Relief in Black and White 

Responding to a crisis that disproportionately affects the poor and black, Nashville learns on the fly

On Monday morning, a line of cars snaked through the parking lot behind the local Red Cross headquarters and up 22nd Avenue North beside it.
On Monday morning, a line of cars snaked through the parking lot behind the local Red Cross headquarters and up 22nd Avenue North beside it. Two men in orange vests directed vehicles to the appropriate location depending on each driver’s stated need. In the breezeway beneath the building, a few hundred people sat or milled about—white, black, skinny, fat, police, children, volunteers, elderly Gulf Coasters and a man in green camouflage fatigues who looked a little like Tim Conway. Outside a pair of glass doors that guarded relief stations within, a white-haired man wearing a nametag that said “Larry” held a bullhorn in his lap. Occasionally, he would call out a number—“sixty-four!”—and someone looking a little weary would go inside to begin the process of receiving disaster relief. The scene was as cheery and calm as could be expected under the circumstances. The lunch menu: pulled pork, white beans, corn cakes and baked apples. On Monday morning, a line of cars snaked through the parking lot behind the local Red Cross headquarters and up 22nd Avenue North beside it. Two men in orange vests directed vehicles to the appropriate location depending on each driver’s stated need. In the breezeway beneath the building, a few hundred people sat or milled about—white, black, skinny, fat, police, children, volunteers, elderly Gulf Coasters and a man in green camouflage fatigues who looked a little like Tim Conway. Outside a pair of glass doors that guarded relief stations within, a white-haired man wearing a nametag that said “Larry” held a bullhorn in his lap. Occasionally, he would call out a number—“sixty-four!”—and someone looking a little weary would go inside to begin the process of receiving disaster relief. The scene was as cheery and calm as could be expected under the circumstances. The lunch menu: pulled pork, white beans, corn cakes and baked apples. One mile away, on Jefferson Street, Yvonda Harris and her family were loading shoes, luggage, baby clothes and a car seat into the back of a car parked outside the Essence Day Spa. They’ve been on a long, complicated journey from New Orleans by way of other cities, eventually arriving in Nashville. The group of six spent a few nights in a Louisiana hotel without electricity at a cost of $80 per night. They’ve taken planes, trains and automobiles to wind up here, where they stay in the spare house of a family friend. And now they spend days looking for jobs, medical care and permanent housing. “This has been a lot more help than the Red Cross has,” says Nikki Wright, one of Harris’ young adult children, of the sizeable relief operation that sprung up last week in one of Nashville’s oldest black neighborhoods. She describes federal relief efforts thusly: Wal-Mart vouchers that don’t cover specific needs of the family, a gas voucher back in Louisiana only good at one station and Red Cross directions to aid websites when you don’t have a computer to log onto. “The people that are supposed to be helping us, they’re not,” she says. It is, to be certain, an overstatement. As of Monday, the Nashville Area Red Cross had seen over 6,500 people in need of disaster aid and housed 100 who needed it at a Crieve Hall Baptist Church. Another shelter in the affluent town of Franklin, to the south, held over 100 evacuees with room for 500 total. Vouchers and food and medical care are being distributed as part of a massive and unprecedented undertaking, and it’s going pretty well, or at least passably. The people who are supposed to be helping—the Red Cross, government at all levels, individuals, businesses, churches and civic groups—are trying their best. But Nikki Wright has a point: displaced victims of the poor planning for Hurricane Katrina could use a little humanity after their heartrending ordeal with bureaucratic ineptitude. They could use a familiar face, a hug, a sympathetic ear, a favorite hymn tune and, just maybe, some hair relaxer. This is the kind of disaster relief that elderly white ladies in Red Cross smocks, however well-intentioned, will probably never be able to provide for the largely African American, largely low-to-mid-income New Orleans population in diaspora: the black community’s relief for the black community. And that’s part of what’s going on over at the Essence Day Spa, says Connie Denell, one of a trio of African American women who, with wide community support, have organized a large material relief effort in the Jefferson Street neighborhood. “We were trying to bring something into this community where people look like the victims,” says Denell, a gospel radio DJ and 92Q employee who has used the station’s airwaves to drum up disaster aid in the black community. “That lotion over there,” she says, gesturing indiscriminately toward hypothetical lotion for evacuees, “that ain’t gonna work. That little bitty comb, that ain’t gonna go through black folks’ hair; it’s