The disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina has sent thousands of images around the world of poor and black people suffering in distress. The effects of mother nature we cannot control, but the efforts of bureaucracy and political gamesmanship, which harmed so many, is a story yet to be told. We have not heard the really deep and powerful stories from Jane and John Doe, at least not yet.
Afri-Ware owner Nzingha Nommo along with Chicago Reporter journalists wanted to know how journalists could do better in getting information out, so on Sept. 23, Afri-Ware hosted a town hall meeting with journalists, survivors and the community. Panelists included Alysia Tate, editor and publisher of The Chicago Reporter; Charles Willett Jr., circulation & marketing manager with The Chicago Reporter and this reporter from the Austin Weekly News.
Moderating the discussion, Alysia Tate got things started by posing questions such as: “What about the images of black people in general in the media? When are these images shown and what are these images of? How are the images depicted? How are these images perceived by the rest of the world? Are they confirming stereotypes, disproving stereotypes, or reinforcing notions people already have about black people? How are these images received, and I think that how they are received by us is very important.
“Unlike the Gonzales [family] who are here tonight, I don’t have family in New Orleans, I don’t have family in Mississippi. But I was so emotionally affected by everything that was happening, everything that I saw, it was really hard to do my job. We’re having that experience collectively across the country.”
Delores McCain: “The media finally found some guts to really tell the story”especially since Bush has been in office, when it appears information has been monitored very strictly. I think the news people being there watching this unfold, it affected them and in some cases I thought this might jeopardize their positions for telling the truth. As far as where we are now, things have started to wane because we have short attention spans, but the news of a new hurricane [Rita] has caught our attention. For some reason, the media now seems to be focused only on New Orleans. What about people in Mississippi, in Hattiesburg, and in Alabama? I know a family from New Orleans who are living here on the West Side (Mrs. Berrie) who talked about some type of explosion with the levees. So I’m happy the Gonzaleses are here tonight to lend an insight. The news media touched on it, but it appears to have gone away. Lastly, I’m interested in seeing what will happen with those people who have property, and that it isn’t taken from them. I notice people were being moved to places like Utah and Montana, not exactly locations where we see black people. I would also like to see more black reporters telling this story.”
Alysia Tate: “Charles, let’s hear your take on how the entertainment world responded. Kanye West was probably the most high profile example. How was that played out in the media?”
Charles Willet Jr.: “I saw the movie Hotel Rwanda, and changing from the news and watching it was almost no difference. It looked almost the same. Part of what broke that story was a journalist who went against his bosses’ wishes. In a way, this is what our media did. They went out into the area of the cities and were filming and reporting when the government wasn’t even there to help people. That was very interesting to me. You had journalists, you had entertainers who seemed like they were doing something before the people who we trust with our well-being were able to do something. Even before the first efforts were put together by Bush Sr. and Clinton, you had entertainers formulizing telethons, concerts and things of that nature. It just seems as if the response was coming at such a grassroots level. Things were said that weren’t very popular with some people, like what Kanye West said. At that point, I’m sure he was very frustrated. When you’re seeing your people suffer, when you see anybody suffering, and you feel like your government really isn’t doing anything, you may lash out. Even Bush’s mother’s comment that some of the people are better off now than they were before”this has brought so many different attitudes about race, about economics, about how people lived [to the forefront]. The other thing I marvel at is: I said, ‘Where are all the white people?’ Information about a child living on one of the highways taking care of other children, and he was six years old”how does this happen in the richest country in the world? This is going to impact us for a very long time.”
New Orleans survivors Curtis and Theresa Gonzales fled the area, leaving their property and belongings behind. The Gonzaleses are currently living with a granddaughter in the area. Mr. Gonzales talked about his experiences growing up in New Orleans, and like many other cities, New Orleans, he states, has its good areas and bad areas. As political leaders, Curtis stated, “Mayor Nagin, I know him personally. He was being advised as to what should be. He didn’t really know exactly what to do”being a political person, he was trying to appease whites and the blacks and the city as a whole. But his speeches didn’t come across to some blacks and didn’t come across to some whites. But I think he did the best he could.”