While most people remember 2005 as the year of Hurricane Katrina, there was another violent storm that ravaged parts of Louisiana and nearby states: Hurricane Rita.
Rita was probably one of the few life-changing moments I’ve had. So many personal things were going on during this time, and many of those things (and others) came to head and exploded once Rita struck. Below is an essay I wrote not too long after returning home from Rita. I still remember that day, those days vividly, almost like I can reach out and touch everything about them. Some I wished I didn’t remember, but other stuff… it helped me grow, and for that I’m thankful.
I wrote this piece because of all the turbulent feelings and experiences I went through during Rita. It was always meant for me, but I was honored when my university used “Being Band Girl” as part of Our Hurricane Kaleidoscope, a live theatre documentary production that ran September 29 – October 3, 2010.
Being Band Girl
I have always been the poster child for diversity and multiculturalism. I grew up in a small township of Baltimore in which my high school graduating class was 264; 18 were black, yet no one seemed to mind. We interracially dated. We smoked our first cigarettes together and patted each other’s backs when we thought we were going to die from choking. I received my bachelor’s degree from an all women’s Catholic college; blacks were the minority, yet I never felt that way. We went to Mass together. We studied for the LSATs together. We braided each other’s hair, and like my white friends, my braids always unraveled because my hair was fine and thin. I graduated from a grad school that had only me and one other black person in the program, yet I always felt a part of the group. We discussed literature. We commiserated over coffee…and other libations. We raced to each other’s apartments in the middle of the night to provide comfort during thesis crunch time. I am, in fact, a living, breathing Benetton ad.
I’ve never really looked at color as something to argue over or think about. We all were people, and if you were good and kind, then you were okay in my book. My thoughts of “united colors” separated like oil and water when Hurricane Rita hit and I, along with family and friends, were forced to flee our homes in Lake Charles, Louisiana. We drove, half a day, to Shreveport and stayed over two weeks at the fairgrounds. There, we were immediately tagged with numbered, purple-white wristbands, and this simple action, an elderly white Red Cross volunteer snapping a band on my wrist while not once looking at me, evaporated my identity and left me, and I’m sure others, trapped within the band.
The stiff plastic around my wrist made me feel different, separate from the ones who were there to help me. I had become victim, and all others had become savior. Many victims at the shelter were black, and many saviors were white, and as if that separation was not enough, blacks were categorized by their towns and their actions. As a Lake Charles resident, I was either lucky because Lake Charles didn’t get hit like New Orleans did, or I was devastated because people “heard” Lake Charles was practically wiped out. New Orleans people, so the rumor went, were angry, volatile, and lazy. Orange residents, someone told me one night, thought they were “all that” and had nothing better to do than to try to look good for other hurricane victims. Several helpers deemed my family and me “classy” and “well-mannered” because we read books and discussed literature, and stayed to ourselves. According to them, we were not like some of the other “ghetto” blacks who worried about fashion and FEMA checks. In our small town of Shelterland, rules of separation were clearly being established, and the rules did nothing but continue my separation from my self.
These rules kept all of us from having names. The wristband was the physical representation of the rules, of that separation. We walked into places on the fairground, flashed a wristband to a National Guardsman, and were allowed entrance. A wristband equaled breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It equaled receiving toiletries, socks, underwear. It equaled being able to go to our cots and go to bed. What did we need names for?
During the first week, I nearly stopped talking. There were no words to describe the fear I had of losing everything back home. To me, there was no need to cry, to vent because after the tears dried and the voice went hoarse, I was still here, at the coliseum, looking at the sea of people in their cots or air mattresses. Instead of talking, I devoted myself to writing, to trying to put onto paper or my laptop what I was too emotional to say aloud. Typically, I could be found in the coliseum with my headphones on and my fingers flying across the keys of my laptop as I grappled with the notion of being “the other”—I was black. I was a different “kind” of black as delegated by others. I was a victim. Through words, I tried desperately to understand my connection with my “saviors”, with my fellow black people, with my self, but as days crept by and no clear news on Lake Charles was told to us, I wondered how long I would even care about trying to connect with anything.
