Mississippi Meditation: A Poet Looks 'Beyond Katrina'

Natasha and Joe in front of Fort Massachussets, Ship Island, Mississippi, circa 1999 i i

hide captionNatasha Trethewey and her brother Joe stand in front of Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island, Miss., circa 1999.

Courtesy of the author
Natasha and Joe in front of Fort Massachussets, Ship Island, Mississippi, circa 1999

Natasha Trethewey and her brother Joe stand in front of Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island, Miss., circa 1999.

Courtesy of the author
Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast
By Natasha Trethewey
Hardcover, 144 pages
University of Georgia Press
List price: $22.95

Read An Excerpt

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey grew up in Gulfport, Miss., a coastal area that suffered some of the heaviest damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Though Trethewey no longer lives in Mississippi, much of her mother's extended family, including her younger brother, live along the Gulf Coast and have been struggling after the storm to recover what they lost.

Trethewey reflects on her own memories of the region and details her family's efforts to rebuild their lives in a new memoir, Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. She explains that both the identity and future of the Gulf region are directly linked to how the region's past is remembered.

In attempting to understand the devastation that affected both the region and her family, Trethewey tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that she continued to find comfort in her poems.

"I think poetry's always a kind of faith. It is the kind that I have," Trethewey says. "It is what can offer solace and meaning but also ... allows me to understand these events."

Trethewey holds the Phillis Wheatley Distinguished Chair in Poetry at Emory University. She received the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her collection Native Guard.


Natasha Trethewey i i

hide captionThe daughter of an African-American mother and a white father, Natasha Trethewey often explores in her poetry her experiences growing up biracial in Mississippi and Georgia.

Joel Benjamin
Natasha Trethewey

The daughter of an African-American mother and a white father, Natasha Trethewey often explores in her poetry her experiences growing up biracial in Mississippi and Georgia.

Joel Benjamin

Interview Highlights

On bringing her grandmother back to Mississippi to be buried several years after Hurricane Katrina in a church that was chaotic and in disrepair

"It made me feel like Katrina wasn't over. That for the people there — and the people connected to those people — it was still going on. That recovery was taking such a long time and there was something sort of sad and homely about having to have her final home-going service in that little room rather than in the beautiful sanctuary for which she had sewn the draperies of the baptismal font."

On finding out her brother had been arrested

"It happened in the spring of 2007, but he didn't tell me about it then. He didn't tell me about it because that was the moment when happy things were going on in my life and he didn't want to ruin that. ... He didn't tell me until a year later when he was about to go to trial, and his lawyer told him that if he didn't call me and ask me to come down there and to speak on his behalf, then he might be in jail a very long time. I didn't let him know that I was upset [but when] I flew back the next day, and my husband picked me up at the airport ... I just started sobbing. And I asked him how I was going to live if my heart was in prison."

Listen Now

Natasha Tretheway reads "Liturgy," one of the poems from her memoir, Beyond Katrina.

On winning the Pulitzer at the same time in her life that her brother was arrested on drug-related charges

"I think I do feel a good measure of guilt. I've carried with me a lot of survivor's guilt ... and with my brother, I definitely feel that. You can come from the same household and yet have such dramatically different lives. ... I feel guilty that I couldn't protect him from it. When [our mother] died, because I was 7 years older than him, my brother began to look to me as kind of a surrogate mother. I was the one that he clung to in that way. And yet, I couldn't mother him in the way I wish I could have. When he was in prison, I think that was really so difficult."

On communicating with her brother while he was in prison

"One of my failures during that time was the kind of responses that I gave to him. My brother was writing to me, he would call and I would never miss a phone call. I'd do everything I could do be there, if he needed anything, I'd send it. Along with his girlfriend, I worked tirelessly calling and e-mailing the commissioner of prisons in Mississippi to get my brother released, to have him moved to the facility we wanted him to be in so he could be closer to family — all of that kind of legwork, I was willing to do. But what I never once did was write him a letter. Once it hit me, it felt like the worst betrayal ever. One of the first things I did when he was out was sit him down and apologize for it. Not once when he was there did he ask me to, and I know how that probably hurt him deeply, and I don't know why it didn't occur to me. It didn't occur to me at all."

Excerpt: 'Beyond Katrina'

Beyond Katrina: Cover Detail
Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast
By Natasha Trethewey
Hardcover, 144 pages
University of Georgia Press
List price: $22.95

Somewhere in the post-Katrina damage and disarray of my grandmother's house is a photograph of Joe and me — our arms around each other's shoulders. We are at a long-gone nightclub in Gulfport, The Terrace Lounge, stand¬ing before the photographer's airbrushed scrim — a border of dice and playing cards around us. Just above our heads the words High Rollers, in cursive, embellished — if I am remembering this right— with tiny starbursts. It is 1992, the year the first casino arrived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and, with it, a new language meant to invoke images of high-stakes players in exclusive poker games, luxurious suites on the penthouse floor, valet parking and expensive cars lined up in a glorious display of excess. Scenes from a glamorous casino someplace like Monte Carlo or Las Vegas — nothing like the gravel parking lot outside the club, the empty lot beyond it, and the small, run-down houses on either side, each with a chained-up dog barking into the night.

