A cemetery sandwiched between two refineries in St. James, Louisiana. Photo: Cristina Mislán

A cemetery sandwiched between two refineries in St. James, Louisiana. Photo: Cristina Mislán

Where public history meets journalism

We can and should grant people agency in our stories

There is a stretch of land that runs along a levee and the Lower Mississippi River in southern Louisiana.  If you follow the river’s curves on River Road from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, you will encounter some of the communities that comprise what we call the river parishes. Bounding these river communities to the north are Lake Maurepas and Lake Pontchartrain. If you keep driving south of New Orleans and “across the river” down into disappearing lands, you will reach Venice, which is fondly known to locals as the “end of the world.”

River Road’s communities have faced various forms of climate and environmental changes. The  section that runs from Baton Rouge to St. Rose has earned the nickname “cancer alley,” or as the Rise St. James grassroots organization calls this part of the world, “death alley.” From Mossville to the coastal towns of Plaquemines Parish, pollution and land loss are two of a host of environmental impacts changing the lives of Black and Brown residents.

I came here to speak to the people who have survived on this tiny dot of the world, and to document and help preserve the histories of those who remain tied to a disappearing land. In my conversations, residents keep returning to a central theme. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in late August 2005, when horrifying images of abandoned citizens appeared on television screens, people who didn’t live in Louisiana often asked, “Why didn’t they just leave?” Almost 20 years later, I’ve decided to clarify and ask a different question: Why do we stay?

The difference is subtle. This question asks why and how we, as human beings, sometimes remain in place. Instead of invoking judgment and presumed victimhood, we can acknowledge the active decisions people make in staying. We can and should grant people agency in our stories.

What I hope to build 

My work here will combine a storytelling approach that integrates public history, via oral history and life story interviews, with journalism. This method gives space for highlighting people’s complex histories and meaning-making practices.

To stay can be seen as a form of resistance. As storytellers, we can illustrate how people are surviving on their own terms. Alongside science-based data journalism, we need deeper stories that situate people’s life stories within places that symbolize more than just the frontlines of climate change. In these spaces, Black residents have always worked against interrelated oppressive systems. They might not be stuck in place. They may be fighting to hold onto their plots of existence. And because journalism is a cultural practice, employing oral histories can help preserve the histories of people living on a poisoned and drowned land.

The River Road African American Museum in Donaldsonville, Louisiana. Photo: Cristina Mislán
The River Road African American Museum in Donaldsonville, Louisiana. Photo: Cristina Mislán

The answers we seek 

I’ve received some answers here to my question of what keeps people on a land. In late September, during the week Louisiana’s residents breathed in relief while Floridians faced another catastrophic hurricane, I interviewed the River Road African American Museum’s Interim Director Darryl Hambrick. We met on a sunny and windy day in Donaldsonville, Louisiana, a town in the midst of redevelopment and recovery from economic struggles and last year’s Hurricane Ida. Donaldsonville also is a town that has been forced into living in the backyard of oil and chemical refineries.

If you were to drive through this small river town that had a population of 6,695 in 2020 and see deteriorating homes, could you imagine a bustling city that was once the capital of Louisiana? Would you know that Donaldsonville was the first to elect a formerly enslaved Black American citizen, Pierre Caliste Landry, mayor in 1868? When I learned about some of the town’s history I began to see not just another town exploited by industry. I began to see the shapes of a history, one that many saw as worth fighting for. I asked Mr. Hambrick, who had left for some years and returned to run his father’s funeral home, why he had decided to stay in the area for the foreseeable future. “Sometimes you get bound . . . to the land . . . I’m bound to this story,” he told me.  

This is an answer that differs from the usual responses you might hear in a brief interview on television or read in a news article. In the post-Katrina era, you might have come to understand that many people couldn’t afford to leave the city. And that local and state officials had in many respects abandoned poorer residents. Hindsight tells us this is all true. But multiple things can be simultaneously true. There is more to the story.

Preserving our personal history 

In my conversations with New Orleanians and river parish residents, another answer emerged. The act of staying or returning may not always suggest people are trapped. Instead, resistance to leaving may also enact a preservation of personhood, existence and human life. It’s a preservation that remembers the historical trauma enslavement engendered, ongoing struggles with living in an area that many people feel has been sacrificed for the production of more fossil fuels, and the existential crises that develop every hurricane season. 

Some Black residents stay to survive. They remember what their ancestors built and grew under catastrophic conditions, the lands some of their families acquired along the river, and the nostalgic childhoods their parents created for them. 

Inspired by Elizabeth Rush’s Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, I offer a short excerpt from my interview with Mr. Hambrick.

