 Robert Mykle relates that, many
African Americans were rounded up for the worst of the cemetery detail work, loading and
unloading the stinking, rotting bodies. White National Guardsmen watched over them as they
worked (209), and Kleinberg also asserts that forced conscription occurred (159).
53


Although the old order returns with a vengeance here, Hurston suggests
that Janie has finally recognized the limitations of its power and rejected it.
Through the destructive deliverance of the hurricane, Janie is able to become free
of her grandmothers vision (which was unconsciously her own), as well as the
vision of the men in her life. At the end of the novel, Janie returns to Eatonville
alone and shares her newfound wisdom with Pheoby:
Ahm back home agin and Ahm satisfied tuh be heah. Ah done
been tuh de horizon and back and now Ah kin set heah in mah
house and live by comparisons... .Its uh known fact, Phoeby, you
got to go there tuh know there. Yo papa and yo mama and
nobody else cant tell yuh and show yuh. Two things everybodys
got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got
tuh find out about livin fuh theyselves. (284-285)
She has ventured to the horizon, followed her own vision to its conclusion, and
now she is able both to be herself and be by herself. The answer to her quest is an
experiential and spiritual one; she had to personally experience the pain of
freedom brought about by destruction. In her own words, one must go there tuh
know there. In the end, Janie realizes that no onenot parents, grandparents,
nor husbandscould take her to where she needed to go; rather everyone has tuh
find out about livin fuh theyselves. In this way, the hurricanes temporary
destruction of power dynamics has enabled Janie to envision herself in a wholly
new manner. It has delivered her from Nannys slave era vision of the world and
allowed her to construct a new, more powerful and autonomous self.
54


Divine Disaster: God as Deliverer
In as much as a disaster can be articulated as having its roots, its source of
power from a place outside of the Jim Crow cultural power dynamic, it can be
seen as a challenge to status quo white power and its grip on society. The three
aforementioned novels demonstrate a spiritual response to disaster, a tendency to
see in disaster and its disruptive ways the possibility of fashioning a new direction
for oneself and ones community. The novels do not, however, chiefly perceive
the disaster as divine intervention or divine retribution, as is often the case with
the co-opting of more traditional spirituals. Thus, ideas of deliverance and
counter-referents to racist practice are also articulated in African American
cultural expressions concerning disaster through reflections upon the divine
origins of the catastrophe; in particular, disaster accounts often portray calamities
in overtly religious terms, with a vengeful God as the cause of the disaster.24
As seen with Hurston and McKay, a power that is wholly outside of
societythe disasteris able to affect every facet of the society, enabling change
to occur. By casting tragic disasters in an other-worldly manner, their cultural
24 This is not a uniquely African American notion. Ted Steinberg reveals a long and detailed
history of blaming natural disasters on God in his book Acts of God: The Unnatural History of
Natural Disasters in America. In it, he argues that when societal power structures place the blame
for a catastrophic event on God, it creates a convenient scapegoat for a society that has a history of
allowing and even forcing people through economic discrimination to live in extremely vulnerable
locales, such as the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans.
55


productions refute previously uncontested white-supremacist ideologies that
emphasize the inaccessibility of white power. But when this notion, as seen in the
novels, becomes infused with explicitly divine purposes of furthering the
experience of emancipation and meting out vengeance upon the unrighteous, it
has the additional effect of calling people to an already defined religious
community as a ready-made source of post-tragedy identity and power. Thus,
disaster cast as divine intervention can be viewed as a way to supply power to the
marginalized of society as they compete with white hysteria in the post-disaster
context to recreate themselves and their community.
In the wake of the three disasters covered in this study, religious
interpretations surfaced in articles and editorials in several of the leading Negro
newspapers of the day.25 Newspapers also recalled the singing of hymns and
spirituals in the midst of disasters, as well as the preaching of sermons by flood
refugees. As Evans indicates, the 1927 flood provoked a great outpouring of
song and music, the majority of it from black Americans who were its primary
victims (10). Disaster, it seemed, was an occasion to turn to faith in divine
judgment, to a faith in the ultimate justice of things (Du Bois 162), as opposed
25 This was the case, for example, with the May 7, 1927 edition of the Baltimore Afro-American,
which contained an editorial entitled Thank God for the Mississippi River Flood (Evans 9).
56


to the machinations of men, especially in light of the reports of inhumane
treatment of blacks leading up to, during, and in the aftermath of the disasters.
Therefore, in this decidedly racist post-disaster milieu survivors turned to
traditional songs of deliverance, while also creating some original compositions.
Some of the more popular spirituals sung and recorded at the time of the 1927
Mississippi flood concerned rites of passage associated with water. For example:
Didnt it Rain details the great flood of Genesis 6 that allowed for society to be
built again on more righteous foundations; the Norfolk Jubilee Quartettes version
of The Old Account was Settled Long Ago deals with the interesting conflation
of having ones sins washed away, ostensibly by an immersion form of baptism,
and having old accountsvery possibly taken to mean spiritual and economic
debtssettled (Evans 22); Lord, Somebody Got Drowned, an original spiritual
written in the wake of the 1928 Florida hurricane, teaches that the disaster
survivors ought to Go down and get the Holy Ghost, and live a good life, too in
the aftermath of the disaster (Kleinberg 249).26 These spirituals, when sung in the
contexts of the aforementioned disastrous recovery efforts, speak to the
powerlessness of these individuals in such circumstances but also to the attempt to
gain some control over their situation. If help could not be expected from an
earthly source, the songs suggest, then perhaps this was the moment of divine
26 See the Appendix A for the complete lyrics to songs that are mentioned.
57


intercession on behalf of those whom Jim Crow society needed to keep
subservient.
Such divine mediation offers not only deliverance through violent means,
but often vengeance as well. Just as God had to destroy evil mankind so Noah
could begin the race anew, and the Israelites, led by Joshua, could not gain access
to the Promise Land without displacing those who inhabited it before them, so
too, deliverance through disaster for African Americans involved the exacting of
vengeance upon a society whose foundation was built upon racial iniquity. As is
the case with the 1928 hurricane, there is only one known original spiritual that
was produced in the wake of the Mississippi flood disaster. Bessie Johnson and
Melinda Taylor, under the direction of Elders McIntosh and Edwards, recorded
The 1927 Flood in December of 1928 (Evans 55). The song makes it known in
no uncertain terms that the biblical God was the vengeful power behind the death
and destruction caused by the flood:
It was in Nineteen Twenty-Seven. It was an awful time to know.
