Saturday, September 17, 2005


We should write for the blog rather than paste newspaper articles in the blog, but I couldn't help sharing this compelling quote. See Jonathan Alter's editorial on Katrina in September l8 issue of Newsweek. This is my last paste, I promise. gwGayles

"I hope we realize that the people of New Orleans weren't just abandoned during the hurricane," Sen. Barack Obama said last week on the floor of the Senate. "They were abandoned long ago—to murder and mayhem in the streets, to substandard schools, to dilapidated housing, to inadequate health care, to a pervasive sense of hopelessness."

Friday, September 16, 2005

Older Woman Jailed for "Looting": Shared by Alicia Smash (SIS)

This came to me in an email from Alicia Smash. I thought I would share it with you at the risk of encouraging you to paste into the blog rather than write for the blog. Alicia did not ask me to share, but. . . .


Merlene Maten's bail was set at $50,000 and she spent over two weeks jailed over a sausage.Talk About It: Post Thoughts

KENNER, Louisiana (Sept. 16) - Merlene Maten undoubtedly stood out in the prison where she has been held since Hurricane Katrina. The 73-year-old church deaconess, never before in trouble with the law, spent two weeks among hardened criminals. Her bail was a stiff $50,000.
Her offense? Police say the grandmother from New Orleans took $63.50 in goods from a looted deli the day after Katrina struck. Family and eyewitnesses insisted Maten was an innocent woman who had gone to her car to get some sausage to eat only to be mistakenly arrested by tired, frustrated white officers who couldn't catch younger looters at a nearby store.
Despite intervention from the nation's largest senior lobby, volunteer lawyers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and even a private attorney, the family fought a futile battle for 16 days to get her freed.

Maten's diabetes, her age, not even her lifelong record of community service could get the system moving. Even the store owner didn't want her charged. "She has slipped through the cracks and the wheels of justice have stopped turning," her attorney Daniel Beckett Becnel III said, frustrated. Then, hours after her plight was featured in an Associated Press story, a local judge on Thursday ordered Maten freed on her own recognizance, setting up a sweet reunion with her daughter, grandchildren and 80-year-old husband. It was unclear whether she would be released Thursday evening or Friday.

"There were people looting, but she wasn't one of them." -Elois Short

"I'm just gonna hug her and say 'Mom, I'm so sorry this had to happen."' Maten's tearful daughter, Elois Short, told AP shortly after getting the news.

Maten must still face the looting charge at a court hearing in October. But the family, armed with several witnesses, intends to prove she was wrongly arrested outside the hotel in this New Orleans suburb where she had fled Katrina's floodwaters. "There were people looting, but she wasn't one of them. Instead of chasing after people who were running, they (police) grabbed the old lady who was walking," said Short, who works in traffic enforcement for neighboring New Orleans police. The path to freedom was complicated amidst the chaos of Katrina.

Maten has been moved from a parish jail to a state prison an hour away. Her daughter had evacuated to Texas. And the original judge who set $50,000 bail by phone - 100 times the maximum $500 fine under state law for minor thefts - hadn't returned a week's worth of calls.
Becnel, family members and witnesses said police snared Maten in the parking lot of a hotel where she had fled the floodwaters that swamped her New Orleans home. She had paid for her room with a credit card and dutifully followed authorities' instructions to pack extra food, they said. She was retrieving a piece of sausage from the cooler in her car and planned to grill it so she and her frail 80-year-old husband, Alfred, could eat, according to her defenders. The parking lot was almost a block from the looted store, they said.

"That woman was never, never in that store," said Naisha Williams, 23, a New Orleans bank security guard who said she witnessed the episode and is distantly related to Maten. "If they want to take it to court, I'm willing to get on the stand and tell them the police is wrong. She is totally innocent."

Thursday, September 15, 2005

CHARGED TO ACTION: from Bernice Appiah Pinkrah (SIS)


After reading your blog I cannot help but be a little depressed myself. I have really come to a point where I feel helpless but as you have written, "To know mandates action." Everyone has so much to say about what we are not doing, about who has not done what, and what really went wrong. Traveling the world, you were able to see what is really happening. I have had the opportunity to see these things but like many of the people of this world I have chosen not to look. I am charged to action by your words and I will no longer wait for someone to tell me how I can be of service. Thank you, Dr.Floyd.

With Love,


NO REVERENCE FOR ELDERS: from C.Y. Brown of Memphis

Dear Young Scholars:

This commentary arrived as an email to me ten minutes ago. It is the first we have received that responds to the tragic deaths of elders in nursing homes. The writer's sentiments resonate with the focus of our work in SIS: celebration of elders. Like other commentaries, this one is a powerful must-read.