I began to believe that it didn’t matter to anyone who I really was. I was just a head to count at lunch. A backpack to rummage through at the door to make sure there were no weapons or contraband. A wrist to throw up at the Guardsmen every time we re-entered the fairgrounds to ensure them we were honest-to-God ‘cane victims. Every day there, I found my bubbly voice dissipating into a whisper, usually a nod. I didn’t smile. I kept my head bowed. My shoulders stayed slumped. Sometimes, I sat so still in my stadium seat at the coliseum that I could feel the blood crawling through my veins as if it was as tired as I was. I was losing myself, and in less than a week, I feared I was changed for good.
A week into shelter life, I was paid from my teaching position, and I decided to make Christmas for my family and friends. My best friend, Tonya and I made our first trip off the compound; our mission was to find a Wal-Mart. It was a special occasion, so I put on my best dirty clothes, considering many of my clothes were wet and mildewed from the storm, and until now, we had no money to buy anything. I combed my hair back into a bun and sprayed myself with perfume. On the outside, I looked presentable; on the inside, I felt liberated. I would be able to interact with the world again. For a week I had spent upwards of 16 hours a day, sitting in the coliseum, watching shelter life, talking to no one, and feeling numb. Instead of being an integral part of the world, I thought I was something under a microscope to be examined on the evening news, to be talked about because to the outside world, I was just a statistic of a person that didn’t seem willing to get up, get her life together, and get out of the shelter situation. For me, being outside of Shelterland would be one step back into civilization, into interacting with people about the most generic things like the weather or the time. Wal-Mart would be our door back into the real world, and I was ready to jump through that door without knocking.
My body tingled as I stepped into Wal-Mart and the cool air wafted over my slightly sticky skin. I walked in and gripped the handle of the first cart that caught my eye. Tonya told me to calm down, but I just laughed and told her “Don’t get between a girl and her Wal-Mart.”
I pushed the cart past the jewelry; shiny baubles were the last things on my mind. Right then I needed to feel clean and normal, not pretty. Tonya asked if she could get some new shoes, and I told her to “Go for it.” As she walked away, I turned up an aisle, headed toward t-shirts and shorts. I noticed a cart parked to the right of me, and I looked up.
A thin white woman stood behind the cart, her eyes glued to my purple-white wristband and then briefly to my eyes. Before I could even say hello, something I do to everyone who makes eye contact with me, the woman said, “Ooh” and sprinted away. She finally stopped several aisles down from me near someone I could only guess was a friend. She said a few words then the pair turned toward me. I stood there, emotionally stripped bare as she and her friend stared at me for a second and then turned to talk to one another.
Immediately, my ulcer began to churn in my belly. I gritted my teeth so hard that a headache began to form at my temples before it directed the pain right behind my left eye. I was back in the real world, not Shelterland, the country for which I wore my passport upon my wrist. Yet with one look at my wristband, this woman instantly made me “other.” It was the first time in my life where I knew that something beyond the ugliness of racism could strip you clean of your identity. At Shelterland, it was easy to become blind to being the other. Your life was regimented. Breakfast, 6:30 to 8:00 a.m. Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Dinner, 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. Lights out at 10 p.m. This group of victims waited for FEMA checks. That group went out looking for jobs. Those group members sought apartments, believing they would eventually have to restart their lives. After a full day at Shelterland, you knew which groups of “other” you belonged to, and you knew your schedule; your goal was simply to not lose your mind as you lived your scheduled new life. I thought that getting outside of the confines of Shelterland would allow me the opportunity to be normal again, but with one look from the woman, her purse-lipped “Ooh,” and her hasty retreat, I felt my shoulders curl forward and my head grow heavy.
Tonya returned as I struggled to pull my wristband off. The plastic scraped my hand, leaving ashy streaks on my brown skin. She dropped shoes into the cart and sensing my mood change, asked if I were okay. I nodded. Words could not escape my mouth, but they jumbled themselves inside my head. They wanted to form themselves into sentences that would make the fleeing woman understand who I was, that would help me to remember who I was outside of the plastic circle I held in my hand.
We finished shopping though I spent most of my time trying to catch a glimpse of the woman, to snatch bits of the conversation she was having with her friend. Eventually, Tonya and I left Wal-Mart with a full cart of necessities and goodies, but I was empty and sad. By the time we reached the compound with our booty and KFC, I was angry. I told Tonya what happened and by speaking it aloud, each word became ammunition for me. It became a way for me to get out the pain and anger I felt inside for something I had no control over. Even though I didn’t say anything to the woman at the time, I could use my words to get my feelings out, to illustrate that I was a person. And I did.