Through many towns and countries God let the water flow.
The people worked in vain, but God wouldnt stop the rain.
Lord, He poured out His flood upon the land.
He sent a flood to the land, (oh, glory) and He killed both beast and
man,
Cause the people got so wicked, they wouldnt hear Gods
command.
All praying the water would yield, but for God they had no zeal.
Well, he poured out his flood upon the land.
58


Many sacks of dirt were gathered; (oh, yeah) men worked with all
their power,
But the levees were still breaking, water rising more each hour
(oh).
They did all they could do, but Gods judgment must go through.
Lord, he poured out His flood upon the land.
He sent a flood to the land, and He killed both beast and man,
Cause the people got so wicked, they wouldnt hear Gods
command.
All praying the water would yield, but for God they had no zeal.
And He poured out His flood upon the land.
The evil hearts of men have brought this land to shame,
But God looked down from heaven to invade the Delta plain.
Its we should be content with the flood He had to send.
And he poured out His flood upon the land (glory).
He sent a flood to the land, and He killed both beast and man,
Cause the people got so wicked, they wouldnt hear Gods
command.
All praying the water would yield, but for God they had no zeal.
And He poured out His flood upon the land.
God sent a flood through the land, killed both beast and man.
Them people got so wicked, they wouldnt hear Gods command.
They prayed the water would yield, but for God they had no zeal.
And he poured out his flood upon the land.
Many sacks of dirt were gathered; men worked with all their
power,
But the levees were still breaking, water rising more each hour.
They did all they could do, but Gods judgment must go through.
Lord, he poured out His flood upon the land.
The spiritual begins by casting the appalling events of the flood in an
oddly historical light: It was in Nineteen Twenty-Seven. It was an awful time to
59


know. / Through many towns and countries God let the water flow. These first
two lines seem peculiar given that the song was recorded only about eighteen
months after the incident. But by projecting the flood into the memorable and
enduring past, the writers suggest that the tragedy can become an object lesson for
many years to come. These polished, almost comical lyrics are juxtaposed against
the straining voices of the singers. This is a clue to how the rest of the song will
unfoldas a painful presentation of the flood that employs disaster as part of a
religious message of reckoning directed at those who have not followed the ways
of God.
From the first contextualizing stanza, which sets the retrospective mood,
comes the refrain, which is repeated with only minor adaptations. Given the
lyrics to this stanza, the song is difficult to interpret as definitively concerned with
either Protestant morality or Jim Crow and other racist praxis since there is not
any solid elaboration as to why the people were considered so wicked, other than
that they had no zeal for God. What is made clear by the song, however, is that
the flood is divine retribution for the fashioning of society in an unfavorable
manner. There is a deliverer, the song argues; it is the water that is both baptizing
and destructive.
While the primary political message of the song may be difficult to
ascertain, what is easily ascertained is the power dynamic between mortal and
60


divine. Stanza three, which is also repeated as the final stanza, clarifies the
dynamic through its juxtaposition of humanitys power against Gods. Indeed,
the most striking element to this stanza is its matter-of-fact tone. It relays that
many men worked with all their power, and yet this exertion of mortal prowess
was no match for Gods judgment. The song portrays the men as so ineffectual
that they could not even save their own creations, the levees. Another striking
aspect to the songs tone in this stanza is the last line: Lord, he poured out His
flood upon the land. Naming the flood His has the effect not just of saying
that God was indirectly responsible (He made the rains that caused the flood), or
even that God allowed the flood to happen. Rather the song proposes that the
flood was Gods idea and came to fruition by His own anthropomorphic hand.
Stanza five relates the cause of the divine retribution to [t]he evil hearts
of men who have brought this land to shame. On account of this, the song
reveals that God has to invade the Delta, reinforcing the idea of a foreign agent,
a supernatural force acting vengefully upon society. Society, the God of this
spiritual seems to argue, can go only so far down an errant path before it faces a
corrective and retributive measure. This construction of God versus society
seems to hint at a more systemic kind of iniquity that needs to be wiped out, and
given the fraught racial context of the flood, reading the spiritual as a
condemnation of racist practice would seem to have some merit. But perhaps of
61


greater significance to the discussion of deliverance through disaster is the idea
that human, and man-made systems of order, have been replaced for the time
being by divine power. With the advent of divine retribution literally pouring
forth onto the land, all living creatures, both beast and man, as the song
continues to repeat, are made equal; no hierarchical chain of beingno
taxonomic systemremains in place. And, the song seems to suggest, if
humanity hopes to avoid another calamity of this kind, society ought to be rebuilt
in accordance with Gods command, that is, with divine principles of justice.
In these representations of the African American communitys survival of
horrendous disasters, a catastrophe brings a breakdown of previous distinctions
along racial, class, gendered, or lines of species. The reality of the situation,
however, was that this interpretation of the disasters was short-lived, at best. The
variety of blues texts that will be given a full examination in the next chapter
demonstrate that disasters were generally represented as further exacerbating the
already difficult plight of the rural Southern blacks, not as sources of hope or
deliverance from the institutional foundations of racism and discrimination.
Hurston, after all, was in New Orleans, not Florida, during the hurricane of
1928; she pieced together actual accounts of the storm after the fact, and Their
Eves came out nearly a decade after the storm hit (Kleinberg 205). McKay left
Jamaica in the early part of the century and was traveling in North Africa when
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Banana Bottom was published in 1933.27 And many of the spirituals, with the
exception of the markedly Calvinistic The 1927 Flood and Lord, Somebody
got Drowned, were written much earlier and were co-opted by those in the
present circumstances. As I will suggest in the next chapter, the blues tradition
was best equipped to express the despair of African Americans in the aftermath of
natural disasters. The racially charged rescue, recovery and reconstruction that
followed every major disaster in the South during that era had the effect of not
merely reconstructing roads, homes, and edifices but also of reasserting African
American identity and place in society along the lines of the old South. The
hope of escape to better surroundings, of being able to fashion a new identity in
an old environment, or of God coming down to set things aright that is evident in
the spirituals, is exchanged for the near-tragic, near-comic lyricism (Ellison 78)
of the blues that is more closely aligned with the material realities experienced by
the disaster victims.
