- By Kymberly S. Newberry
I was seated at my computer, trying to convince myself that watching one of my favorite YouTuber’s “Top Ten Nude Lipsticks” videos was germane to my dissertation research (it was not), when the short audio tone from my “digital assistant” Alexa—yes, I caved and along with 100 million other folks am now dependent on my electronic “customizable living experience” (insert eye roll)—alerted me of a notification. Alexa, like Cassandra, the mythological Greek figure who was given the gift of prophecy, foreseeing calamities, but who was condemned to be ignored, warned me of a severe wind advisory for the next day.
I am a drum major for line-drying. Whether on broiling summer days, when all of my clothes have practically dried by the time I hang the last towel, or on frigid winter days, when frostbite threatens my fingers and I wince as I pinch the wooden pins from my clothes, frozen in shapes like paper doll cutouts, I hang my laundry outside to dry by the grace of the sun. At night, I set out toward my dreams, drawing long breaths of the sweet perfume my sheets have been blessed with by the tenderhearted wind. These are the nights when I dream of my mother.
I remember running between the sheets as she hung them on the line; it’s a rite of passage, you know—no doll or dollhouse, puzzle, or puppy can rival the promises made to a child’s imagination by sheets billowing higher and higher and higher with every gust of wind. Nowadays, there’s a comforting sadness when I hang my clothes on the line, though heartbroken, I know I will find my mother there, standing next to me.
I’ve grown content with simply being quiet while I hang my clothes, especially on gusty days, for that’s when I hear my mother’s voice, in the wind, quieting my fears, reminding me of my faith and my strength and assuring me that she is still here.
Whereas windy days are perfect for flying kites, the dulcet rustling of leaves and wind chimes, or a flag waving—a reminder of your father’s service to this country—for many the wind is a titanically powerful instrument of fear, a harbinger of coming tornados or hurricanes. In the Bible, Jonah 1:4 teaches, “Then the Lord hurled a violent wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose on the sea that the ship threatened to break apart.”
In 1946, Ann Petry published The Street, a lurid tale soddened with sex, struggle, and sorrow that became the first novel by an African American woman to sell more than a million copies. Lutie Johnson, her soul set on the American dream, is Petry’s protagonist, and the uncouth wind acts as her unyielding antagonist, thuggishly beating pedestrians, blowing the cruelty of the world in their faces.
In The Street, the wind represents hardship, the harshness of living in the city, and the ever-present dangers of urban life. With its human-like qualities of disrespect and brutality, the wind at times makes even breathing difficult:
It did everything it could to discourage the people walking along the street. It found all the dirt and dust and grime on the pavement and lifted it up so that the dirt got into their noses, making it difficult to breathe.
According to legend, in Southampton County, Virginia, when children heading home cut through the grumpy woods at night, and the wind begins to blow, it frightens and taunts the white children. Yet black children are never afraid of the wind, they laugh and are bedazzled by it, and they wait for the wind to wrap around them, like a robe on a winter morning: they are taught that the wind is the ghost of Nat Turner, enslaved man, preacher, and leader of the bloodiest slave revolt in US history, and that he has come to safely guide them home.
In his book, Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, the son of a sharecropper, seventeen-term congressman, and civil rights hero John H. Lewis speaks of being a child, and of playing outside in the dirt yard of his Aunt Seneva’s house in Troy, Alabama. There were days when clouds began crowding the sky and strong winds drove him and his playmates inside. Frightened, the children huddled together, with the burly wind yelling, bullying the swaying house, lifting the wood-plank flooring. Lewis’s Aunt Seneva instructed the children to clasp hands and walk back and forth, from the living room to the kitchen—the weight of their small bodies charged with holding down the house.
As Congressman Lewis recalls, “we held hands and walked with the wind.” Eventually the storm would settle, but he was clear-minded and knew that other storms would come. During the civil rights movement, Lewis realized that change would eventually come for African Americans, but only after America’s house had swayed in the winds of injustice, after her floorboards had been lifted by death and bigotry, only then would she settle. As in the storms of his childhood days in Aunt Seneva’s house, peace would only come to America after people had laid down their instruments of cruelty and clasped hands, walking together in the winds of change.
On the morning of August 28, 2005, a Category 5 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale of wind intensity heralded the freight-train arrival of Hurricane Katrina. With its maximum sustained winds over the Gulf reaching 175 mph, three days later Katrina would leave 80% of New Orleans flooded, some parts under fifteen feet of water. The levees broke. According to most meteorological experts, the failures of the levees and floodwalls during Hurricane Katrina are the worst engineering disaster in the history of the United States. Hundreds of thousands of homes were destroyed and more than 1,800 people died, with one grisly murder in particular shrouded in a dizzying snarl of cover-ups and corruption by the New Orleans Police Department.
In New Orleans, a city fractured along racial fault lines in the days after the storm, police were allegedly instructed to go after looters, ostensibly in the attempt to return the city to normalcy, using extreme force that would not ordinarily be lawful. Amidst the chaos of the city, an African American man, mistaken for a looter, was shot by a New Orleans Police officer. Panic set in when the officer realized the man was dead, and his body was set on fire.
Ashes and roasted pieces of flesh were discovered in the backseat of the shell of a charred Sedan, abandoned on a Mississippi River levee. The medical examiner collected the sickening evidence. A 2001 Chevrolet Malibu was the dead man’s crematorium, five red plastic Orleans Parish coroner’s bags became his urn.
Five years later, only two of the four officers who participated in the killing were found guilty, leaving the family aggrieved, given that all of the officers involved were not brought to justice.
The wind blasted agony into New Orleans.
The day following Alexa’s warning of an imminent severe windstorm, a knee, after eight minutes and 46 seconds, started a revolution.
As there is terror in the wind, there is also mercy, yes it is.
Those led by religion and spirit believe there is no tangle nor cross of anguish in which we find ourselves that at the same moment does not possess a bouquet of answers and liberation.
Today a tempest hies across the globe. Listen. It is asking us to find a new way. It is burning and looting and arresting us toward a new world.
It is asking for directions to the nearest town of equal and just.
It is asking to breathe.
KYMBERLY S. NEWBERRY is from Los Angeles, California. A proud Frances Perkins Scholar, she received her B.A. in International Relations from Mount Holyoke College. She is a Ph.D student in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at UMass Amherst.