Black Bodies in the Water: After the Deluge of Hurricane Katrina and the Middle Passage

Written by Emily Levine

Edited by Gabby Marcuzzi Herie

Fig. 1: Joseph Mallord William Turner, Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On) (1840). Oil on canvas, 90.8 x 122.6 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA.

In the year following Hurricane Katrina, contemporary African American artist Kara Walker curated an exhibition titled After the Deluge(2006) for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Reacting to the controversial media coverage of the disaster, Walker was struck by the images of hurricane victims reduced to bodies and nothing more.[1] The exhibition, in addition to the accompanying print book, is a self-described “rumination” on Hurricane Katrina structured in the form of what Walker refers to as a “visual essay.”[2]She juxtaposes her own work with selected historical pieces from the nineteenth century to create a “narrative of fluid symbols,” comprised of images and objects that relate to water, storms, trauma, and blackness.[3]Among the works included in After the Delugeare J.M.W. Turner’s Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On)from 1840 [Fig. 1], Walker’s own Middle Passagesseries from 2004 [Figs. 2 & 3], and a photograph taken in New Orleans during the flood [Fig. 4]. With these three representations of black bodies in water, Walker puts the black experience of Hurricane Katrina in conversation with the Middle Passage of the transatlantic slave trade.

In this essay, I trace the way artists represent trauma through images of black bodies in water. The enslaved Africans who crossed the Middle Passage and the victims of Katrina are connected not only through racial identity, but also through their shared experience of waterborne suffering and death. While water is often symbolic of rebirth, renewal, purity, and cleanliness, in the contexts of the flooding in New Orleans and the Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean, water was a cause of death and destruction. I analyze three works in After the Delugewhich specifically show black bodies in the water, namely Turner’s Slave Ship, Walker’s Middle Passages, and a photograph of the flooding in New Orleans. I read each image in the context of the Middle Passage or Katrina and explore the interconnectedness of Deluge, race, and trauma. I conclude with a discussion of Walker’s idea of “muck” as the central image in After the Delugeand connect the Middle Passage and Hurricane Katrina as historical events.

News media coverage of Katrina and its aftermath focused on images of suffering and abandoned black bodies in the city’s floodwaters.[4] A 2006 study of post-Katrina news coverage detected a “clear racial bias” which tended to favour stereotypically negative depictions of the survivors over more positive or generous ones.[5] “It was black people in a state of life-or-death desperation, and everything corporeal was coming to the surface – water, excrement, sewage,” recalls Walker. “It was a re-inscription of all the stereotypes about the black body.”[6] However, Walker insists that After the Delugeis “not simply about New Orleans or Katrina or waterborne disaster,” rather, “it is an attempt to understand the subconscious narratives at work when we talk about such an event.”[7] Walker looks unflinchingly at the racial inequality in the United States and graphically portrays scenes from the antebellum South to explore politics of slavery, race, gender, and trauma.[8] She installed her own life-size, cut-paper silhouettes directly on the Met’s gallery walls, mounted in the round to suggest a diorama.[9] The arrangement of the pieces within the gallery space, and their order in the accompanying book, elicit a certain humour and irreverence that is often at the core of Walker’s work.[10]The ambitious size asserts the exhibition’s authority within the space of the museum, and the human scale of the silhouettes causes spectators to feel engulfed by the scene, physically positioning them within the historical narrative. Art historian and curator Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw writes that “each spectator is prompted to face his or her own potentially traumatic relationship to history and acknowledge whatever repressed guilt and sadomasochistic feelings one might have about one’s personal relationship to slavery.”[11]