27 Nicholls explains that McKay was in Tangier, Morocco when he wrote the novel (79).
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CHAPTER 4: THE BLUES RESPONSE TO DISASTER
A very great American writer, Henry James, writing to a friend of his who had
just lost her husband, said, [sic] Sorrow wears and uses us but we wear and use it
too, and it is blind. Whereas we, after a manner, see. And Bessie said:
Good momin blues.
Blues, how do you do?
Im doin all right.
Good momin.
How are you?
- James Baldwin28
In the aftermath of horrendous disaster, spiritual responses explore the
potential for deliverance that a catastrophe contains, dwelling upon a breakdown
of previous distinctions between peoples worth and place in society based along
racial lines. This potential breakdown, however, and the window of opportunity it
brings, is short-lived, if it ever truly exists. Not surprisingly, then, these types of
utopic representations are less common when a more broad scope of disaster
related songs from the early twentieth century is considered. In the end, the
majority of cultural responses to the three aforementioned disasters that were
created by African Americans reveal that disasters were generally represented as
further exacerbating the already difficult plight of rural Southern blacks, not as
sources of hope or deliverance from the institutional foundations, or even the
everyday effects of racism and discrimination.
28 Quoted frnm The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, edited by Robert G. OMeally New York:
Columbia University Press, 1998 (537).
64


As previously stated, much of the sociological, ecological, and
anthropological research asserts the connection between a populations degree of
agency within a society and how greatly that population will be affected by a
calamity. But many of the cultural artifacts from early twentieth-century disasters
that involved African Americans had already stated as much, and they had done
so in much more succinct and compelling ways. In particular, many of these texts
contended with the issues of power and positionor the lack thereofthat much
of the recent social science work also serves to illuminate. This notion of
powerwhether the term power relates to that of the actual catastrophe, its causes
and effects, or to humanitys agency in disaster mitigation, survival, and
recoverywas foremost on the minds of many blues artists as well as those
writers with a bluesy outlook on their experience.
So what is this bluesy outlook, and what does it entail? While the
previous chapter focused on the genre of the spiritual as best encapsulating the
responses that see in a disaster the possibility of utopian change, the genre of the
blues, I contend, best describes those responses to disaster that find a
recapitulation of previously knownand previously badcircumstances. Blues
poet Sterling Brown writes,
One knows that when the river rises remorselessly above the high-
water mark, when a loving man takes to the road and leaves the
side of his good woman, when the train blows far down the track,
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or the steamboat heaves in sight around the bend, some singer a
long ways from happiness lifts up his voice and tells the world of
his trouble. (541)
Indeed, the blues seem particularly outfitted for such expeditions into the in-roads
of disaster, whether interpersonal or communal. And, it seems, when the river
rises remorselessly above the high-water mark, singers and songwriters turn to
the blues, wherein they find a genre uniquely equipped to help their message
resonate with their listeners.
In his definitions of African American music, Langston Hughes sets up a
clear distinction between the blues and spirituals. He writes:
The Spirituals are group songs, but the Blues are songs you sing
alone. The Spirituals are religious songs, bom in camp meetings
and remote plantation districts. But the Blues are city songs rising
from the crowded streets of big towns, or beating against the lonely
walls of hall bed-rooms where you cant sleep at night. The
Spirituals are escape songs, looking toward heaven, tomorrow, and
God. But the Blues are today songs, here and now, broke and
broken-hearted, when youre troubled in mind and dont know
what to do, and nobody cares. (Songs 143-44)
The spirituals emphasis on rural community, escape and tomorrow, and looking
toward heaven and God stands in stark contrast to the blues urban individualism,
the here-and-now, the present conditions on earth, and the troubled mind that no
one cares about. In fact, for Hughes, the two musical forms could not be more
different: One points to God and the hope of another world while the other is a
sort of haunting that occurs in the material present.
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As helpful as Hughes differentiation of the blues and spirituals is for this
cultural inquiry, Ralph Ellisons definition of the bluesfirst appearing in The
New Republic in the fall of 1945 and later in Shadow and Actis an invaluable
addition to Hughes notion since it focuses on the blues as a living reminder of the
conditions that foster the emphasis on the solitary, desperate figure of the blues
singer. If Hughes teaches us that the blues is an earthly haunting, Ellison informs
us that the blues also exist to remind the listener to stare down this fate with vigor.
He defines the blues as:
[A]n impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal
experience alive in ones aching consciousness, to finger its jagged
grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but
by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. (78)
The blues, for Ellison, is an experiential, uncomfortable, almost atavistic thing
that is intended to help the listener and singer retain the awful memory of
whatever transpired. Like Hughes, Ellison sees the blues as the music of the here-
and-now, but he also sees in the blues an almost natural qualityan impulse
that gives rise to the music; the blues is simply a natural effect of some tragic
cause. Also similar to Hughess notion, in Ellisons blues definition there is an
element of conscious powerlessness, of feeling the blues jagged grain, of
speaking and singing to deaf ears in the midst of insurmountable odds. The blues
is the music of those for whom the deck is always stacked against them, and
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whats more, they know and embrace this fact of existence through a near-tragic,
near-comic telling of their tales.
This highly visceral definition appears to have been received almost
immediately by contemporaries of Ellison, as Adam Gussow proves when he
notes that Earl Conrad wrote an article in the Chicago Defender in December of
1945 that relied heavily upon Ellisons definition (Fingering 138); and as Gussow
himself admits, this notion of the blues continues to be of great import today.29
Relying to a certain extent upon Hughes view of the differences between
spirituals and blues, as well as Ellisons highly experiential definition, the
remainder of this chapter attempts to show in what ways the blues became an
impulsive outlet for the frustration of natural disasters impinging upon an already
disastrous social schema.
