In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina ravaged the lives of southerners, beating down their homes and their livelihoods with the ruthless force of the sea. While it changed their lives permanently and significantly, southerners—including my grandmother—never allowed it to alter their intransigent convictions or stubborn solidarity.
The barriers of southern life, manifested in natural disasters like Katrina, force southerners to adopt the callousness and perseverance that translate to every aspect of their lives and transcend generations.
During my childhood, Granny lived in a raised pink cottage one block off the beach in Waveland, Mississippi. Before Hurricane Katrina dragged it to sea, Waveland was half an hour or so from New Orleans, where Granny Betty took me to my first Mardi Gras when I was only months old, and to every Mardi Gras after that until I was yanked out of the Deep South and moved to North Carolina. Southern memories, like the lingering devastation in the wake of Katrina, reflect larger ideals tied to southern thought. These ideals give outsiders reason to separate themselves from the South, while allowing southerners themselves to connect with this place and space in both sincere and symbolic ways. The barriers of southern life, manifested in natural disasters like Katrina, force southerners to adopt the callousness and perseverance that translate to every aspect of their lives and transcend generations.
Nothing has ever slowed Granny Betty down. Her devotion to each of her lifelong commitments is sacred. Granny has always had three dogs; if one died, she had another within the week, without exception. She has attended the same clapboard Methodist church in Bay St. Louis for years—after Katrina, the signboard on its front lawn read, “After All Is Said and Done, It’s Best to Leave It That Way”—and this religious devotion has unchained her from the narrow-mindedness that shackles many friends her age. Granny’s spirituality includes a glass of white wine to end each day, a nearly religious support of Mississippi State football, and a sacred attempt to laissez les bon temps rouler (let the good times roll) through every single Mardi Gras, even at age 80. Granny Betty loved and still loves the Mississippi Gulf Coast more than anything else. But, even love seems like an inadequate way to explain her connection to the place she calls home. She not only loves it, she lives for it; by way of her refusal to move away from her volatile home, she would die for it.
When we thought it was safe to go back to the coast, we found bits of her little pink cottage strewn with every other house across the sandy flatland like decks of old cards.
When Hurricane Katrina hit, she brought her dogs and a few cherished photographs to our house in Jackson and took shelter there. We waited out the storm for days, listening to any reports we could find about what was going on near her home. When we thought it was safe to go back to the coast, we found bits of her little pink cottage strewn with every other house across the sandy flatland like decks of old cards. We recognized Granny’s debris because it was littered with miniature elephants—her Republican homage—and the scattered remnants of light pink wood that once supported her beloved home. Most of what was left of her house was half a mile from its still-intact foundation. Among these remnants we discovered a staircase landing littered with debris, including a single page torn from a homemade remembrance of Hurricane Camille, which had been the Mississippi Gulf Coast’s hurricane gold standard prior to Katrina, and which ravaged the home in which my father grew up forty-five years ago. When we returned to the barren foundation, nothing remained but Granny’s undisturbed claw-foot bathtub. We found it inside the rim of cold, concrete cinder blocks surrounded by threateningly desolate pine trees sticking out of the ground in every direction like toothpicks.
The claw-foot bathtub within Granny’s gritty, cinder-block foundation represents everything that makes the South both beautiful and terrible. To the extent that it was possible to resist change, the claw-foot bathtub did, and the small changes made to its surface by the storm were not visible to those who did not know it by heart. Katrina, far and away the most catastrophic and costly natural disaster in United States history, could not dislodge that dogged bathtub even after her cottage collapsed under twenty-eight feet of the muddy Mississippi Sound. Hour after hour the tidal surge rose, the breakers pounded, the debris swirled in the maelstrom, and the claw-foot bathtub never budged. Not an inch. It represents the backbone of absurdly stubborn outlooks that Granny and all true southerners have—resilient, defiant, idiotic, and inevitable. Life is this way not because we have chosen it, but because it is. You fight back against natural disasters because you are in control of how you live, and the combined forces of wind, water, and earth pale in comparison to the force of human conviction. You have three dogs, you drink white wine, you never miss church or Mardi Gras or Mississippi State football; even heartless natural cataclysms as predictable as your way of life cannot drag you away.
Change can happen and change is happening.
As beautiful as that commitment seems, southerners have also used the crutch of tradition to resist positive change. As they often forget, this resistance is neither innocent nor victimless. Even as the rest of the world changes and begs the South to follow suit, it continues to wallow in the cluttered debris of the past. Publicized southern imagery portrays the South’s ignorant commitment to uniformity as a detriment. Southerners have spent years defending themselves to the rest of the world for practices that have not always been right or even humane. But southerners are instilled with a unique sense of perseverance, and the publicized negatives are drowned out by so much that is good. Without condoning in the slightest the blatant and rampant inequality that still exists in the South, or inferring, in any way, that the South (or the United States in general for that matter) is anywhere close to being finished with the changes it must make, it is important to understand that change is happening, whether it can be easily seen or not. Granny Betty decided at age 75 to start questioning the ways that she understood the world politically, socially, and religiously; to become more accepting, to protect the environment, to use her Christianity to promote peace, joy, and acceptance. It should serve as a beacon to prove that the South can change knowing that a woman who spent 75 years committed to threadbare ideals dramatically decided to alter her worldview. Change can happen and change is happening.
After Hurricane Katrina, Granny reluctantly moved to Maryland to stay with my aunt’s family, waiting for the perceived luxury of a FEMA trailer back home. We encouraged her to move elsewhere; she adamantly refused. Granny lived in her cramped, gaseous trailer, less than five minutes from the ruins of her raised pink cottage until she could buy the house in which she now lives with three aging dogs, and where she will continue to live until the day she dies. Her commitment to the South, even through all of its faults, reflects not only fierce intransigence, but also an ability to love without attention to faults, focusing on everything good about the people and places she loves.
Change in the South occurs at a glacial pace. There is no hurry to alter things that work in the eyes of the people for whom they work. So to the rest of the world, it appears that nothing has changed, just as we assumed that the claw-foot bathtub had not moved at all from its fixed position when we saw it standing alone amongst the rubble. Because change is inevitable, it certainly must have been altered in some way; there is no way it could have survived the beating it did without some transformation. But to us, the bathtub never moved, and to the world, the South never moves. Understanding this about themselves, southerners view their own resilience as a strength, while outsiders see the same resilience as stubbornness and consequent weakness. In this pattern, over centuries of southern history, southerners begin to view change as destructive, so the only thing they can ever do is rebuild the old rather than focus on the new. Southerners cling to their three dogs, white wine, and Mardi Gras just like that claw-foot bathtub clung to Granny’s plot of Earth because the sense of community that comes with consistency is comforting, and the idea of having to let that go, when the only change they know is disaster, is terrifying.