“Go home ni**er!” the voice said as the pickup truck sped away. How soon do we forget — and why?
Days ago, Hurricane Harvey barreled through Texas after meandering along the Gulf Coast for days on end. In its wake, dozens of people died and as many as a million others were displaced from historic rainfall and floods. As the AP points out, the historic hurricane didn’t discriminate — unlike its human counterparts.
Harvey’s landfall also marked the 12th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, then, one of the costliest storms on record in the United States. It was also one of the deadliest; over 1,800 people died in the massive hurricane. The gut-wrenching images from both storms are seared into my mind.
Reluctantly, my wife and I made the decision to relocate to the Mississippi Gulf Coast in August of 2005. The apprehension was due largely to the state’s documented dark history of racism, segregation, and white nationalism. However, a part of us reasoned that the larger towns along the beaches — the tourist havens — had moved on from the painful chapter in the state’s past.
They all had not, and we would learn the hard way from a surreal experience, one that still haunts us to this day. While still unloading the moving truck, my wife poked her head out of the window and beckoned for me to take a break for a bite to eat; she had prepared lunch for the long day ahead.
About the same time, a truck motored by, and as it cleared the front of the leased vehicle, a group of young white males on the back of the truck’s bed yelled out a warning that included the N-word. Next, my wife’s eyes and mine met and it became clear that we were in over our heads — and were not welcome.
Still, I did the macho thing and decided to stay put and look racism dead in the eye; I wouldn’t let bigotry rule the day. After all, we had given up the comforts of our former home and jobs to be closer to our families — and the beach, to a lesser degree.
I continued unloading the truck until it was empty. For the few days, my wife and I spent most of our waking hours participating in training sessions at our new jobs. Within days, the town was issued evacuation orders.
Like many other establishments, our employer decided to close ahead of the approaching Hurricane Katrina.
A day later, after the Hurricane reached Category 5 status, I gathered my family and fled north to Tennessee. The next day, it was clear that we made the proper decision to flee.
The images on CNN and other news outlets showed Hurricane Katrina’s wide swath of destruction from Louisiana to Mississippi — including the place we had just called home. Upon returning and surveying the damage — that resembled a war-torn area in the Middle East — it had become clear: we were effectively homeless.
I could only think about the faceless voices on the back of the truck that sounded like something out of the Friday the 13th movie – you know, the dire red flags to the all-too-inquisitive (and clueless) movie character we’ve all witnessed countless times before – warning me to “turn back now.”
The resilient spirit of common people expressing compassion to total strangers soon replaced our sense of hopelessness. I witnessed life as it should be: whites and blacks helping one another, strangers opening their doors to displaced townsfolk, and the spirit of community shining like a diamond.
In Katrina’s wake, it was like a temporary truce had been called between the left and right, the straight and gay, the black and white, the Christian and atheist, and the American citizen and immigrant. It’s that moment of Nirvana that leaves me unsurprised how people from all walks of life are helping Texans devastated by the wrath of Hurricane Harvey.
Unfortunately, this is not the picture we see on any average day in America, today. According to the daily news cycles, the “average people” who instinctively put their lives in jeopardy by wading into a toxic soup of floodwater to help a stranded stranger of a different race who lives in isolation from the taxpayer next door.
In calmer weather or in the absence of “hate crimes” or “acts of terrorism” — dark moments created by our predisposed ignorance across racial, gender, political, and gender lines — heterogeneous Americans tend to live in self-imposed isolation.
Yes, when the Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey of the world are not threatening landfall, neighbors put up metaphorical walls and are more in tune to “smart” handheld devices that are, arguably, leaving us — for the lack of a better phrase — less smart.
Because I’ve witnessed, firsthand, the true spirit of our inner woman and man, I’m reminded how senseless the recent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, were in the large scope of the human condition.
From the images I’ve seen taken from Hurricane Harvey destruction, I’m led to believe that not even a member of the KKK, who proclaims to be in “favor of a white man’s government in this country,” would think twice about accepting the hand of a black rescuer if death from drowning was the other option.
The logical part of me believes that when choppers hovered over flooded homes in Houston and Beaumont, the pilots didn’t ask if the stranded person on the rooftop was a Muslim, a Jew, a Democrat, a Republican — or if they slept next to a man or woman at night — before lowering them the basket.
The optimist in me believes that the mediators – horrific hurricanes, for clarity — that brought opposing groups together have left lessons behind. Perhaps, from the grave losses by Hurricanes Harvey, Hurricane Katrina, and other named storms, people will recall not only the loved ones and possessions they lost but also they will remember what they’ve acquired along the way: compassion, openness, and the perception of a colorless world.
Still, the pragmatic pessimist in me knows that the Nirvana we all hope for is a pipe dream, at best. I imagine how priceless life would be if we can all sing “Kumbaya” and lay down our arms.
As I ponder the dichotomies, I wonder if the voices in the back of the truck, days before Katrina rewrote history, were among those being rescued by a hand of a different shade. I also lament that Heather Heyer died, some 1,301.9 miles from Harvey’s wrath in Houston — and it wasn’t a hurricane’s doing.
[Featured Image by Joe Raedle/Staff/Getty Images]