D’Ann Penner on Overcoming Katrina

D'Ann Penner and Keith Ferndinand show another side of black New Orleans in Overcoming Katrina.

I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting D’Ann Penner in person-I’ve learned about her through reputation and exchanged a few emails-but look forward to doing so in November, when we will both participate in a refugee trauma program in Orvieto, Italy.

The reason: the award-winning scholar clearly has heart and intelligence and drive and grit and conscience and empathy in abundant measure.

These qualities and others pulse through Overcoming Katrina, an oral history comprised of interviews with 27 black New Orleanians, all of whom survived, and were deeply effected by, the hurricane that devastated the Gulf region five years ago tomorrow.

Penner and co-author Keith Ferdinand, a New Orleans physician who lost a practice of about 7,600  patients, undertook the project to fill a hole they saw in depictions of the events around Katrina and her aftermath. Specifically, the authors noticed any depiction of heroism as involving white people, with black people primarily relegated to victim or looting roles.

The result of their labor, though, is more than a place filler.  Overcoming Katrina gives a much deeper sense to non-natives of exactly what was displaced, disrupted, of the power of faith, family and community, and of the bone-deep loyalty and love so many black New Orleanians hold for the Crescent City.

This love has been forged, cemented and maintained by generational connection, and Penner and Ferdinand structure the book accordingly.  Starting with the older generation, the book has four section, each of which moves closer in time to the present and today’s youth.   This structure allows the reader to understand the transmission of values, beliefs and rituals that have taken place.  That understanding, then, provides deeper insight into both the pain long-time residents felt both at the wreckage and the government’s utterly callous and incompetent response, and the resilience, strength and courage they have brought to bear on the trials they faced at the moment of the hurricane and during the ensuing half-decade.

In Overcoming Katrina, we meet Aline St. Julien, a widow born in 1926 and raised in the Treme area.  She concludes her interview with the wish that things could go back to the way they were before Katrina, a Proustian reminiscence about the memories triggered by drinking a cup of coffee, and the simple statement, “I’ve had a good life.  I was always a proud woman.  I’ve carried myself with dignity, that’s just my way.”

We also meet co-author Ferdinand, whose family members provide the book’s spine, and youth like Le Ella Lee, a performer whose rhyming verses tell her Katrina story.

In addition to varying in age, the people in the book’s pages are diverse in many other ways, too: geography within the city, class status, profession, and political orientation, to name just a few.

Highlighting this diversity, intentionally in places, appears to be an explicit goal for the authors and, to my view, reveals the book’s radical character.  Overcoming Katrina, then, is not just an evocation of a lost world for those who do not come from there and who live in less rooted ways.  Rather it is a bringing to light and a celebration of  a community steeped in religion, tradition and place, and imbued with an unbreakable, if sorely tested, will that they brought on this most recent and formidable trial.

To my mind, this is a gift, and one for which we should be grateful to Penner, Ferdinand and the people who shared their lives and struggles.

I’ll tell her this in person when we meet in a couple of months.  For now, though, I recommend that you take a look at this worthwhile work.

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