VIEWPOINT: Mississippians tire of invisibility
By Stan Tiner McClatchy Newspapers BILOXI, Miss. -- When the White House recently announced the president would be visiting New Orleans and the "hurricane damaged" areas of the Gulf Coast in mid-October, in accordance with a campaign pledge, our ...
By Stan Tiner
BILOXI, Miss. -- When the White House recently announced the president would be visiting New Orleans and the "hurricane damaged" areas of the Gulf Coast in mid-October, in accordance with a campaign pledge, our immediate thought was we better get ready.
But since the initial notice was lacking additional facts, the Biloxi (Miss.) Sun Herald asked the White House press office directly - will he be coming to South Mississippi? The response was brief: "The president will be going to New Orleans."
The president's decision, or that of his advisers and inner circle, to visit the one place and not the other, underscores the persisting observation that South Mississippi has faded into obscurity, and that the consequence of four years of the Katrina narrative development is invisibility, even to the president of the United States.
Invisibility means that literally an object cannot be seen, but it can also mean that because of perception or philosophical blindness, or lack of knowledge, a person or group, or a place such as Mississippi may be invisible.
Ralph Ellison's powerful novel, "Invisible Man," is about an unnamed black who believes himself to be socially invisible. He tries over the course of the book to understand his place in American society. He is an unperson, and he is invisible because he is seen in the stereotypes that society has placed on his existence, and through the prism of those views he becomes invisible.
Aimee Berger and Kate Cochran addressed some of the reasons for our invisibility in a 2007 College English Association Forum exploring news coverage of Hurricane Katrina and how it had affected New Orleans as well as the Mississippi Coast.
Berger and Cochran frame their analysis of the coverage involving the two places by saying "Primary among the ... Katrina narrative is the dialectic of invisibility and visibility, which displaced and erased Mississippi while rendering New Orleans hypervisible.
They go on to say that as the cameras almost instantly shifted from here to there, the story portrayed New Orleans as "a most un-American city" chiefly populated by drug dealers, criminals and people who refused to leave.
The omission of coverage here, they say, was related to our "unique place in the national imagination," a collective memory that focuses largely on poverty, high illiteracy rates, and "general social backwardness." To many Americans the name "Mississippi" still evokes the past "and the murders of Medgar Evers, Emmett Till and Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner." The violent eruptions surrounding the admission of James Meredith to Ole Miss is also cited in the 2007 Forum article.
The lack of coverage about the Coast in Katrina's aftermath was related to the "nation's reluctance to identify with Mississippi," the authors conclude. Whether for those reasons or others, "media coverage reveled in images and tales from New Orleans, (and) the Mississippi Gulf Coast was all but forgotten, rendered invisible by the media's rhetorical operations."
Is there a political dimension embedded in this? Of course. Various commentators on the post-Katrina story have pointed to the ties that Republicans Gov. Haley Barbour and Sens. Thad Cochran and Trent Lott had with the administration then in power and suggest favoritism in the allocation of funding for recovery in Mississippi when compared to Louisiana.
The contentious post-storm squabble between Mayor Ray Nagin and Gov. Kathleen Blanco, both Democrats, presented one image in Louisiana, while Barbour articulated quite a different rhetorical message, and from the beginning presented a calm and competent figure that represented almost perfectly the preferred self-image of Mississippians.
Some have also concluded that a measure of that rhetoric was pointed across the state border when he said things like "our people weren't looking for someone to blame; they weren't whining, complaining. Our people are not into victimhood."
Berger and Cochran regard this, and comments of other leaders in Mississippi as an attempt on the part of the state "to construct a new space in the social imaginary. Instead of representing America's shameful qualities like racism and ignorance. Mississippi's public face is hopeful, gracious, grateful, humble, and its public voice bespeaks that all-American can-do attitude."
This is quite true and there has mostly been a unified voice from the state throughout the post-Katrina period. The most notable off-message voice involves the disbursement of Katrina funds, especially those to be spent in behalf of housing for the poorest in the state. Advocates for those groups would likely assert they are the invisible among the invisible.
In the years since Katrina it is ever more obvious that Mississippi is being erased from the collective consciousness of many Americans as a place that suffered significantly from the storm. I will restate for any who might have forgotten: taken alone, without any damage having occurred in Louisiana or elsewhere, Katrina's toll on the Mississippi Coast would constitute the greatest natural disaster in American history.
Berger and Cochran concur with our sense of neglect, saying "one fact remains consistently clear: 'no one wants to talk about Mississippi.'"
We are left to wonder if President Obama's failure to acknowledge us with a visit to our Katrina zone is one consequence of our invisibility, resulting from the failure of the national media to tell our story.
If that is the case, then my previous concern that history books won't contain the accurate story of Katrina has come true in only four years.
Tiner is vice president and executive editor of the Sun Herald.