The Spiritual Blues?
By naming one response spiritual in its scope and the other bluesy, I
do not intend to impress upon the reader the sense that one response is utterly
religious while the other is completely secular. Indeed, even as I positioned
29 In his article Fingering the Jagged Grain: Ellisons Wright and the Southern Blues Violence,
Gussow calls his central claim of blues expressiveness being grounded in the working-class black
individuals encounter with three types of violence perpetrated by and within Jim Crow society
what he terms disciplinary (white-on-black), retributive (black-on-white), and intimate (black-on-
black)an Ellisonian claim (142).
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Hurstons Their Eves as a spiritual text in the previous chapter, Maria V. Johnson,
Gussow, and other scholars have attempted to trace the blues influences in the
book.30 Furthermore, there is often an otherworldly influence that can be easily
found within the blues, as is described by Jon Michael Spencer in his book Blues
and Evil. Rejecting Hughes idea of an inherent dichotomy between spirituals
and the blues as well as the ideas of noted blues scholar Paul Oliver and author
Richard Wright that the blues are devil songs (Wright Blues xv, Spencer xii),
Spencer argues,
While the quite religious had the opportunity to express their
mythologies, theologies, and theodicies in their church music, the
somewhat religious expressed their cosmology and religious
ponderings in the blues, (xxiii)31
In this construction, the blues are more of an extension of sacred music outside of
the church than a musical form that is in opposition to it. It was when the blues
30 In her essay The World in a Jug and the topper in [Her] Hand: Their Eves as Blues
Performance, Johnson claims that Hurston used the aesthetic principles, language, character, and
structure of the blues to challenge socially prescribed roles of African American women (401) in
Their Eves. Through this blues aesthetic, she argues that Janie gradually sheds the white and
male definitions of selfhood (401) she has inherited and experienced. The gist of this reading of
the novel is almost identical to mine from the previous chapter, except, as previously argued, I
view Janies movement as aligning itself with the more spiritual and utopian than bluesy. Adam
Gussow also traces the elements of the blues through Hurstons novel in his book Seems Like
Murder Here: Southern Violence and the Blues Tradition.
31 The terms quite religious and somewhat religious refer to sociologist Andrew Greeleys
model of religious participation. Those deemed quite religious regularly attend religious
functions, and those who are somewhat religious hold similar beliefs to the quite religious but
hold them outside of the confines of the religious institution. It is in this category that Spencer
places blues artists (Spencer xxii).
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began to move from rural climes to urban landscapes, Spencer later posits, that
the blues was denatured of the old [i.e. religious] cosmology (137) that,
according to him, it once had.
That stated, when the scope of the blues is narrowed to how disaster is
portrayed in its lyrics, the question becomes whether it looks more like Hughes
and Ellison or like Spencer. James Crawfords Flood and Thunder Blues is a
text that can help shed some light on this issue.32 The song, which was recorded
during the only recording session of his career in the summer of 1928 (Evans 54),
begins by placing original responsibility for the 1927 flood of the Mississippi on
God, but it does not do so in the same heavy-handed manner as The 1927
Flood. In fact, while Crawfords song involves a divine hand in the flood, his
construction of the situation points to far more earthly and bluesy
consequences. The song recalls the flood situation thus:
Moanin and cryin, people all dyin,
Lightninand rain in store.
Houses all swimmin, children and women,
Stormin like it never did before.
32 In 1929 Mary Dixon reconstructed Crawfords song under the title Fire and Thunder Blues.
In her version, Dixon omits the first stanza in which people are introduced into the narrative and
adds two stanzas to the middle of Crawfords song in which she discloses that her daddy, he got
washed away. Because of this occurrence, she pleads with destruction to have mercy on her.
In the fourth stanza of her version, she explains that she would rather die on land instead of being
drowned. Both of these pleadings with the force behind the storm are interesting juxtapositions of
power and powerlessness. In the midst of overwhelming power and destruction, Dixon is resigned
to die, yet she also feels empowered enough to articulate her desires. (See Appendix A for the
lyrics)
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Black cats whinin, white dogs want to bite.
Black cats whinin, white dogs want to bite.
Clouds are wide open, days are lookin black as night.
Heavens angry, someones done some wrong.
Heavens angry, someones done some wrong.
Trouble is spreadin, been rainin too doggone long.
Fire bumin on the mountain high, oh lee oh lay-ee-hoo.
Fire bumin on the mountain high, oh lee oh lay-ee.
Winds a-blowin, thunder in the sky.
Muddy water, nothin but sad news.
Oh, just muddy water, nothin but sad news.
Sad and Im weary, got the flood and thunder blues.
The first stanza sets the stage for the rest of the song by bringing the
hearer directly into the storm in medius res. Crawford positions himself outside
of the reaches of the calamity in an omniscient, almost divine-like sense; hovering
over the scene, he knows the details of the event but remains untouched by its
immediacy until the very end. The inclusion of humans into the moment is also
worthy of note. Humanity comes into the narrative through action first, in their
moanin and cryin, and then in the form of people all dyin. These actions,
however, can hardly be construed as powerful actions given the circumstances;
the people in this song are not saving themselves, waiting for God or another
outside power to deliver them, fighting against the water, or even hopelessly
loading sandbags onto a failing levee, as a Langston Hughes poem will describe
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later. Instead, they are construed as being on nearly the same level as objects, and
they are juxtaposed against the personified houses, which are swimming, much
like the victims. In this way, Crawford conflates both person and property in their
singular attempt to survive the flood.
The next stanza of Crawfords lyrics is equally arresting in its content and
its relationship to power dynamics. Crawford is obviously alluding to racial
tensions and discrepancies, and perhaps particularly to those that arose in relief
and recovery efforts in the aftermath of the flood, as his song was recorded a year
after the actual event. In this second stanza, he positions the physically inferior,
but more cunning black cats against a larger but less intelligent foe in the white
dogs;33 this antagonistic relationship that had been at the heart of Jim Crow
Southern cultureand must remain so if that culture is to be reconstructed after
the floodhas not changed with the onset of the disaster. In fact, the legitimate
whinin of the black cats about conditions that were made so evident by the
flood is actually leading to a greater desire by the white dogs for a violent
response, as evinced in the lyrics, white dogs want to bite. The desire to bite
rather than to maim or to kill would seem to indicate that the white dogs
recognize their dependence upon the cats and, therefore, want to put the black cats
33 Crawfords lyrical choice of black cats may also have another level of spiritual or religious
significance as it relates to hoodoo practices. William Barlow also traces the use of black cats and
other hoodoo objects in several of Ma Raineys blues songs (162).
