Saturday, April 14, 2007

Katrina and Communal Memory

I received an anonymous tip from one of my readers who tracked down a story about an earlier event in 1927 in which a levy was blown up to keep the flood waters from inundating certain parts of New Orleans. Given the memory of this event, it is quite reasonable that the Katrina memory has been recast in the terms that Brian Kumnow noted in some of the Katrina interviews that his professor at the University of Houston have conducted. He wrote to me about this earlier:
Last semester I finished my undergraduate degree at the University of Houston. I took a class on the way the Hurricane Katrina community in Houston is developing an oral history of the events that took place. One thing that I noticed is that a given community will allow for things to become part of that oral history and communal memory that make sense to the community, but may not have actually happened. An example of this in the context of Katrina is that there is widespread belief within the community that the gov't (at some level) intentionally blew holes in the levies. This is being included as part of that community's developing history because it makes sense to the Katrina survivors-it resonates with their intuition of how the world works-in the absence of any real physical evidence proving that it happened.
Here is communal memory in operation, taking shards from the past and using them to make sense of the present experience. If Katrina victims are doing this today, what might the early Christians have done following Jesus' crucifixion or the fall of the Temple?


Unknown said...


Heard another interesting Katrina rumor. This was on one of those "trading spouses"reality TV shows. One of the husbands said that he personally knew some African American residents of New Orleans that tried to evacuate but were turned back at gunpoint at various bridges and forced back into the city. This was a new one on me. I have emailed my prof. to see if he had heard it. The same man also said that he believed that Katrina was a "weapon of mass destruction" used by the gov't against the African American population of New Orleans. said...

I am sure that today, with modern open communications, most of the folk from New Orleans are not so dumb as to believe that the government intentionally blew up the levies, or deliberately neglected the levies as a weapon of mass destruction.

I can see how the collective memory of a community's social/political conditions can make it susceptible to accepting a sectarian religious belief, particularly if that community is isolated from the rest of society. The origin of the Mormons is a good example.

In the first century, I believe that the community of prophets (Essenes) found themselves differentiated from the community of priests who held the political power. The former, although many were probably descended from priests, were prevented from receiving tithes, so they had to be agriculturalists to earn their living.

Unknown said...

That is actually precisely the point: in this time of rapid ubiquitous communication, people still believe things that are fantastic. And I can tell you this: there are good, decent, hardworking people from New Orleans who will go to their graves believing that the gov't blew up the levies. I have listened to them say this. Your opinion also suggests something important. This story is difficult for you to believe because nothing has prepared you culturally to think such a thing is possible. In the same country, living at the same time as you, are people whose experience with American life is so different from yours as to make a story like this sound possible, even likely.

What does all this suggest about early christianity? When communication, travel, and writing were expensive, difficult, and the province of elites, is it less likely or more likely that erroneous stories would have developed a beleivable provenance then today. When their culture is so radically different than ours, what can we really be sure of understanding about the things we read? The existence of these Katrina stories ought to at least make us cautious about what we say about things that happened 2000 years ago in a culture totally alien to our own.

April DeConick said...


This is exactly how communal memory works. When we try to write about it or analyze it, it is difficult for us to think in terms of an unconscious process of remaking memories that are believed to be utterly true. The people who are involved in the remaking process are not aware that any fictionalizing is actually going on. The memories will shift and unfold in ways that we can't predict, given the social, political, religious, economic, etc. situation that the group faces, and the past memories that they share. But the past will always be rearranged and assumed into the present to make sense of the present. said...

A few people going to their graves believing a myth is hardly a whole community. I dare say most of the folk of New Orleans have a computer, a television, a mobile phone, and a newspaper whose journalists are at least allowed to be independently minded. Are you saying that these people living in the USA in the 21st century of global communication could have been kept in the dark? One can hardly compare their situation with that of a 1st century people living in what must surely have been a police state watched over by the ruthless Flavian dynasty. But Nero was known to have been liberal, at least for a good part of his reign. And that, I suggest, is why the 'Christians' flourished in Rome during the reign of Nero.

Alan Gregory Wonderwheel said...

Brian says, "Heard another interesting Katrina rumor. This was on one of those "trading spouses"reality TV shows. One of the husbands said that he personally knew some African American residents of New Orleans that tried to evacuate but were turned back at gunpoint at various bridges and forced back into the city. This was a new one on me."

Brian, that is no rumor, except that maybe the number of bridges is exaggerated. There were at least two police incidents at two different bridges.

At one incident on the Danziger Bridge people were killed.

At another bridge a more well told story is that the police of the town of Gretna held shotguns to the Katrina evacuees, including people in wheelchairs, and forced them back across the bridge so they couldn't cross into their parish. The Police chief admitted the incident but excused his officers by saying no shots were fired.

So we can see the importance of not writing off stories that may seem incredible under common circumstances as mere rumors.

April DeConick said...

Dear Alan,

Good point. Another aspect of communal memory is that there IS usually a connection with something that has happened, although its interpretation is usually framed in strikingly contemporary ways.