That night, while everyone was either in the coliseum or outside walking around in the dark heat, I sat on my cot, my laptop humming against my thighs, and wrote:
Dear woman who sprinted from me in Wal-Mart when you saw my purple-white wristband,
I know you have no idea who I am and you might just crumple up this letter, but I wanted the chance to tell you about me—beyond the wristband you saw today.
I am a Rita survivor, and I am in your town because I cannot be home now. These are things I cannot change, and I apologize that you fear me and the two-cent piece of plastic strapped to my wrist. I really am a good person who has more going for me than just my unfortunate current situation.
For instance, I don’t go by the 318752 that’s on the wristband that frightened you. I’m Shonell though my friends and family, which you are neither, call me Shōn or Nelly. I am a very educated young lady, and I hold many degrees from good universities and colleges. As an English instructor, I teach freshman composition to over a hundred students a year. My students learn how to write using good grammar and several rhetorical modes. Many would say that I am an overly kind teacher, and I would agree, but I would add that I am not a pushover. To me, my students are my kids. I love them when they need to be pushed and need to be shown their intelligence, and I break out the educational “belt” when they need to be reminded who the boss in the classroom is. My goal is always to give my students 200% and to teach them to think and to see all facets of the world around them. Obviously, you didn’t have a teacher to help you with the blindness that prevented you from looking beyond the colors of my wristband.
I love to explore all the facets of the world through my writing; you see, I’m a novelist, and because I can’t stop thinking about the world and people, the lives we live and the ways we live them, I have to write my thoughts out into stories. By exploring what concerns me, what I don’t understand, and what I hope to understand in fiction, I think it helps me to better understand the world of which I live, a world that counts me as a person and not some black girl/nobody/evacuee/victim/refugee/intrusion on your normal existence.
Being a lover of education and writing, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I teach fiction writing through my school’s Leisure Learning program. I teach people of all ages and races on the beauty of storytelling (and boy, do I have some stories to tell about you and others like you). My students (even the older, more mature white men and women—who could so easily be you) love me. They love my passion, my intelligence, my thirst for literature, and my drive to help others excel at writing their own fiction. When I talk, they are quiet. They listen with pens hovering over paper, hoping that I will offer some advice on how to get their work into print. Though I am younger than they are, though I am still learning myself, they respect my experience. But you wouldn’t stop long enough to hear my story, or my hello; no, not you, the woman who flipped her starched blond hair and steered away from me as I eyed you while walking through the plus-size section.
The stiff bangs that hung over your so dim, yet bright blue eyes disallowed you from seeing that my story is much more complex than numbers on a plastic band could ever tell. I do important things. I am important things. I’m a daughter of a woman who fled from abuse and a powerless marriage to better herself and ended up having to attempt to run from Mother Nature’s wrath. I am the daughter of a woman who did not run. She stood fast as the storm approached and came out of it alive. Maybe thirty years of marriage—half of that a damn natural disaster itself—was enough to run from. But why am I telling you this? You, certainly you, in your khaki Capris, crisp pink-white, pinstriped top and Birkenstocks wouldn’t dare sully yourself in the predicaments of wives like my mother; you wouldn’t even sully yourself around someone like me who just wanted to buy something clean to wear so that she could feel comfortable in Shelterland.
You saw a hurricane victim pushing a cart in your local Wal-Mart. You did not see the strong black woman, the sistah that I am. You did not learn that I am a sister to two brothers and a sister. I am part of a family that has persevered and stayed connected despite the hard times. So often we (and by “we” I mean people though the way you whispered to your friend as you looked at me suggests you might not place me in the same category as you; thank God) hear about the deterioration of the black family, but no one ever talks about the family that stays together, that tries to find new ways to reconnect in the face of adversity. We are that family, and as a sister and a sistah, I contribute greatly by offering my love and assistance to both siblings and the strong, black woman I look so much like: my mother.
Your lips turned downward and your pace quickened when I turned down the perfume aisle you were going into. I wanted to walk up to you, grab your arm, and spin you around. I wanted to look into your eyes, into your face and tell you about all that I am. I wanted to yell that I won’t hurt you, that I’m a good person, a friend to many even. Friendship is not a word I use lightly, and although you circled me at Wal-Mart as if a force field kept you from approaching me and from getting to know me on a real level, my friends love to be around me. They love to talk to me and to ask my advice. They say I’m soft to lie on when they need to rest their head or have my arms wrap them into hugs. They believe me when I tell them that everything will be all right. In a way, I’ve become a mother to them because I chastise when they do wrong, I congratulate when they do well, and I shut up and listen when they need an ear to hear their pain, but because you judged me before you heard all the evidence, I’m guilty of being the wristband girl, and you’re guilty of not getting to know someone like me.