In assembling the works for After the Deluge, Walker sought out James Mallord William Turner’s Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On)from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Strategically placed directly after the prologue of the exhibition book and under the section titled “Deep-Rooted Traditions,” Slave Shipcontextualizes the narrative of After the Delugeas historically connected to slavery. Walker locates the transatlantic slave trade “as the beginning point for a bad relationship with water, a bad relationship with inundation.”[12]Slave Shipis set in the Atlantic Ocean along the Middle Passage — the part of the transatlantic slave trade whereby enslaved Africans were expropriated by the millions and brought on tightly packed slave ships from the west coast of Africa to the Americas.  On board the ship, the white captain and crew members turned enslaved people into commodities. There, the violent process of creolization began, and the racial condition of blackness was constructed.[13]Conditions on the ship were hellish: Africans were held below deck without sufficient oxygen or sunlight, disease spread rapidly, and the dead and dying human cargo were routinely tossed overboard. Professor of Art History Charmaine Nelson identifies the Atlantic Ocean as a “siteless and sightless” mass unmarked grave[14]for the estimated 1.8 million people who died along the Middle Passage.[15]

Painted in 1840,[16]Turner’s Slave Shipoffers one attempt at representing the atrocities of the Middle passage through careful depictions of the water, the storm, and the bodies in between [Fig. 1].  In his essay “The Irrecoverable: Representing the ‘Middle Passage’” (2000), Marcus Wood, a leading scholar of the visual culture of slavery, analyzes representations of the Middle Passage and raises questions relating to the depiction of trauma and cultural guilt.  Turner’s formalist oil painting shows enslaved human cargo thrown overboard, drowning among the turbulent ocean waves. He uses forces of nature — a fiery sky, looming storm clouds, ocean spray and tempestuous waves — to represent the suffering of the enslaved. Only limbs are visible above the water, flailing, shackled, and bloody. “In concentrating upon the physical processes of drowning and dismemberment,” Wood writes, “Turner shows that the slaves are to be dissolved in the waters of the ocean, forever inextricably mixed with the element of their destruction.”[17]However, the threat of death comes not only from the water but from the danger that lurks below: fish crowd at the bottom right corner of the canvas ready to devour a woman’s disembodied leg. In Wood’s interpretation, the fish recast the narrative of death by drowning, instead becoming a metaphor for the destructive energy of the slave power.[18]Ultimately, it is the stormy sky and turbulent waters which constitute the core of the picture and metaphorically commemorate the drowning bodies. In Wood’s interpretation of Turner’s painting, the ocean water is multiple and contradictory in its representation of trauma in relation to the black bodies which drown in it. The sea is not only the agent of death, but it “suffers with those who it makes suffer” as witness, executioner, victim, and tomb.[19]

 Placed chronologically in the middle of the After the Deluge book, Walker’s Middle Passages series comprises multiple gouache and cut paper collages of the enslaved on their treacherous journey across the Atlantic. I focus on two images that fill a two-page spread: a slave ship sails away to the left, tipping heavily to one side [Fig. 2], and a woman sits atop the trunk of an unexplained palm tree, watching the slave ship recede into the horizon [Fig. 3].  None of the figures in Walker’s Middle Passagesseries are submerged or drowning in the water. Though their condition is helpless, with no possibility of rescue or survival, the figures are alive and free from the hellish conditions of the slave ship. Their black silhouetted profiles exaggerate stereotypes about black features, such as full lips and natural hair, but their chins are raised and their gazes reach forwards. Compared to Walker’s other black and white silhouettes, which embrace a certain “familiar faux-nostalgic whimsy” of the antebellum South and lampoon the plantation aplomb,[20]these images are far more somber, muddled, and stripped of the racially-coded mayhem typical of her other works. The Middle Passagesseries again establishes an explicit connection to the history of the Middle Passage and uses water as a site of trauma.