72


back in their place as opposed to destroying them. The cats, then, face two
enemies while the dogs face only one: The cats must survive the flood and they
must also survive the dogs; the dogs, meanwhile, can concentrate solely on
survival of the flood.
But the reality of the situation leads the hearer to recognize that things are
not so simple in the confusion and tumult of the storm. Hitherto natural
categories that under-gird society are falling partalbeit temporarilyunder the
strain of so much water. Not only are houses swimming, but nature, and more
importantly, natural order, is coming undone. What was once solid has been
swept away by liquid, persons and things are being confused for one another, and
categories that were once completely reliable, such as day and night, are now
thoroughly indistinguishable; in recognition of this, Crawford sings that bright
whitedays are lookin black as night. In the midst of the storm, Crawford
argues, an existential nightmare arises in which it is impossible to distinguish
black from white, a particularly disturbing scenario for a segregationist society.
This idea brings with it the lesson that it is even more difficult for a human entity
to impose its order on nature than it is to impose its will on society. And while
this mirrors some of the notions of the spiritual response to disasternature as
more powerful than white powerthe remaining three stanzas of the song make
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clear that Crawfords response to the disaster is far less generous in its
interpretation of the situation than its spiritual counterparts.
At first glance, the next stanza in Crawfords song again appears to mirror
the more spiritual responses since he indicates the flood and the attendant power
vacuum caused by the disaster do have a known initial cause. But while this
stanza clearly points to a divine hand in the flood sweeping across the land, again,
akin to the story of Noah, it also emphasizes the powerlessness of African
Americans and the racial tension that defines the floods aftermath. Heavens
angry, Crawford sings in the first two verses, because someones done some
wrong; the actions of this someone are apparently heinous enough to warrant
the destruction of his or her entire society. The last verse, then, allows for at least
a couple of interpretative possibilities. While the initial cause of the trouble is the
unnamed singular someone, Crawford explains that the Trouble is spreadin
to many others. This could refer to trouble as physical, as the water spreading
throughout the rivers basin, literally causing trouble for an ever increasing
amount of people. But there is another, more intriguing possibility to this verses
meaning. Along the lines of the previous stanza in which Crawford
euphemistically refers to the racial tensions as similar to those between dogs and
cats, the trouble could also refer to racial trouble that is spreading in a manner
similar to the floodwater. If the verse is considered in this manner, the second
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half of the final verse is pregnant with meaning. Been rainin too doggone long
is no longer an obvious statement, given the weather conditions of which he sings;
it is now an interesting metaphor for the years of racial injustice and frustration
that have been visited on various African American communities. Concomitant
with the flood, the song suggests, there is a flood of racial angst that is inundating
the South because, in Crawfords eloquently simple words, it has been rainin for
too doggone long.
This reading of the final verse of stanza three also appears to be closely
aligned with more traditional spiritual notions of the reason behind the flood in
Genesis, and the clear distinction between spiritual response and blues response
still needs to be called into question. For Crawford, however, the only question
that remains in the song is: Who is the modem-day Noah? Tellingly, the song
does not answer the question of who will survive to rebuild society, perhaps
because more than a year after the flood waters had receded, such a question no
longer needed to be asked. This moment now seems to be the bluest section of
the song; the trouble has spread to everyone in unequal terms, and the notion of a
utopian constmction now appears to be impossible. The song, however, in
keeping with the tradition of the blues, heaps even more calamity upon that which
already existed.
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Stanza four of the song brings home the notion of inescapability for those
whom Crawford hovers over in the midst of their disaster. Apart from the more
obvious doomsday implications of floods and fires occurring simultaneously, the
song comments on how these conditions affect those who are dyin in the first
stanza. If the lowlands are covered in water and the highlands (even though there
are no mountainous regions along the Mississippi) are set ablaze by an
otherworldly fire, where is there any possible refuge? Those trapped in this
predicament truly have nowhere to go for safety. Finally, the fate of those trapped
in the storm is confirmed for the listener in the last stanza of the song, and,
interestingly, at this moment the narrator descends from his lofty position above
the proceedings into the fray. This last stanza makes the previous question of
identifying the modem-day Noah all the more unnecessary. The second verse is
particularly telling when it states, just muddy water, nothin but sad news. The
addition of the modifier just to the repeated phrase in the traditional aa b blues
stanza construction drives home the sense of powerlessness encapsulated in the
song. At the same time, just can also be read as only or merely, giving it a
sense of trivializing the preceding events. If this is the case, then just works in
conjunction with nothin to formulate a somewhat sarcastic, Ellisonian near-
tragic, near-comic response to the conditions on the ground.
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Muddy water also serves as a finalizing statement that stands in
juxtaposition to the previous discussion concerning swimming houses and crying
children, dogs and cats, floods and fires. In the end, there is only muddy water,
which is sad news indeed. And, at this revelation, the narrator must now disclose
that his lofty position was a farce. Not even the storyteller is immune to the
disasters effects. Just as in The 1927 Flood, God is the originator and the
power behind the flood in Crawfords song, but unlike that particular spiritual,
and deliverance-oriented spiritual responses to disaster in general, Crawfords
song directly confronts the notion of Jim Crow ethics and is saddened by the
innocent being caught up in the divine dragnet that is the Flood and Thunder
Blues. Ultimately for Crawford, while he admits the existence of a divine hand
in the disaster, his focus remains on the material results of the calamity and in so
doing, creates a memorable and bluesy response to the calamity.