Each of us viewed the devastation of hurricane Katrina with "Oh, my God" eyes as we considered our own peculiar circumstances. I was no different as I looked at the nursing homes.
I then considered our national anthem, "America, America, God grant His grace on thee..." Perhaps we received His grace because we once remembered His commandments to "Honor thy father and thy mother that their days may be long upon the earth."As the only child, I am the primary caretaker for my 84 year old mother who now must alternate between a walker and wheelchair for mobility. I am the secondary caretaker for my father, a stroke victim who is unable to walk or speak intelligibly and who resides in a nursing home located only about five minutes from our home.My mother and I cared for our husband/father for several years until my mother's condition worsened and I suffered a heart attack.

We visited several nursing homes before selecting one, not only because of its proximity to our home but predominantly because it is the cleanest in the city and it's on one floor. I can recall my thoughts: in the event of a fire or terrorist attact, my father can easily be evacuated.While looking at the Katrina tragedy, I realized that if in New Orleans, my dad would have no higher floor to seek refuge. The waters would flood the entire building in no time at all. The five minutes' travel time would have seemed like an eternity. I would have to assist my mother to the car with her walker and wheelchair and drive frantically to save my father.How would I be able to get him into the car without help? Where would I put an extra wheelchair? How would I be able to get his medications for the stroke, diabetes, hypertension, depression, et al from an overwrought nursing staff?How could I ignore the clamoring nursing home residents who would be pulling on my arm, leg and clothing for help? How could I deafen my ears to their pleas, close my eyes to their tears and fears? How many could I pack into my mid-sized car? And what about their medications during a time of pandemonium? What if their families are on the way to rescue them as I have done for my own--how much valuable time would they waste in search for their loved one? Where would we then go? If options are limited and I returned to our one story home, how could I get them into the attic? I couldn't--where to go? Who can help?

The fear of torrential waters is not ours, for we live in Memphis, TN, a city atop a bluff. Our greatest and most impending threat is an earthquake because we are located near the New Madrid fault. It is hard to estimate which catastrophe would be greatest. Our streets would be impassable, fires would break out everywhere as gas pipes explode and power lines meet them as they fall into the abyss. What would I do if I am unable to reach my father at all because of the cracked earth? As it turns out, the greatest benefit of the nursing home we selected: it is located next door to a fire station. But what about all of the other nursing homes which are not so situated?Katrina has been a wake-up call for us all. All cities have begun reinforcing their emergency plans of action in the event of a natural disaster. No longer can we be content to keep our heads in the sand, ostrich-like. Americans must now demand that critically necessary dollars remain within our borders; that money needed for the recovery from natural disasters takes precedence over money spent/allocated for "threats". We must again recall our anthem and " our good with BROTHERHOOD from sea to shining sea."

from C. Y. Brown

TO KNOW: from Ginger Floyd (Prometra USA)

Young Scholars:

I opened my email to these powerful and haunting words written by Dr. Ginger Floyd. She will share at the LEADS-SIS symposium next week. I have known of her commitment to action for years, but not until now her connection to New Orleans. This is a must-read.



My father was born in New Orleans. The house in which he was born and spent his childhood years still stands. Now probably water logged if not completely destroyed. And I sadly realize that I do not have a picture of this structure. I came to Spelman because of my father. I became a physician because of my father. I travel the world because of my father (a wanderlust that we both share). I am truly my father’s child. Lord, am I depressed! Katrina was another disaster that came on the heels on what seems like “too many burdens to bear”. We are still burying 7,000 persons a day (yes, every day) who die from AIDS in Africa. The hallowed out eyes and iron deficient red hair of starving children still actively haunt me from Niger, Ethiopia and Darfur. And surely, we haven’t forgotten the tsumani (wasn’t I just in Indonesia celebrating cremation ceremonies with Bali healers)? And it seems that is was just yesterday morning in my New York office that I watched the plane strike the Twin Towers on television and looked out the window to see the smoke and ash that filled the air. But, depression (the situational type) is both real and normal. I sat addicted to news reports for days, wallowing in this feeling of hopelessness and despair. I am a “live long and prosper” Star Trek fan. Although I love Spock (have you ever read Leonard Nimoy’s love poetry?), I resonate with the character who is the ship’s counselor – the empathy. Although, in comparison to her, I fall significantly short. She is able to feel the other person’s pain, absorb it and make it better. I am able to feel the pain (lord, how it hurts), but feel pretty helpless in relieving the pain. And it seems like today there is so much pain throughout the world. I am also a decisive person (another trait from my dad). My decision was to address this depression by doing something. I love the saying, “don’t be part of the problem, be part of the solution”. So we (my office) decide to do something – to volunteer at a shelter which provides services to the victims of the Katrina hurricane. After the first day of assisting in the medical clinic, why did I come home at the end of the day very tired and somehow more depressed? We, no doubt, provided needed and wanted services to men, women and children whose lives had been completely upturned, disrupted and forever changed by this natural disaster. We in our very small way gave our gift of service. What is the common denominator? What calls to our inner self that somehow eats away, constantly, at the very fiber of our humanity? Can we do everything that needs to be done? Can we make a difference that truly counts? Is our little gift significant enough? I often wish that I could close my mind to these situations. That I could move on with my world, as if they were not a part of it. I sometime wish I did not truly understand the basis and real impact of AIDS, the global strategy to continue an underclass, the facts of gender inequality, the whys of wars and the seeds of racism. To know is the source of this discontent.. To know mandates action. To know mandates dialogue. To know mandates service. To know. To know. To know. ginger --