Not far from the club, beyond the spot that held the old Gulfport City Limits sign, is the neighborhood my ancestors settled in when they arrived on the Gulf Coast. Roughly five miles from the beach and downtown, the place called North Gulfport was once the northernmost settlement beyond the city. Now, it occupies a middle ground in Gulfport, though — until just recently — the city of Gulfport's annexation of outlying districts had skipped the entire area to incorporate the white and affluent residential neighborhoods that had developed, due north, beyond it. One of two historically African American communities that sprang up along the Mississippi Gulf Coast after emancipation, North Gulfport has always been a place where residents have had fewer civic resources than those extended to other outlying communities. Isolated and unincorporated, North Gulfport lacked a basic infrastructure: flooding and contaminated drinking water were frequent problems. Although finally incorporated in 1994 — not long after the arrival of the first casino — many of North Gulfport's streets still lack curbs, sidewalks, and gutters. Before the arrival of the casinos brought tourists down Highway 49 toward the beach, there were few streetlights and North Gulfport was cast in darkness. In recent years, as developers have acquired land in the community for commercial purposes — as the city has redistricted homesteads as commercial rather than residential property — many elderly citizens have lost their homes. Higher property taxes have forced people out even as property values have declined. For Sale signs abound, and developers seeking to fill in the nearby wetlands continue to threaten the environmental safety of North Gulfport's residents. Highway 49, rerouted and expanded after World War II, long ago cut the community in half. According to an article published in the July/August 2005 issue of the National Housing Institute's Shelterforce magazine, in a state as poor as Mississippi, residents in North Gulfport face "even higher rates of poverty, land loss and housing abandonment than the state average."

When I was growing up there, North Gulfport was referred to as "Little Vietnam" because of the perception of crime and depravity within its borders — as if its denizens were simply a congregation of the downtrodden. Even now, it is a place that outsiders assume to be dangerous or insignificant — run-down and low income, a stark contrast to the glittering landscape of the post-Katrina beachfront with its bright lights and neon bouncing off the casinos onto the water. Were North Gulfport not along the main thoroughfare, making it necessary to drive through to get to the beach, it might be easily forgotten. Now, because the city is invested in improving that stretch of Highway 49, some residents face losing the right to make decisions about their own property. This problem is foremost in Cicero Tims's concerns about the post-Katrina political landscape.

Across Highway 49 from my grandmother's house and down the street from Tammy's, Mr. Tims still runs the business he started years ago — Tims's Snowballs — a little stand that serves as a gathering spot for a lot of people in the community. I haven't seen him in years, but when I stop in, he gives me a free snowball, and we stand in the shade of a big live oak, reminiscing. A longtime friend of my grandmother and my great-uncle, Son Dixon, Mr. Tims has seen a good deal of change around here — and a lot of his stories include my family. In between telling me about what's going on now, he interjects recollections of the past, revealing his thoughts on what he considers to be the two worst things to have happened to this place — one man-made, one natural:

"I've had to start over several times in my life when every¬thing I had was destroyed. This time, the city won't let me rebuild my business the way I want to. This old shack that my snowball stand is in — I can't even tear it down to build a new one. If I tear it down, the city takes the land. I'm only here now because of the grandfather clause. If your business was here before a certain date, you can keep your property. But if you tear it down to do something else, it's gone.

"I've been out here a long time. I remember when your uncle built his nightclub right over there. He was one of only three people out here who had a Cadillac. Owned the ball team too. A high roller — he bought Lizzie that pink Cadillac. I owned a motel back then, and all the colored acts had to stay in it. Son Dixon booked them at his club, and they stayed with me. I did a good business — until they desegregated the white hotels. Before Katrina, the worst thing that happened was desegregation. I lost all my business. Had to shut down the motel. You know where it was — back over there, off old Highway 49."

I'm stunned at first that he has fond memories of a segregated Gulfport, but then I realize that he's speaking figuratively, and I can see the comparison he's making. He's a man who is proud to have put all his children through college — at integrated institutions. Yet his nostalgia about the days of Jim Crow implies that the alternative hasn't always benefited poor and low-income people equally and that reforms that should help all members of a society still privilege some people over others. Rather than simplifying the idea that desegregation was immediately and equally good for everyone, he focuses on the nuances of what some people lost: how suddenly owners of white hotels were able to benefit from the revenues brought in by black consumers at the same time black business owners were losing those customers. Whatever economic base the community might have had because of local businesses began to evaporate when they could no longer afford to stay open. And without a good tax base, the community would receive fewer resources from the city. In his nostalgia for a past in which he had a viable business, he underscores the ongoing discrepancies that have plagued the rebuilding effort on the Gulf Coast.

Excerpted from Beyond Katrina by Natasha Trethewey. Copyright 2010 by Natasha Trethewey. Excerpted by permission of the University of Georgia Press.

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Beyond Katrina
Beyond Katrina

A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast

by Natasha Trethewey

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