As oil surges violently into the fragile Gulf ecosystem, the people of the Gulf Coast are yet again left wondering what they are to do. The gulf holds bountiful resources, resources that managed and utilized responsively provide economic development, tourism, and enjoyment for millions every year. This is the gulf that we love, about which we care deeply. These are the people, the shrimpers, anglers, roughnecks, and rogues that work hard day in and day out to make the Gulf a vibrant, exciting community. This is why we must think critically about the Gulf Coast and about the history of the region.
We now stand at a crossroads, do we continue to allow the exploitation of our resources by parties either unable or unwilling to commit to address their mistakes. Or, do we commit to undoing a history replete with wrong, not simply changing our present, but by contextualizing our present in our unfortunate past. Exploitation is nothing new in the Southern United States however. A genealogical inquiry into the history of the region writ large produces a dastardly history of outright violence, contempt, and at the least disregard. This is the history of slavery, sharecropping, indentured servitude, low wages, no benefits, and the power of a few. The modern incarnation of this violence, exhibited by British Petroleum, is historically rooted. We ignore this context at our own peril.
The oil spill currently wreaking havoc on the Gulf is nothing new, although it may be the latest in a series of misguided ventures and disregard. Floods, hurricanes, fires, death, and lynchings are realities, many not of the distant past. Many thought that economic development in the form of large corporate presences could and would change life in the Gulf. Perhaps it would produce jobs, create wealth, and create opportunity. Well it did that, it certainly changed the landscape. But, are these changes, these developments, beneficial to the many or the illicit cadre of the few? It was not quite clear who wanted this change or what the motivations for change were, unfortunately. The British Petroleum oils spill is a tragedy, painted across the marsh backdrop of poverty and neglect.
We should, rightly be harkened back to a tragedy over eighty years ago that was subsequently memorialized by Randy Newman in his classic "Louisiana 1927." In the first verse of that classic song, Newman sings:
What has happened down here is the wind have changed
Clouds roll in from the north and it started to rain
Rained real hard and rained for a real long time
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline
This song foreshadows or, perhaps more appropriately, presents an allegory for the current crisis. The changed winds signify an assault upon the community, a new force that represents a bad omen. The threat is real and the signs are visible. Newman's northern clouds sound much like the imposing presence of Northern corporations seeking cheap land, a docile people, and limitless wealth. This story, while not unique to the Gulf Coast, has particular resonance in Southern history. Newman's hard and long rain remind us that struggle is inevitable, if not appropriate given the pervasiveness of injustice--the threat to traditional values and mores. Thinking critically about history, can help us cope with the critical state of our present.
He concludes with an impassioned plea to the indifference of then President Calvin Coolidge, reflecting on this stark governmental indifference. History has repeated itself. As if Hurricane Katrina were not enough of an indication that the government was ill-prepared and unwilling to address events of such magnitude, we are now presented with a similar performance. If BP cannot act decisively and if the federal government also fails, then who are the people of the Gulf Coast to trust? How are we to respond and how are we to guard against future injustices?
Lastly, Newman uses the epithet "crackers" to describe the people of the region. What a powerful way to end a song riddled with disgust, with the hopelessness, helplessness, and lovelessness of a maligned people. Race aside and that has surely an area explored by countless authors, journalists, and commentators; the inability of anyone to address the oil spill in an effective manner seems all too convenient. It is a denial of a people's subjective worth--a rejection of a community, of an environment, and of an ethic of care that we ought to expect in the world.
If we contextualize the oil spill as part of a larger history of tragedy, we may begin to plan and think critically about the decisions we make and how we can prevent the injustices of the past. The present is a product of our past. But, if we do not contextualize today's events, we will remain victims to the present.