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

FORGET THE NAME: from Alessandra Carter (SIS)

Young Scholars, I am posting this for Alessandra. We will work on our blog in seminar tomorrow.

Dr. Gayles, I tried to post my "blog, but was couldn't. Here is the comment I wanted to post."

"Now you know Katrina is black.Got to be, with a name like that!" (She laughs) I heard a student say that just a few days after the storm. I'm thinking, "There are thousands of people trapped in a sewage-infested city and all you can do is make fun of the name!" I felt like yelling at her, screaming really, and then dragging her to the t.v. and making her look at the faces of the people who were suffering, dying or already dead in what's left of The Big Easy . Where was her empathy, her anger, her frustration? Didn't she feel at all saddened by the catastrophe?

I researched the etymology of Katrina. Don't see anything about black people... Katrina Variant short form of //Katherine '); //]]> Katherine (Greek) "pure." Apparently Katrina means pure. It is purely coincidence that this catasrophe has a "black name." It is out of pure ignorance that someone would make a comment like that during such a critical time. It is purely disgraceful to watch the constant fudge-ups committed by our federal government. It is purlely embarrassing to watch how poorly someone who could easily be our brother, sister mother or father be treated by our government. The storm was purely a natural dissaster. Let's refocus our energy and clean this mess up. Forget the name!


Young Scholars,

I copied this from Jana's email to me. I will get all of you into the blog tomorrow at the beginning of seminar.

I agree with you whole-heartedly, especially when feeling guilty with the priviledge that we surely take for granted, like a place to stay and the pairs of shoes in our closets. The sad thing is, is that our generation doesn't know. Like you said, we're taught not to serve, and better yet, we're not taught our history. If it wasn't for ADW, I would have still be dellusional to what's taking place. I appreciate you for sharing your thoughts, and I pray that, as a people, we're learning from this experience. If we can't get the message now, what else must happen to make us open our eyes... *hug* Stay strong!


A Mighty Levee of Compassion

WATCHING FROM AFAR from Taronda Spencer

It is quite a strange sensation to watch the linchpitch of your past disappear under a torrent of water. Where did it go?


The Mighty Levee of Compassion has been a lifeline to me. Each day I rush to the Blog hoping to hear and feel the passionate words of your students and friends, Dr. Gayles. I pray that those whose hearts are busting at the seems will not remain silent. We all have so much to say yet our own thoughts and feelings about the horrific hurricane are frightening. But write we must.

If you are new to blogging, don't let this new technology keep you from sharing your thoughts. Dr. Gayles won't edit what you have to say, or condemn you for agreeing or disagreeing with her -- I learned that years ago as her student/mentee. Her love for us is far deeper than any grammatical mistake; but our silence will torment her (okay, that's a little strong, but you know what I mean).

Troubles commenting or making a post?
If you are having trouble logging in or navigating the blog, please e-mail Dr. Gayles and indicate the exact steps you took so that we can walk you through the process. If you have received an invitation to join the blog, you can only use the link included in the invitation once. If "Mr. Blogger" won't let you in or says "Invitation failed," please let Dr. Gayles know so she can send you another invitation.

If you have a blogger account and are a "team member," you can create your own posts or you can comment on an already existing post.

