When the levees broke, I was twelve-years old and on my way to junior boarding school. Coming from the Springfield public school system, I was never challenged with the specificity of my biracial identity. In that system, I was just another dark face. Yet, in August of 2005, I found myself cast out into a sea of white faces, all of which challenged my psychological bounds, my patience, and my biraciality every single hour of every single day. With all of this going on, I didn’t consider what happened in New Orleans to be anything more than a tragedy in a far away place, something that did not concern me in any tangible way as I navigated my whitewashed environment. Yet, while watching this documentary, I began to reach back into that trove of middle school memories in order to pinpoint exactly when, or even if, I began to view this disaster as something that not only deserved my attention, but demanded my personal identification as an Afro-American.
I’ll now introduce my first roommate, let’s call him J. Coming into the situation, I knew that J was from New Orleans and that his school had evacuated in preparation of the storm. As I began to get to know J, he clued me into the events that were unfolding: a big storm was coming, his family sent him to Western Massachusetts, and he could not wait to get back to his old life. One thing to note here is that J was white and from a very well-off family, a situation that allowed him to easily escape the grips of Katrina with the wave of a credit card. Through J’s perspective, I began to mold an understanding of Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, one that placed all of the families in safe havens around the country as precautionary measures against disaster. Then, I remember seeing Kanye West on our dormitory’s common room TV.
“George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
This single line at the end of a nervously charged monologue was like a blow to my chest. How could someone say this about our president? He’s the one defending us from the terrorist threat in Iraq. Yet, as I looked around at the white faces around me in that moment, I felt my worldview begin to expand. J wasn’t the face of the New Orleanian experience — he was the farthest thing from it. That brief moment brought about by a newly politicized Kanye West ran through my head over and over, much in the same way that Spike Lee repeated the line with a series of repeating cuts. I now realize that this was the very instance that my identity as a black american became more than non-white or different; it began to mean “other.”