The Near-tragic, Near-comic
While some of the cultural artifacts hewn from disaster focus on the
origins and causes of the disaster, most of the songs, poems and stories principal
focus are on the powerlessness of the victims to alter their circumstances during
and after the calamity, regardless of how or by whose hand the disaster came
about. The unenviable conditions in which African Americans found themselves
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made them extremely vulnerable to disasters such as the Boll Weevil, the 1927
flood, and the massive hurricane of central Florida in 1928. As those preexisting
conditions spilled over during the disasters into intense social upheaval, disastrous
recovery efforts, and disproportionate numbers of African American dead, the
blues became the ideal conduit through which to express the plight of African
American victims of these disasters. Not surprisingly then, there are many
examples of blues songs that exemplify the various negative aspects of disaster
and the intense powerlessness felt by those who were already without equal
representation in society. Sippie Wallaces The Flood Blues details the
ineffectiveness of flood warnings for her part of town, and the futility of
dynamiting the levee; it ends with an exasperated narrator asking What else is
there for a poor girl to do? Laura Smiths Lonesome Refugee laments the
flooded conditions cotton and sugar cane fields while she adds, Im so weary,
heavy laden, and blue, / With no one to tell my troubles to. / Im just a wandering
lonesome refugee. And Bessie Smiths hit Backwater Blues bemoans that on
account of the flood, she cant move no more. There aint no place, she sings,
for a poor old girl to go.34
The bluesy response extends to more than just recorded blues songs,
however, as there are also examples of poems and prose that contain similar
34 See Appendix A for the complete lyrics to these songs.
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bluesy elements. Langston Hughes poem Mississippi Levee is an intriguing
example of this phenomenon, and it also serves to underscore the problem of
position within ones society when a disaster strikes. In the poem, Hughes
envisions himself as one of the African American laborers forcefully conscripted
into service along the many miles of levees intended to protect Southern towns
from the likes of the 1927 Mississippi flood. He writes:
Dont know why I built this levee
And de levee dont do no good.
Dont know why I built this levee
When the levee dont do no good.
I pack a million bags o sand
But the water still make a flood.
Levee, Levee,
How high have you got to be?
Levee, Levee,
How high have you got to be?
To keep them cold muddy waters
From washin over me?
The first stanza is noteworthy in that it exemplifies the powerlessness of
African Americans in the build-up to the disaster, while the second stanza artfully
demonstrates the futility of those actions. Hughes narrator is unsure why he must
reinforce the levee since it is unable to perform its intended task, whether he
endangers himself with this work or not. He can pack a million bags o sand
but ultimately the water is going to push him and his work aside. Historical
accounts of the lower Mississippi region in the days leading up to the levee breech
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at Mounds Landing, Mississippi reveal that the work of levee building was
backbreaking and that armed white men stood guard over supposedly free black
men.35 As Hughes clearly recognized, this context was fertile ground for the
blues.
Given the assertion that even a million sandbags cannot improve the
leveesand consequently, the individualscircumstances, the question the
worker posits to the levee seems unnecessary, even silly. As an answer cannot be
expected, the point of ending the poem in the interrogative mode is to raise a
gigantic question mark over societys reaction to the situation. Why, if
emancipation was over sixty years ago, are black men being forced to work
themselves to death at the hands of their white counterparts? Why do they have
to work and die to preserve a society that devalues them? The levee workerif
his situation is similar to that at Mounds Landing or that of Coot Simpson
knows he is going to die and he knows that these and many more questions will
remain unanswered for him. The only sure answer he will receive is from the
river itself. The cold muddy waters will wash over him, an idea he sees as
unwelcome but inevitable. In this way, Hughes portrays the protagonist as he
portrays the ideal blues-man: [he is] troubled in mind and dont know what to
35 As mentioned in chapter two, Pete Daniel discusses the loss of potentially hundreds of black
levee workers who were forced to work at gunpoint on the levee when it broke (14). This was not
an isolated phenomenon, however, as John M. Barry reports similar circumstances (193).
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do, and nobody cares (Songs 144). Hughes protagonist is also the ideal
unspiritual man; unlike singers of spirituals, Hughes narrator rejects the notion
of the floodwater being an impromptu baptismal fount. Instead, his natural
Ellisonian impulse in response to these circumstances is the tragi-comic blues.
Like the Hughes poem, most bluesy disaster responses were concerned
with the immediate problems that arise from disasters, chiefly survival and
damage control in the face of seemingly insurmountable conditions. In this
decidedly more material milieuthat of the bluesy here and now as Hughes
asserts (Songs 143)the trope of the human voice pleading with the deaf ears of
natural destruction, and in so doing, evincing the powerlessness of the individual,
is a popular theme. One such song, River, stay way from my Door, which was
recorded by several singers, including Paul Robeson in 1931 (Evans 16), positions
the narrator in the midst of rising flood waters. In this case, however, the power
dynamic is not between man and his maker but rather between man and the
elements. Robeson sings:
You keep goin your way,
Ill keep goin my way,
River, stay way from my door.
I just got a cabin,
You dont need my cabin,
River, stay way from my door.
Dont come up any higher,
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Im so all alone,
Leave my bed and my fire
Thats all I own.
I aint breakin your heart,
Dont start breakin my heart,
River, stay way from my door.
Youre just a lonely little river, but I have heard somebody say,
That some day you may sweep my home away.
So roll along you lonely river, and find your way out to the sea.
I dont bother you, dont you bother me.
(song repeats, except for the last stanza)
Unlike the Crawford song in which the calamity is not alluded to until the
very last line of the song, the first stanza of River introduces the listener to an
immediate problem: A river is threatening the abode of the singer. This first
stanza also introduces the river as a tragi-comic character in the unfolding drama,
as well as the primary agent of the impending destruction. This is accomplished
through personifying the river by way of speaking to it, supplicating with it, and
expecting a reasoned response, much in the way Hughes protagonist interrogates
the levee. The singer implores the river to keep goin your way so the
homeowner can continue his own trajectory, presumably that of personal safety
and economic well-being, or at the very least economic status quo. In order for
the two characters in this narrative to get along, however, the river must heed the
directive of the singer to stay way from his door.