Until tomorrow,


FAST FORWARD: from Gloria Wade Gayles

Dear Young Scholars:

When I sat down to write something for A Mighty Levee of Compassion, I really didn't know what I would write. Actually, I wanted YOU to write, so much do I want you to claim your space as critical thinkers and as effective writers. Having begun teaching long before any of you were born, I know that the pen dances well with passion, and I have heard and seen your passion about the tragedy in New Orleans. So, I wanted you to write and write and write and write out your feelings and your analyses.

But when the blog space remained empty, Angela Wood, Web content manager at Spelman, told me that I should write something to which you would respond. And that is how I came to write about my guilt. I had no intentions of writing such a lengthy response, but I was not in control. That is what you learn when you write in the first-person. I simply could not stay the memories of my joyous years in New Orleans, a beautiful and historic and historical city where I met the most generous and genuine people I had ever known! I love the city because I love the people. That they have suffered so, to borrow from Alice Walker, "stops the blood."

We have located Jean Taiwo, affectionately called Mama Jean. She is in Atlanta and will probably share her experiences at the symposium we are sponsoring next week. You will find her fascinating! I tell myself that Miss Doris and her family are safe, Zena and India are safe, Miss Corrine is safe, all of the friends whom I have not heard from/about are safe. I believe that Carol is safe because she moved from Gentilly a year before I returned to Spelman. She moved to the West Bank, which was not hard hit. In fact, I think people are returning to communities in that area.

But my pain and guilt deepens when I see flashed on television the number of children who are without kin. "Missing children," they are called. The number is staggering. The tragedy in New Orleans is a twenty-first century "unspeakable horror," Toni Morrison's words for slavery. I cannot imagine not knowing where my son and my daughter are. I cannot imagine giving birth one week and losing my newborn the next week. I cannot imagine not being able to call my sister Faye or visit her or at least know where she is, that she is alive, that she is okay. I cannot imagine having to comfort my son because he cannot find his wife or my daughter because she cannot find her husband. I cannot imagine not being able to break bread with my many cousins, my many friends. I cannot imagine awaking, as my friend Dorothy told me last week, "with two pairs of pants and two shirts to my name." I cannot imagine my uncle, who is wheelchair bound because of a stroke, and my aunt, who has challenges from being a caretaker for eleven years, being lifted from a roof top to a hovering helicopter. I cannot imagine the horror of drowning. I cannot imagine the horror of drowning.

That the people have not become insane, that they have not organized vigilante groups to take down the powers that be, that they say "thank you" on CNN, that they sing songs and dance their praise in makeshift churches--surely this is a testimony to their resilience and their humanity.

All of what we are seeing and they are suffering is a rewind. When do we fast forward to a different reality? Perhaps we need to pause in order to think in order to fast forward.


Monday, September 12, 2005


I am guilty of doing what I have preached against all my years in college teaching: I fall asleep with the television screen flickering in the darkness of my room. More than once I have awakened in the middle of the morning to the sounds of a helicopter flying over my head. I have become addicted to CNN, so much do I want to know how the people are doing. Are they being rescued? Are they finding their children? Are families being reunited? Is this tragedy really happening?

Last night, the made-pretty anchor with skin that has no pores announced the station’s achievement with a smile: “And you will see it only on CNN.” She was referring to the daring rescue of mother and child that would be aired in the next hour. Of course I was angry that media marketing was alive and well in coverage of the tragedy, but an hour later I was sitting in front of the television, waiting to be transported by CNN cameras to the tragedy in New Orleans. I cannot sleep. Indeed, I dare not sleep for fear new waters will rush in again and the sky will fall again.

I have become a tangled mess of emotions: joy when someone is lifted from a rooftop; anger when Larry King introduces Dr. Phil as the expert who will explain why the people did not leave; rage when I see the water’s fury and our government’s neglect; and fear, always fear, because I am there with the people. I stand on top of a roof waving a garment or holding a sign that reads, “Help us.” I watch my children, one by one, rise in the air to a hovering helicopter, my prayer the force that keeps the rope from breaking. I shake my fist at uniformed men who do not understand there is no refuge in the refuge we have been given. I sit motionless in a wheelchair, my face a stare of vacancy or knowing silence.

I cannot separate myself from the people whose images are visual sound bites on America’s mass media not only because most of them are African American, but also because they wear the faces of people who framed my life happy for three years. You see, Memphis is the city of my biological birth, but New Orleans is the city of my spiritual rebirth. And when I say New Orleans, I do not mean Bourbon Street or Canal Street. Rather, I mean the black community that tourists, regardless of race, rarely see or want to see or even know exists.