My eyes as a business partner in the community began to open. Me and my sister realized that the history of slavery was just like stained all over this community. Just a bad stain. Nobody knew what color it was. Nobody knew why it was there or tried to figure out why the stain was there, and we just went on with our lives, dealt with the stain. Now we have a different kind of voice because of the museum. People want to talk about it. People want to know . . . why this stain is here. Why was my grandmother living in this house for hundreds of years and now we don’t want to leave it because it was hers . . . Those stories now make sense. We now understand why we live along this river and how we got here. What kept us here and why we’re still here. Even under all of the conditions that have happened from the time we were brought here. From slavery into Jim Crow into all of the other things that have happened.

Now, we live in a chemical corridor and those same people who were, or the descendants of those people who once enslaved, are now being forced to live in an environment that’s unhealthy again. So it’s almost a double entendre where you know you can’t win, you can’t lose. And some people live like that and feel like that regardless of what they did. You know, even though slavery is over here you are coming now and contaminate the little freedom and the little things that we’ve learned to appreciate or that all we have . . . and so the dynamics of this community has changed from one extreme to the other . . . when you think about life on a plantation and the harsh conditions and people working for a little bit of nothing, most times nothing but a place to live. Then, you see people still living in those same houses that were inherited from their ancestors, still trying to maintain it . . . Just holding on to something that has meaning, . . . grandmother said don’t sell this house, don’t sell this property . . . People struggle with that here. Do I take my kids to a better community so they have better schools, better healthcare, better access to hospitals, better jobs? But grandmother says don’t sell this property because her mom lost her life behind it. And so she was embedded to it, and all she did was took care of it. It was hers. And sometimes, no matter what it is, when it’s yours we’re very possessive about it. We don’t want anybody else to have it. And so sometimes you get bound, and I call it bound to the land, just like they were during slavery. 

I’m bound to this story. Because nobody has had the opportunity to voice it and talk about it in the matter that we do now. I want to be the voice for this community and for everybody who lives here , eat crawfish, go to the Saints game . . . We really don’t understand our connection, and sometimes we try to connect to them so that we can understand who we are. [I’m bound] to the whole thought and idea of living in what they call plantation country . . . They refer to this as plantation country, which gives some people the idea of this is a laid back, mint julep drinking, white run society. And if you’re anything other than that, then you might as well not even exist. And so to them it means one thing, and to me it means something totally different when you say plantation country. It reminds me of sugar cane. It reminds me of the lives of those people who were brought here, who were stolen from Africa and brought here under harsh conditions and then forced to work this land, forced to become the providers of the wealth for the rest of the nation . . . I have the right to be here more than anybody else on this plantation because the ancestors that I represent and that I talk about built this place. 

Darryl Hambrick

I have written and edited this short testimonial in first-person to move my voice out of the way. I should, however, disclose that we can never truly eliminate ourselves from a story we report. But this approach works to hold space for community voices.

How you can incorporate oral history interviews into your work:

Have time and patience

To conduct oral history or life story interviews, you must ensure that you have time. These types of in-depth interviews cannot be completed quickly. You’ll need to be flexible with interviewee’s schedules. Having sufficient time also will give space for having patience. Adopt a zen-like approach! Sometimes I met (or called) and had conversations with potential interviewees more than once before they agreed to be interviewed. Sometimes people decline. No one owes us anything.  

Build trust

Pre-interview conversations can help build trust. It is important to communicate transparency and intentionality. While we can never be sure our stories will convey our intentions, we can communicate to interviewees our purpose. While you should never rely on key community members to connect you with additional interviewees (people are busy and exhausted), you can ask them to help you identify additional names. In communities of color, it is extremely helpful to have someone who can vouch for you.

Build your familiarity

Be (or become) familiar with the space and history in which communities live. For instance, because of my familiarity with southern Louisiana’s river parishes, I knew I wanted to ask community members about the refineries, climate concerns and the preservation of plantations. But I also had to do additional research. In addition to reading local histories of southern Louisiana, I visited museums specifically dedicated to the state’s Black histories. I interviewed the director of Donaldsonville’s museum (highlighted above) after visiting the museum and taking two tours.

Mindfulness and open-ended questions

Ask open-ended questions. And ask questions in a different way. There is a difference between “why don’t you leave” and “what keeps you here” or “what is your relationship to this community and land.” Don’t get too attached to your questions. Be open to learning new information and adjusting as you go along. For some interviews, I abandoned my list of questions and formulated new ones relevant to the present conversation. Be present and engaged in what they’re sharing with you. 

Don’t be afraid to practice

I started with people I was more familiar with. For instance, I interviewed my father and childhood best friend first. They helped me clarify or eliminate questions, and plan out future interviews with sources who I was less familiar with. 

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