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The songs listeners begin to construct a more developed picture of the
singers plight in the second stanza. The protagonist in the song tells us that he
just got a cabin and that the river has no need for it. The undercurrent of these
lyrics is striking in that it gives the listener a window into the economic plight of
the singer prior to the flood, as well as the potential for further economic
hardship. According to the song, he has only recently been able to procure his
own living quarters. Even more, the singer does not deny the notion that a river
might have some use for a cabin; it simply does not need his cabin, especially
since he cannot afford to part with it. Apparently, however, the river has yet to
listen to his plea to stay away from his home. The argument that each entity
ought to find a path that does not impinge upon the other was ineffectual;
therefore, the singer reasons with the water about his home and repeats his
directive to stay way from his door.
The river, however, answers his argument in undeniable terms, as it
remains steadfast in its desire to pursue a crash course with the protagonist. The
singers own course and the safety of his home are not enough to sway the will of
the river, so he makes a certain concession in his next threat. Dont come up any
higher, he warns the water, recognizing that while the river will probably take
away his home, it may still leave him his sole possessions in this world: his bed
and the fire lit inside his abode. Thats all I own, he succinctly confesses to the
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river. His material possessions truly are all he has. He is all alone in his cabin;
besides himself, the only one around to witness his destruction is the destroyer.
Yet the river refuses to listen, and the protagonist has only one more
possession to his nameif fire can even be considered a possessionhis heart.
I aint breakin your heart, he states in the songs fourth stanza, Dont start
breakin my heart. The song is suggesting that if the river chooses to destroy his
house, carry away his bed, and extinguish his fire, the result will be the
destruction of his person, whether he survives the flood bodily or not. If the river
seems indifferent to the loss of will, means, and place, the singer reasons that
perhaps it will bend its ear and change its destructive course if it realizes that the
sum of these things is complete ruin of the person. In another feckless effort, the
singer again repeats his directive for the river to leave him alone.
The fifth stanza serves as the songs bridge, the midpoint before the singer
reiterates the first four stanzas. The singer seems to try to make a connection
between the lonely little river and himself, a lonely helpless man. He has heard
that the river could one day sweep [his] home away, not an unfamiliar situation
for many African Americans who were forced to live in certain areas of towns,
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and nearly always the areas that were considered more vulnerable to disaster.36
Almost certainly resigned to his situation, the singer makes one final plea to the
river: I dont bother you, dont you bother me.
But even after the singer repeats himself, there is no final verbal response
from the river in River, stay way from my Door because, as in Hughes poem
and Crawfords song, no response is necessary. The song leaves the listener in
the same position as the protagonist, wondering but already knowing the answer.
Whether the protagonists voice, his will, has any power whatsoever to deter the
ensuing calamity, the idea of pleading with a natural force such as a river that has
violently left its banks is obviously ridiculous, and it fits succinctly into Ellisons
definition of the blues near-tragic, near-comic lyricism (78). The song,
therefore, creates a scenario in which the only response is pity at the unenviable
plight of the protagonist. Just as was the case with Greek tragedy, the audience is
aware from the first that the protagonist is doomed to destruction by fate, that all
of his machinations are without agency. No amount of reason, no amount of
rhetoric or action can alter his fortune. The effect of this metaphorical intrigue of
voice and reason versus natural hazards certainly helps to define the toothless
conditions of the individual in the midst of the disaster, and it also has the effect
36 See Boyces Let Them Eat Risk? Wealth, Rights and Disaster Vulnerability in Disasters.
Also see Steinbergs Acts of God in which he states that the vast majority of the victims [from
the largest five major calamities between 1880 and 1930] were poor blacks (70).
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of highlighting the sad living conditions that existed prior to the calamity.
Disaster victims are contending with an oppositional force that is only facetiously
anthropomorphic; thus, no amount of physical, mental, or spiritual exertion on
their part can impede or redirect the destruction that seems to be their lot.
Despite the feeling of despair conveyed in these songs, they are obviously
meant to be heard, even if, as Hughes asserts, nobody cares. This raises the idea
of voice, of speaking to someone or something about ones blue conditions.
Charley Pattons famous blues songs High Water Everywhere, Parts I and II
employ the idea of voice as well, but unlike Robesons treatment of the
ineffectiveness of ones voice in the midst of disaster when employed to save
oneself, Pattons songs expand the idea in a more far-reaching manner, showing
that ones voice is futile even when employed in the service of ones community.
Although the songs are entitled Parts I and II, they are, as David Evans asserts,
two distinct songs (60) and as such, deserve separate consideration. High Water
Everywhere, Part I (see Appendix) will receive a short synopsis of how voice
operates in the text and Part II will be discussed in greater detail since the
manner in which voice is employed is more complex.
The voice in High Water Everywhere, Part I is best described as first-
person narration, which, on its own, is hardly worthy of close examination. What
is particularly interesting in this song, however, is the relationship between the
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voice and the audience, as it relates to personal and communal agency.
Throughout the song, the voice desires a wider audience than it has but is
thwarted from its desire to act as reporter by the sheer magnitude of the disaster.
In this way, the songs lyrics are marked by this tension between the goal of
observing the calamity and the calamitys resistance to observation and accurate
reporting. Moreover, in the role of advocate, the voice is too late to be of any real
assistance to the victims, which again underscores the songs message of
powerlessness in the midst of the disaster.
Patton identifies the voice of the narrator as his own: Backwater done
rose at Sumner, drove poor Charley down the line, and he identifies as his
objective relaying the severity of the disaster to a wider audience: Ill tell the
world the water done struck Drewses town. The predicament in using his voice
to spread awareness, and presumably assistance to those in need, is that
everywhere he goes the people are in the same dilemma. He travels around the
Mississippi Delta region, from Leland to Greenville, from Greenville to Rosedale,
to Vicksburg, to Sharkey, Issaquena, Bolivar, and Tallahatchie counties.
Eventually, he decides to return to the hill country, which is where he has
earlier relayed to the listener that he would go but he has been barred from
entry there. This latter term, evocative of prison, suggests that Charleys
exclusion relates to the perception of his criminality. Wherever he travels, Patton
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is either bogged down in similar conditions or criminalized in the one place that
could be of help; in one final bit of irony, Patton realizes the only place for his
story is the one place it cannot go.
