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Mailbag: "Stories That Do Not Belong to You," A Response to Beller's NY'er Piece

Tulane prof Dr. Thomas Beller recently published "Don't Call It Katrina," an essay about the Federal Flood and Katrina in The New Yorker magazine. the essay was received with critical kudos and social media buzz. However, reader Robin McDowell was not impressed. Below she offers a rebuttal arguing that Beller's article continues a dangerous practice of subjugating minorities.


I excitedly opened the link to Thomas Beller’s recent Cultural Comment in The New Yorker“Don’t Call It Katrina.” My Facebook and Twitter feed erupted with congratulations to Dr. Beller on this poignant reflection, a worthy lens through which to examine the complexity of Hurricane Katrina. Many folks excitedly brandished the newly coined phrase, “climatological slut-shaming.” But by the time I finished the piece, a pile of heavy rocks had settled in my stomach that I could not lift.


Dr. Beller, please don’t call it “Don’t Call It Katrina.” Must you “call” it? And must you pen your thoughts about it? The article opens describing Dr. Beller’s intention to lower his head and keep quiet, which is precisely what could have been done. It concludes with how learning about Austin Leslie, a black man who died from “the stress of it all,” made him feel. Dr. Beller, you have redoubled the violence. Your pen again silences those who were silenced in life.


While the title suggests the de-naturalization of Katrina (hurricane vs. federal levee failure), Beller corroborates that argument via interviews with Eve Troeh and Richard Campanella.  I dare say that national scale hydropolitics are not the fight or expertise of any of these individuals. But is the fight a worthy one? Absolutely. Proving out that Katrina was not “natural” is perhaps crucial for the future of Southeast Louisiana’s natural resource management. This piece, however, serves mostly to amplify and complicate a few vignettes of upper middle class white sadness. This “evidence” belongs to a different argument, deserves a different title. This mismatched rhetoric obfuscates important ecological research, while also provincializing communities in struggle.  These interviews relegate other voices to the phrases “a historic primarily African-American neighborhood of homeowners” and “footage of stranded, soaked African-Americans.”


The indulgent opening biopics are followed by a punctum. Tenured white male professor encounters Vera, a black female bookshop owner, and “the tragedy of Austin Leslie.” The question of “how to speak to the tragedy of Austin Leslie, and thousands and thousands of others” gnaws at Dr. Beller.


Instead of indulging Dr. Beller’s puzzling over the answer to this question, what if we challenge who is provided a platform to “speak tragedy” and why? What would it take to disabuse a predominantly white, neoliberal media and academy of the idea that they are needed to tell these stories? New Orleans suffers from a white storyteller complex, never more apparent than in this piece and its penetration on a national scale.

Let other voices be heard from within New Orleans. Ones we might not expect. Ones that might not sound so great on the radio or in our coffee table books. Ones with no names. As the ten year mark approaches, let’s learn how to put our ears to this sacred, saturated ground and listen.

-Robin McDowell

The text above is a letter to the editor and expresses only the opinion of the author, not NOLA Defender or NOLA Defender's Editorial Board.

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