New Orleans Bottle Djinn: Stealing Stories?

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New Orleans, Louisiana, French Quarter, May 2014. Part II.

How do people deal with and bear witness to trauma? How have the people of New Orleans collectively chosen to remember Hurricane Katrina?

As I wrote in my previous post “Collective Sites of Memory: New Orleans” (3-28-15), those were some of the questions I was pondering last May as I returned to New Orleans for the first time since Katrina. Having visited–and been disappointed by–the Katrina National Memorial Park in New Orleans, I decided to visit the permanent exhibit “Living with hurricanes: Katrina and beyond” located at the Presbytere Louisiana State Museum in the heart of the French Quarter.

Greeting me in a wildly disorienting way as I entered the main door of the museum building, was the art installation shown in the photos above. Hundreds of ‘floating’ glass bottles with messages curled up inside them, all hanging from the ceiling. Interspersed among the bottles are ghostly blue glass hands, reaching down–or wait! are they reaching up out of the deluge, the person attached to the hand drowning and asking to be rescued? I stood in the middle of the foyer gazing up at the display as the lights surrounding them gyrated from blue to purple to pink to red and back again–trying to figure out which way was up and which was down in this display. Who are the rescuers and the rescued? It felt as if I was simultaneously the rescuer and the rescued—floating in the midst of the primordial sea of life.

The brightly-colored bottle display also reminded me of that uniquely Southern folk art of bottle trees, shown here in a classic black and white photograph by the venerable writer (and WPA photographer) Eudora Welty. The folk belief is that placing bottles on trees away from the main entrance to the house will help to capture and repel ‘bottle genies’/djinn/or ‘haints’—spirits that haunt a place. The bottle trees are thought to protect people and their homes from calamities. Maybe all the pent-up bottle djinn in the New Orleans area had been released by Katrina.

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House with bottle-trees/Simpson County/1941/ Eudora Welty. From Eudora Welty Photographs, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 1989.

I have the habit of always looking at a piece of art before reading the accompanying information placard, which often ‘explains’ or interprets what the artist is aiming for. I like to experience the art before being told what it is I am looking at (or hearing), and how it should make me feel. But after several minutes of standing in the museum’s foyer gazing at the bottles and light show, I read the placard below:

IMG_2173The “Message of Remembrances”  (notice the singular ‘message’ in the title) was next to the official entrance to the Katrina exhibit, with a large sign stating “Resilience.” Oh no,  here we go with the official scripted, up-with-people resilience narrative, I thought, as I entered the darkened room.

‘Resilience’ is an oft-used and ill-used term. ‘Bad things happen to good people, but what doesn’t break you makes you stronger.’ I am highly suspicious of resilience and any context within which resilience is mentioned. I put it in the same category with all those ‘redemptive’ novels according to Oprah: catharsis equals a nauseatingly Hallmark Moment.

But, okay, I will attempt to suspend my critical stance and give this museum exhibit on Katrina an honest chance,  I told myself.

As I snaked my way through the rooms of the exhibit, I found quite a lot to admire in how the curators had chosen to ‘tell the story’ of Katrina. The first few rooms were dark and immersive, showing billowing smoke from one New Orleans building, next to a display of an ax stored in the attic of a ‘mock’ house (an essential home safety precaution that I didn’t know about–many people in Katrina got trapped inside their attics in the rising water and drowned because they couldn’t cut an escape route through their roofs).

Then I entered the second room of the exhibit, filled with separate displays on ‘ordinary heroes’ (what is an extraordinary hero–Wonder Woman?), hospitals, First Responders, seats from the Superdome (fiasco), samples of emergency cans of water from the Red Cross, and MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat that included little bottles of Tabasco hot-sauce). There was a brief and somewhat sanitized display labeled “Race, Class, and Inequality” with a heavily edited quote from then President George W. Bush. This second room was filled with random flashing lights of red, yellow, and that freaky blue again, echoing the bottle display.

There was quite a lot of content on the effects of climate change, environmental degradation, and engineering mistakes that all compounded the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Audio-recordings of Katrina survivors played on an endless loop. An African American man, a former resident of the most severely affected Ninth Ward had this to say: “The water in the vast area matched the speed of a second hand of a clock—that was the amount of time it took for that water to rise. I don’t remember hearing it before: a sound like a freight train.” I found his first person testimony both eloquent and haunting, and I listened to the loop several times to make sure I wrote down his exact words.

But one section of the Katrina exhibit has continued to bother me. It takes up the most space in the middle-part of the exhibit, being eight or nine panels, sections of the actual walls in a central New Orleans housing project apartment. The walls preserve the ‘wall diary’ of Tommie Elton Mabry, a 53 year old man (shown in photo below in front of his wall diary/ ‘ledger or graffiti’ as he called it–written with a black Sharpie.) Mabry, who had been homeless ‘since Regan was president,’ stayed in a first-floor apartment in the deserted high-rise B.W. Cooper public housing development in downtown New Orleans. Starting the day before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans until two months later when he was forced to leave by the housing authority officials (the building has been torn down).

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Tommie Elton Mabry in front of his diary of Katrina written on wall of New Orleans Housing Authority building. Photo: Thomas Neff, November 2005.

What bothers me about this part of the exhibit is the unacknowledged ethical issues, power dynamics, and inherent racism and classism. Mabry’s diary entries are written in about a fourth or fifth grade level, include frequent f-bombs, and many of the entries focus on him getting drunk or nursing a hangover. These all highlight negative stereotypes of homeless people, and especially of African American poor people.

In the photo and in several local newspaper articles (see below), Mabry appears to be proud of the fact that his diary is now on permanent display in a museum. But did anyone bother to ask his permission before they preserved his ‘wall diaries?’ Did anyone consider setting up some sort of appropriate payment–or housing fund– for use of his words?

Tommie Elton Mabry died of a heart attack in 2013, at the age of 58. He was still homeless and couch-surfing at the time of his death.

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Resources/related articles and videos:

“After Hurricane Katrina struck, Elton Mabry used writing as a way to survive the storm” by Maria C. Montoya. The Times-Picayune, August 23, 2008.

“The diary of Tommie Elton Mabry” (video). The Times-Picayune, September 1, 2010.

“Hurricane Katrina survivor and chronicler Tommie Mabry dies at 58” by Elizabeth Mullener. The Times-Picayune, February 1, 2013.

“Jungleland: The Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans gives new meaning to ‘urban growth,” by Nathanial Rich. NYT, March 21, 2012.

 

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