If High Water Everywhere, Part I exhibits the futility of using ones
voice in the moment of crisis, Part II demonstrates that the ineffectual voice
belongs to certain people, while other voices have the power to dictate who
survives and who perishes. This difference in vocal power further expands the
notion of disasters effects as primarily position-related. The problem in Part II
is identical to Part I in that the backwaterwater from tributaries that typically
flow into the Mississippihas been stopped up due to the high water level in
larger arteries and has nowhere to flow except out of its banks, causing
-17
horrendous flooding conditions everywhere. Patton sings:
Backwater at Blythville, backed up all around,
Backwater at Blythville, done struck Joiner down.
It was fifty families and children. Tough luck; they can drown.
The water was rising up in my friends door.
The water was rising up in my friends door.
The man said to his womenfolk, Lord, wed better go.
The water was risin, got up in my bed,
The water was rollin, got up to my bed,
I thought I would take a trip, Lord, out on the big ice sled. 37
37 Pete Daniel relates that during the 1927 Mississippi flood, even large tributaries such as the
Ohio River were forced to flow upstream on account of the volume of water at that time in the
Mississippi (8).
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Oh, I hear the horn blow, blowinup on my shore.
(You know, I couldnt hear it.)
I heard the ice boat, Lord, was sinking down.
I couldnt get no boat, so I let em sink on down.
Oh-ah, the water rising, islands sinking down.
Sayin, the water was rising, airplanes was all around.
(Boy, they was all around.)
It was fifty men and children. Tough luck; they can drown.
Oh, Lordy, women is groanin down.
Oh, women and children sinkin down.
(Lord, have mercy.)
I couldnt see nobody home, and wasnt no one to be found.
The first stanza places the song in context, and also contains this
mysterious but seemingly omnipotent voice. The voice that confidently
pontificates Tough luck; they can drown stands in stark contrast to the
wandering and inadequate Charley Patton of Part I. But whose voice is it? Is
this Pattons editorialization on the subject? Is this the voice of the now safe
townspeople weighing the risk involved in a rescue attempt of others? Is this the
voice of the river, recognizing that it is not to blame for these deaths but
nonetheless taking them to their watery graves? Is this Herbert Hoovers voice, in
light of the contentious rescue and relief effort? In constructing the meaning of
this song, other questions emerge that need to be answered: Who are the fifty
families trapped and left to die? Why arent they being rescued? Their identity
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and position within the community, though difficult to determine with certainty,
will shed light on the originator of the voice and its intended message.
In keeping with the trope of voice and its relatedness to disaster, more
voices enter into the discussion in stanzas two and three, and they begin to
unravel the message of Pattons dirge and help to narrow down the identity of the
haunting voice. The narrators friend is in the midst of attempting to lead his
family to safety; presumably, he has not heard the proclamation in stanza one that
he and his kin have already been left for dead. Stanza three reveals that the
narrator has also been trapped in the flood. When the water encroached upon
him, he got up in [his] bed. It also seems that the singer is unaware of the
proclamation in stanza one since he even believes that he may make it to safety by
taking a ride out on the big ice sled. But by stanza four, the song begins to take
an understandably bitter turn. Having been left to die, the narrator has no warning
of the flood: You know I couldnt hear [the warning blow]. The plight of those
who have more resources at their disposal but still cannot avoid the same fate
becomes the only source of comfort: I couldnt get no boat, so I let em sink on
down. One has to wonder, however, how much of this statement is true and how
much is vengeance-induced wishful thinking on the part of the narrator. As
evidenced in the decree in stanza one, there has been a massive breakdown in the
social contract, and the narrator feels perfectly justified in hearing that others who
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have a far greater chance of survival drown along with him. If there can be no
equality in life, he seems to argue, let there be some in death.
Given the events that unfold in stanzas two, three, and four, stanza five
leaves little doubt as to the identity of those left to die, and while the voices
originator is not disclosed, it becomes associated with the powerful in society
leaving behind those whom they kept powerless in their greatest time of need.
The situation on the ground is getting quite dire as evidenced in the fact that
islandsreally the last vestiges of higher groundare disappearing while
airplanes dispatched in the rescue effort was all around.38 The repetition of this
line makes it all the more chilling; there was an unprecedented amount of exertion
put into a rescue effort that bypassed the powerless, yet the powerful voice had
already decided that some get rescued while scores of other people can drown.
The last stanza underscores the horror of the entire ordeal, the
ramifications of the voices decision to leave some to their tough luck. The
effect of the decision to decide who should be saved and who left to drown results
in societys most vulnerable, most defenseless bearing the brunt of the
catastrophe. The narrators spoken line, Lord, have mercy may be a plea for
38 This was indeed the case with the Mississippi flood; it was the first time in a major rescue effort
that planes were employed. Daniel reports that, as early as April 17, a seaplane made its way to
Vicksburg and five days later seaplanes were in Arkansas. The planes were primarily used for
reconnaissance, however, which might explain the songs dismissal of them (69-70).
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God to have mercy on the victims souls alone, or perhaps it directs Gods mercy
towards those who chose to allow such a barbarous act to occur, reasoning that
even they must not have been able to conceive its true horror. Or perhaps it is a
suggestion that those in the role of decision maker will face Gods wrath at some
point for their misdeeds. However one understands this final bit of spoken word
in the song, Patton is convincing in his argument that voice is not useless in a
catastrophe; it just depends on whose voice it happens to be.
The Individual as the Disaster
If it is true that sad as the blues may be, theres almost always something
humorous about themeven if its the kind of humor that laughs to keep from
crying (Songs 144), as Langston Hughes denotesthen perhaps this humor can
be typified in the conflation of natural disaster and individual victim. The only
reasonable response to becoming so victimized by the disaster is to sing the blues,
to tell a sad tale that has no hope of redemption, and in singing, to revel in the
knowledge of this situation. Such is the case with much of the blues surrounding
the boll weevil disaster of the 1910s and 1920s.39 When it comes to the blues
treatment of the boll weevil, there appears to be a tendency to conflate the identity
39 Barlow shows that boll weevil songs were part of the regular repertoire of ballads and minstrel
songs before the blues became popular (82).
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