Most importantly and what you failed to see when you saw the purple-white wristband, an indication that I was not an “us” but a “them” is I am a human being. I bleed blood. I cry tears. I pray to God. I love my fellow man. I have the same senses as you. Before Rita, I probably was the darker version of you. I got up every morning for work. I had lunch and coffee with friends. I made dinner. I helped to take care of my family. I lived. And I loved, and I never worried about having to flee from my home.
You saw my “identity” band and assumed that I was contagious, that I was a nothing, that I was just one of those stereotypical poor, black people who had to flee to a shelter because there was no other place to go. You, and others like you watch too much damn TV and get caught up in the hype of tele-truth and not truth with a capital T. The tele-truth is that I am a statistic. I could be one of those blacks that are always thrown up on the TV, the one that looks unkempt, that looks like he or she doesn’t have a lot of sense or intelligence, that others shake their heads at because they are embarrassed for that person. It’s media. It’s hype. It’s not reality. It’s not the real truth.
The truth, no the capital T-TRUTH is I am a good person, a respected person, a PERSON. The even bigger capital T-TRUTH is I am not alone. There are business owners wearing purple-white bands. There are teachers, pastry bakers, full-time mothers, social workers, nurses. Mother Nature did not discriminate when she plowed into Lake Charles, or Beaumont, or Holly Beach, or New Orleans, or the gulf coast of Mississippi. Geography is the only thing to separate me being in your town, picking up toiletries from your Wal-Mart, and you driving to my K-Mart to buy some clothing because everything you took with you got wet and mildewed.
At some point, I will be able to go home and clean the mildew out of my home and the frustration and pain out of myself. You, on the other hand, will never be able to clean the misconceptions, admonitions, and colored views from your mind or your heart, no matter how much hot water and cleaner you use.
It would be appropriate for me to say that I’m grateful I never got to know you, but that’s not how I want to end this letter. The truth is you lost out when you snatched your gaze from me. You missed out on my award-winning smile and cheerful hi. But beyond what I’m grateful for or what you missed out on, I do want to thank you. I know you’re stunned. So am I, but you did something big for me. You snapped me out of my pain. My anger at you was a culmination of seven days’ worth of frustration and aggravation, of feeling worthless. Though I am grateful for my realization, I hope that in the future, you think about what might be going on inside of others before you run off, leaving someone feeling lower than the bubble gum wrapper that was stuck on the bottom of your Birkenstock.
Shōn, the band girl
I saved the letter and closed my laptop lid. I knew I would never send the letter to the unknown woman, and that was okay. For almost an hour, I lay on my cot with the blanket over my head as I cried seven days’ worth of tears. I was congested with the situation I was placed in, with Shelterland, with “woest me.” I had refused to recognize what had happened and what was going on in my life, but I knew that if I had to stay one more day at the shelter, I would have to deal with the Hurricane, with Shelterland, and my connections with the other “citizens,” saviors of our temporary country, and with myself.
Wal-Mart lady’s brief supporting role in my life story allowed me to reach a turning point with a major sub plot: Hurricane Rita. I as character had remembered that I was somebody and that I could view the wristband as more than just a marking of Shelterland citizenship. It was proof that I made it out of Lake Charles in one piece. It was proof that I was okay right then and that whatever happened back home, I could probably make it through that, too.
During our last week and a half at the shelter, our identities changed. Our faded purple-white wristbands were traded in for unified red bands, and eventually, everyone carried around picture IDs with his or her name. Though I know this was done to better manage us and to keep count of who was still in Shelterland, the part of me that was lost and hoped to be found, the part that promoted “united colors,” believed that the change of our Shelterland identification was a signal that we were all healing and accepting each other. It was one of the defining moments of my stay on the compound. We all laughed and joked with the guardsmen and the volunteers. We all smiled for our pictures, and we all had a new swing in our walk as if someone acknowledged that we were more than just victims; we had faces and names. And once someone was given a name, a face, an identity, it was only a matter of time before he or she began to connect with others by name and not by type or color. And I sat and waited, anxious to get back to the me I was before the storm, the me that just wanted to be more than just the band girl.