gonna break!” Such little things make all the difference to disaster survivors in search of familiarity and a sense of control over even the smallest parts of their lives. Local black barbers and hairstylists donated their time last week to give free washes and hairdos to Katrina survivors; one woman, Denell reports, had lost everyone, but said the simple gesture of a hair wash meant so much to her. Lotions and tonics and creams and combs can provide a measure of normality amid chaos. Colleen Zakrewsky hasn’t been in charge of the Nashville Area Red Cross for long, but even before Katrina struck the Gulf she could tell that the local agency’s cherished volunteer corps was too white and too retired. Disaster response should strive to resemble the people it’s helping. “There are some basic needs you have to address in a cultural context,” says the white CEO, six months pregnant and undergoing a trying introduction to her new city. Zakrewsky, who’s done time in major metros like Philadelphia, New York and Atlanta, may be ruffling some feathers by insisting on more diversity at her organization; it is overdue, she says, and unfortunate that it must happen as the agency tries to deal, in real time, with disaster. “To roll out a new initiative under fire is hard, but it’s something you need to do,” she says. “It’s something you need to do.” Zakrewsky repeats the phrase, mantra-like, both seemingly for its persuasive effect and out of sheer human exhaustion. “We’re doing the best we can,” she adds. In the past week, that’s meant the agency is reaching out to local black leaders at the Urban League, the NAACP, the Interdenominational Ministers’ Fellowship and other nonprofits. The Red Cross is asking black churches and civic groups to assemble teams of 50 people who can work shifts at a local shelter for a week at a time. It is, everyone involved says, a long-term effort to provide shelter for people as they try to get back on their feet. But it’s also a recognition that black refugees will need inroads into the local black community for their integration into Tennessee to succeed. No offense, they say, but Franklin’s not known for its African American population—despite the generous, open-armed welcome by Mayor Tom Miller. At the same time, efforts like that of the Essence Day Spa are viewed as broader political statements within the local black community. Sharon Hurt, executive director of the Jefferson Street United Merchants Partnership (JUMP), says it’s a chance to show that their neighborhood can be a place of hope and healing—not just a blighted black street for white folks to avoid. Yolanda, a volunteer at Essence who snuck into the Red Cross shelter to “love on” some people, was originally turned away because the Red Cross was overwhelmed with volunteers. She has since been called back because the agency knows it needs helping hands that look like hers—and she says this is an opportunity to correct a recently reinforced stereotype of blacks as thugs, looters and rapists. “The world needs to see that we are not all shooting and killing each other,” she says, standing outside the day spa’s adjoining banquet room full of relief supplies. “We love each other. The evidence of it is in that room right there.” And so it is. But must the response to an American tragedy come in shades of black and white? Enoch Fuzz, the African American pastor of Corinthian Missionary Baptist Church and president of the Interdenominational Ministers’ Fellowship, says no. A progressive believer in the colorblind dream of Martin Luther King Jr., Fuzz says disaster relief can be a cross-cultural learning experience for the blacks and whites who find themselves hurt and then helping each other, regardless of race. “As people get to know one another and spend time around each other, they’ll find out that they’re 99 percent just alike,” he says. Of course, Fuzz is right. But the 1 percent difference is manifested daily in issues of class, color and culture. “Of course it shouldn’t be about race, but it’s always going to be about race in this country,” says one of the Jefferson Street volunteers. “I mean, where are you going to go that it’s not about race?” If survivors of the disaster need transportation and the tools to build a life, they need smaller, personal touches too. “People have lost everything, which also means they don’t have their community of response,” says Joyce Searcy, director of the nonprofit Bethlehem Centers of Nashville. “It’s good to be able to offer them something familiar.” Over at the Red Cross, Zakrewsky is taking that lesson to heart. “We’ve learned a lot in a week.”

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Recent Comments

Sign Up! For the Scene's email newsletters





* required

All contents © 1995-2014 City Press LLC, 210 12th Ave. S., Ste. 100, Nashville, TN 37203. (615) 244-7989.
All rights reserved. No part of this service may be reproduced in any form without the express written permission of City Press LLC,
except that an individual may download and/or forward articles via email to a reasonable number of recipients for personal, non-commercial purposes.
Powered by Foundation