The only direct reference to Hurricane Katrina in After the Deluge, beyond what Walker writes in the preface, appears on page eight of the book. Taken by photographer Bill Haber during the flooding of New Orleans, a picture of a black woman wading through the water fills a whole page [Fig. 4]. Her shoulders and head are the only parts of her body visible above the murky water, which is covered in an incandescent sheen of oil. She clutches a small duffle bag in one hand, clearly too small to hold the possessions she had to leave behind, and in the other holds a twelve pack of bottled drinking water. Her movement disrupts the eerie stillness on the surface of the water and ripples the rainbow in her wake. The oil-slicked floodwaters stretch to every corner of the page, giving no evidence of refuge or safety and concealing what dangers may lie underneath. The water is a polluted, poisonous “toxic soup” which inundates the subject and soaks her body and belongings.[21]


            Instead of choosing one of the abundant images of bloated corpses floating in the floodwaters, widely-circulated in the disaster’s news media coverage, Walker chose this image to stand as reference to Hurricane Katrina in After the Deluge. This image, like Turner’s Slave Shipand Walker’s own Middle Passages, emphasizes the horrendous, indecent, and racially-charged suffering of black people in water, but it does not do so at the expense of the dignity of the subject. From what we can see, the woman is stranded, alone, and submerged in the toxic water; however, she is also alive, and clothed, and her face is hidden from the camera. Walker represents the flooding of Katrina and its traumatic effect on New Orleans’ poor and black population without compromising the subject’s dignity. Moreover, the image leaves room for a productive interpretation. In an essay about Walker’s rumination on Katrina, Michael Bibler posits that the woman moves slowly through the polluted waters as she no doubt did through the racist pathologies of everyday American life. “And yet,” writes Bibler, “splayed across the entire surface of the water is [a] beautiful rainbow.”[22]Disaster and promise are collapsed into a single frame as the toxic rainbow is relocated from the sky to the water itself. Bibler sees the rainbow as a symbol of the “potentially new and difficult birth” that this woman, now representative of the “Black subject,” might experience while mired in those racist pathologies.[23]Unlike the black subjects in Turner’s painting or Walker’s silhouettes who are fated to drown, this woman has the potential to emerge from the deluge.

This photograph of a black woman navigating the murky floodwaters precisely embodies the central image of Walker’s exhibition: “muck.” When After the Deluge was published in 2007, the narrative of Hurricane Katrina had shifted from a hyperreal horror show presented through live coverage to a diplomatic tale of “security failures” and “the questions of race and poverty.”[24] In the prologue titled “Murky,” Walker explains that she is particularly interested in the “puddle” that is always left at the end of these narratives, “a murky, unnavigable space that is overcrowded with intangibles: shame, remorse, vanity, morbidity, silence.”[25]In the flood photograph the toxic water is the “muck,” which symbolizes the racist pathologies that the woman must wade through. The rainbow captured on the surface of the flood waters brings in notions of survival and endurance. Bibler writes that “if the promise of new life is a component of the flood itself, rather than something far away in the sky, then the woman’s salvation lies in her ability to negotiate the muck, to keep swimming.”[26]Walker ends the prologue with an assertion that the murky, toxic waters “become the amniotic fluid of a potentially new and difficult birth.”[27]Walker’s discussion of the muck’s fertile possibilities repaints this colorful sludge as a potential source of transformation, maybe even salvation.[28]Katrina revealed the racial “muck” that is still a problem in America, even 140 years after emancipation and 40 years after the Civil Rights movement. Black Americans are still fatally subject to the racist pathologies of the nation, inundated and drowned in it as their ancestors drowned in the Atlantic ocean.[29]But, instead of “sitting very still, ‘staying Black,’ and waiting to die” amongst the toxic, murky waters, Walker asks the figures in After the Deluge“to take a step beyond [their] borders to connect a series of thoughts together related to fluidity and the failure of containment.”[30]  

There are clear parallels between images of the enslaved Africans thrown from slave ships to die along the Middle Passage and the images of the bodies left to sink or swim in the mostly poor and black neighborhoods of New Orleans. However, to argue that, by Walkers’ inclusion of Turner’s Slave Shipin After the Deluge, the horrors that occurred during and after Katrina were just like the horrors of the Middle Passage and slavery would be a clumsy comparison. The juxtaposition between the Middle Passage and Hurricane Katrina highlights Walker’s observation that “despite all the advances in civil rights in the United States, the same pathologies of racism and violence that are most clearly encapsulated in the Middle Passage continue to shape twenty-first-century life.”[31]As succinctly stated by Michael P. Bibler:

As we recognize how the dead bodies in New Orleans resemble and are historically linked to the bodies thrown overboard during the Middle Passage, we should also quickly recognize that such a comparison diminishes the unspeakable atrocities of African slavery and ignores the specificity of twenty-first-century racism and poverty.[32]

Walker’s inclusion of Turner’s Slave Ship and her own Middle Passagesseries, alongside an image from Katrina and in the political context of After the Deluge, prompts viewers to ponder what is familiar and what is new about Katrina. Walker situates Katrina within a longer lineage of representation of black life and death extending back to slavery, and prompts a wider debate about the ways in which black trauma is represented and mediated through the “muck.”

[1]David D’Arcy, “The Eyes of the Storm,” Modern Painters(April 2006), np.

[2]Kara Elizabeth Walker, Kara Walker: After the Deluge, (New York: Rizzoli, 2007): p. 7

[3]Walker, After the Deluge, p. 9

[4]Henry A. Giroux, “Reading Hurricane Katrina: Race, Class, and the Biopolitics of Disposability.” College Literature, vol. 33, no. 3 (2006). Also evident in coverage from The Guardianarticle titled “America’s Ordeal” published on 4 September 2005.

[5]Sommers, et al, “Race and Media Coverage of Hurricane Katrina: Analysis, Implications, and Future Research Questions,” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, vol. 6, no. 1, (2006)

[6]Walker quoted in D’Arcy, “The Eyes of the Storm,” p. 56.

[7]Walker, After the Deluge,9.

[8]D’Arcy, “The Eyes of the Storm”; Paige McGinley, “Floods of Memory (a Post-Katrina Soundtrack),” Performance Research, vol. 12, no. 2 (2007); Emma Rutherford, Silhouette. (New York: Rizzoli, 2009); Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, “Tracing Race and Representation,” Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004)

[9]Rutherford, Silhouette.

[10]D’Arcy, “The Eyes of the Storm.”

[11]Shaw, “Tracing Race and Representation,” p. 182.

[12]Walker quoted in D’Arcy, “The Eyes of the Storm,” p. 58.

[13]Marcus Rediker, “Introduction,” The Slave Ship: A Human History(New York: Penguin Books, 2008)

[14]Charmaine A. Nelson, “The Middle Passage: Of Trauma and Commemoration” McGill University, Montreal, Canada. Lecture given Friday, 28 September 2018.

[15]Rediker, “Introduction.” This number does not include those who died on their way to the slave ships, or who died of disease after they reached their destination.

[16]The slave trade was abolished in the British empire and America in 1807 and 1808, respectively. Slavery was not completely abolished in the British empire until 1834, and for America in 1865.

[17]Marcus Wood, “The Irrecoverable: Representing the ‘Middle Passage’,” Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America, 1780-1865,(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000): p. 45.

[18]Wood, “The Irrecoverable,” p. 53.

[19]Wood, “The Irrecoverable,” p. 63.

[20]D’Arcy, “The Eyes of the Storm,” p. 56.

[21]Nicole R. Fleetwood, “Failing Narratives, Initiating Technologies: Hurricane Katrina and the Production of a Weather Media Event,”American Quarterly, vol. 58, no. 3 (2006): p. 777.

[22]Michael P. Bibler, “The Flood Last Time: “Muck” and the Uses of History in Kara Walker’s “Rumination” on Katrina, ”Journal of American Studies, vol. 44, no. 3 (2010): p. 507.

[23]Bibler, “The Flood Last Time,” p. 507.

[24]Walker, After the Deluge, p. 7.

[25]Walker, After the Deluge, p. 7.

[26]Bibler, “The Flood Last Time,” p. 511.

[27]Walker, After the Deluge, p. 9.

[28]Bibler, “The Flood Last Time.”

[29]Bibler, “The Flood Last Time.”

[30]Walker, After the Deluge, p. 9.

[31]Bibler, “The Flood Last Time,” p. 504.

[32]Bibler, “The Flood Last Time,’ p. 509.

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