I went to New Orleans in l998 to accept an offer from Dillard University that is every college professor’s dream: to hold an endowed chair. The offer was surely a gift from my guardian angels because, at the time, I needed healing and a new compass for my life. The waters of New Orleans gave me both, especially the waters of Lake Pontchartrain. This magnificent Lake that drinks from the Gulf of Mexico was fifteen minutes by car from my university apartment. I would go there frequently with student papers to grade, a book to read, and my writer’s journal to fill with images and metaphors.

But it was not in the waters of the Lake that I was baptized and healed. Rather, it was in the river of human kindness that flows in the Black community, deepest in the working class Black community. The generosity, optimism, gayety, sharing, laughter, and hard work of the people captured me in all the gathering places--at the Lake, at Winn-Dixie, at Mardi Gras parades, at the Zulu Ball in the Superdome, at Walmart in the East, at the drugstore in Gentilly, and in the spacious green that belonged to faculty and workers in the University complex. There we would gather just to gather as a community across lines of class and age. With the exception of late night parties, children always gathered with us. Always!

Zora Neale Hurston’s words, “I love myself,” come to mind when I think about the people I met and with whom I lived and danced in New Orleans. They love themselves, and they love others. They love their culture—their food, their music, their dance, their way of speaking. They love their trees and their waters. They love the beauty of their natural world. Even in the night dance of Louisiana termites around a New Orleans light post they find beauty. They love children and women and men and neighbors and elders! They love hard work. They love life.

At the neighborhood relief center, I move in and out of areas while evacuees stand on concrete in long lines, often in the sun, waiting for forms to be filled and handouts to be given, never knowing whether or not a volunteer will speak with impatience or disregard. I am uncomfortable with my freedom and with my privilege.

At the Red Cross Headquarters, I invade the very privacy of their lives as I read forms they completed with the assistance of a caseworker who does not know how people in New Orleans define family. I call the activation center; I read the information; I record confirmation numbers for credit cards evacuees will receive, the amount of which is so small, so very small for family. I imagine the pain they must have felt putting their entire lives on one sheet of paper with small lines and signing it, actually signing it, to verify, “This is truth.” I feel unclean about my participation in a system that hurts people even as it helps them.

I have ownership in the tragedy of New Orleans. To be sure, I did not summon Katrina from the Gulf and, unlike the federal government, I could not have responded in ways that would have saved lives. I have no buses or planes or helicopters--no power. And yet, there is no denying that my silence on the tragedy of poverty in this nation contributed to the day-to-day conditions that made masses of Black people in New Orleans victims of the worst natural disaster in the nation’s history.

All of us have ownership in this tragedy: rap artists, preachers, politicians, magazine publishers, athletes, celebrities, corporate executives, leaders in all fields, college students, and college professors. We have ownership because we have not screamed about the abuse, neglect and oppression of the working class poor in our communities. We have not screamed and we have not organized to effect change.

As a college professor, I feel compelled to confess my guilt to you, my students, who are also my teachers. I feel compelled to speak the truth about academia in our nation: it is a conservative institution. It programs us against thinking about, acting on behalf of, and connecting in any way to and with the poor. It teaches success, skipping over social action, but stopping for a fleeting second to talk up the significance of service. It programs us to run from poor people (with lightning speed if the people are Black) as surely as the waters rushed into the lives of the poor in New Orleans. That the working class poor in New Orleans are now scattered all across the nation without the comfort of kin, the foundation of their identity as a people, makes guilty players of us all.

I want to tell you again and again that I have ownership in the tragedy of New Orleans because I have been silent on what Eleanor Holmes Norton, in the l970’s, called the “cruelest fate of all.” I make this confession to you hoping that it will motivate you to think again about the paths you will travel after you turn your tassel and take your place in the world as leaders. You really can make a difference in the lives of people with whom you might not live, but to whom you are connected by virtue of your humanity and to whom you are indebted by virtue of your privilege. I am resolved to do what I can to make a difference because, you see, my young scholars, if this confession does not bring about a change in the way I think and act and live and on whose behalf I struggle, then it has not been good for my soul.

I write for friends in New Orleans whom I have not located, but who I am sure made it out of the city. To think otherwise would send me into a paroxysm of grief and deeper guilt. I write especially for Miss Doris and her family of three children; for Miss Corinne and her two daughters and their children; for Zena Ezeb and her daughter India; for Donna, her husband and their three young sons; and for my friend Carol, who gave me annual gifts of Zulu coconuts and Mardi Gras beads and daily gifts of loving kindness.