The storm shall dash thy face, the murk of war and worse
than war shall cover thee all over …
—Walt Whitman, “Proud Music of the Storm”
We all watched it on TV—watched as the storm surge breached levees and leveled neighborhoods, watched as people waved bed sheets from their rooftops or pleaded for fresh water outside the Superdome, watched as our president and the director of FEMA yucked it up in front of the cameras, watched as the president’s mother (the former first lady) chuckled and mused that one of the worst natural disasters in our nation’s history was “working [out] very well” for those evacuated to Houston. We all watched it, but even now, I have a hard time believing it, a hard time accepting what it revealed. Namely, the United States remains a country divided by race. It may seem obvious to say so—but for those of us lucky enough, privileged enough, sheltered enough not to have to live that reality every day, it came as a shock to witness that divide so clearly, broadcast for all to see.
This issue took root in that shock. Last summer, I asked Natasha Trethewey, the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet and native of Gulfport, Mississippi, to write about the effects of Hurricane Katrina on her birthplace. She has produced, in response, a meditation of devastating beauty and insight. The essay is moving, but it also demands a harder look at the underlying issues—an examination of what we must remember in order to learn from history, what we must forget in order to move forward. So when I discovered that Gregory Orr would be traveling back to the place where he was kidnapped as a civil rights worker in the mid-sixties, I urged him to write about the experience—both from his teenage perspective of years ago and an adult’s perspective on returning. Again the results were remarkable; Orr writes with great directness but never resorts to simplifying or romanticizing the past. As these two essays came in, however, the noose incident in Jena, Louisiana, and the charging of the so-called Jena Six made national news, reminding us all that a noose—the materialized memory of lynchings and racial terror—is not merely an historical artifact but a powerful cultural symbol and an obstacle to our shared future. VQR regular J. Malcolm Garcia volunteered to travel to Jena once the media firestorm had died down and the town turned to the hard work of trying to reforge a community after such deep division. Would it even be possible and, if so, how? Part of the answer, Garcia found, was for the town to come together by banding against the intrusion of outsiders.
This nagged at me. Of course, it made sense that a small town would feel invaded and consumed by the glare of national media attention, but real solutions to our racial divisions don’t strike me as being so simple as circling the wagons. Besides, as Garcia points out, the problems of Jena, Louisiana, are really the problems of America, the problems of the wider world. And defining one’s community only in opposition to another has had catastrophic global consequences. So, in assembling this issue, I’ve chosen to examine not only the role of race in defining communities, but also ethnicity, nationality, and political philosophy, and to broaden the scope from the American South to include South Africa, India, the Balkans, and to focus particular attention on how such rifts have widened into deep chasms in the Middle East—Israel and Palestine, but also Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq.
Like the people displaced by Katrina, these groups resist the term “refugees.” They refuse any definition of their communities that includes transience as part of their permanent identity. They insist they are outcasts from their homelands, not outsiders. Yet we cannot afford to split the world this way. We all must recognize the urgency for us to find common ground, rather than a patchwork of homelands. The world is too small, too interconnected. And as our population continues to grow, available resources shrink—energy to power our industries, food to put on our tables, land to call our own. Scarcer resources can mean only two things: greater cooperation or greater conflict.
As we go to press, Burma lies in the ruins of a monsoon, China reels from a major earthquake, Ethiopia plummets into drought and famine. Like Hurricane Katrina, like the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 before it, these natural disasters will test the people of these lands, but they also will serve as a test for us. Have we, indeed, as we’re so fond of saying, “learned the lessons of Katrina”? Or do we still regard the world as a disjointed community? Read these essays, these stories, and Amro Naddy’s special portfolio of Israeli and Palestinian poetry, and I think you will conclude, as I have, that there can be no solution that does not include greater acceptance of people who don’t look like us, don’t think like us, don’t pray like us. Only then can we move toward saving ourselves and our common homeland—this tiny planet we inhabit and must learn to share.