A Song of Sorrow -- and Endurance

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, October 2, 2005

One thing that poor whites and blacks shared in the segregated South of my childhood was a talent for romanticizing misery in music and in word. Maybe we got good at it because we had so many chances to practice.

Back then, even the expressions of that common gift were delineated by race: Whites used country music to elevate cheatin' hearts and dead-end jobs to epic status on their records and radio stations. Blacks sang gospel and blues to make mythic the sorrows and injustices they would eventually overcome.

The outward styles merged as the South changed and as the vast misery gap between the region and the rest of the nation nar-

rowed. But the underlying talent for romanticizing hardship -- for coupling the inevitability of hard times with the determination to see them through -- should now become part of the Gulf Coast's reconstruction.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita should give rise to the kind of great music and art that is frequently born in disaster's wake. And don't be surprised if the folks who were actually shoved around by these destructive storms are quicker than outsiders to put the damage into perspective and replace anger with hope.

Life in these dire circumstances is the flip side of the old joke about kicking people when they are down: When else can you kick them? When else do humans get to show their best qualities except when they are faced with the worst that life has to offer?

Look, the poor people of Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas already know how part of the story ends, even as Congress starts it by appropriating tens of billions of reconstruction dollars they will never see. Fast-talking city slickers of all races and the politically adept of all persuasions will find ways to corral those dollars and leave the poor once again with the crumbs. Why would this be different from everything they have known before?

Even a medium-good band such as Sawyer Brown can rhapsodize about the South as a land of "burnin' bridges on a rocky road," a land where people reassure themselves by "trying to build a fire in the rain." The imagery of struggling on was expressed long before Katrina and Rita visited and Brownie did a great job. I can't wait to hear the song about Brownie and the Great Flood.

I don't mean to suggest that whites and blacks have shared the region's misery equally. One of the major points about segregation was to make sure that whites knew there were people in deeper misery than they were so they would feel better about their lot. Those people were most often blacks, of course.

But it worked the other way, too. In South Carolina, when I was growing up, the state consistently ranked one rung from the bottom in per capita income, life expectancy, education and almost every other civic measurement. "Thank God for Mississippi" was therefore a popular saying.

That changed as states such as South Carolina adjusted -- if still far from perfectly -- to integration and then to the economic forces of what we now call globalization. After all, these states were used to attracting factory owners fleeing Massachusetts or New York unions. They simply adapted their tactics to attract those fleeing German or French unions, and they gave blacks a shot at suddenly abundant jobs.

Katrina drew a bead right on the region's deepest remaining economic backwaters -- which, President Bush noted, have "roots in generations of segregation and discrimination that closed many doors of opportunity" -- and forced the nation to look at, and deal with in some fashion, the appalling results of mixing the costliest natural disaster in the nation's history with that past.

Fixing blame, scavenging for sweetheart contracts or partisan political advantage, pretending there are silver bullets that can prevent the next disaster -- these are all fevered Washington activities of the moment. Meanwhile, at Ground Zero South, somebody is dreaming of a song that will be sung 100 years from now.

Through the work of such an artist, we will be reminded that not even the force of a killer hurricane is greater than the force of the human soul. Nor is it more enduring than the passion to live and to interpret. It is still the writer's duty, as one scribe said on a cold winter night in Stockholm in 1950, "to help man endure by lifting his heart . . . to help him endure and prevail." The speaker, accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature, was William Faulkner, of Oxford, Miss.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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