The Woyingi Blog

Documentary Review: Trouble the Water

Posted in African Americans, Documentaries, Hurricane Katrina, Reviews by the woyingi blogger on April 12, 2010

Yesterday, after watching the premiere of Treme, from the creators of The Wire, I finally had a chance to see the documentary Trouble the Water.

Trouble the Water, directed by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, the producers of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, and executive produced by Danny Glover, follows Kimberly Rivers Roberts aka Black Kold Madina and her husband, Scott Roberts, who live in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, a ward that was devastated during Hurricane Katrina. The film was nominated for Best Documentary at the 2009 Academy Awards.

The filmmakers met Kimberly and Scott at the New Orleans’ Superdome where the city’s residents who had not fled the hurricane came for shelter and FEMA aid. The filmmakers were looking for possible subjects they could work with for a documentary about the disaster. Little did they know what great subjects Kimberly and Scott would make.

On August 25, 2009, Kimberly Rivers Roberts was preparing for Hurricane Katrina by videotaping her neighbours. She couldn’t leave her home in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward because she couldn’t afford to, neither could many of her neighbours. She had recently sold her car and didn’t have any means of transportation out of the city and the city’s government wasn’t providing any. Roberts’ footage of life before the hurricane is pretty amusing: there is a neighbour who asks if she has some weed, the neighbourhood children who proudly exclaim that they “ain’t afraid of no water”, her two dogs, her uncle who obviously has a drinking problem and who she has to wake up so that he can take shelter in doors (He later dies during the storm and Kimberly discovers his decomposing body upon her return to her neighbourhood).  Kimberly videotapes the news as New Orleans’ mayor insists that everyone evacuate, however, no assistance has been given to New Orleans residents who can’t afford to leave. Kimberly began filming the storm in the hopes that she could sell some of the footage to a News Station after the storm. Little did she know how videotaping this disaster would change her life.

Kimberly’s footage of subsequent events is startling. We get to see firsthand how it was like to live through Hurricane Katrina. At one point we see that Kimberly’s house begins to flood. The filmmakers inform us at this point that the levees are failing. Kimberly and Scott decide to go up into their attic. They take in their neighbours who are unable to get to higher ground. They end up having to leave their two dogs to fend for themselves (We will later see that the dogs manage to survive on their own and are reunited with Kimberly and Scott soon after the hurricane).  From their attic, we see that the water has risen so high that only the top of a street stop sign is visible from above the water. The filmmakers play 911 calls from other New Orleans residents who are afraid of drowning in their houses. These recordings are chilling as 911 operators coldly inform people that there is no one coming to rescue them. “So I guess I’m going to die then.” one resident responds. 

What is very moving about the film is how despite not having very much Kimberly’s community comes together to survive the storm. Larry, a neighbour who we learn later doesn’t even like Scott, ends up risking his life in order to rescue Kimberly, Scott, and their neighbours from their attic and take them to higher ground. He manages to take people across the water using an old punching bag. 

People like Kimberly, Scott, Larry, and other people from Kimberly’s community are generally the population of New Orleans that the city officials try to hide from tourists. They are poor and in trouble with the law (We learn that Scott and Kimberly were drug dealers) but we see that despite all this these people are also everyday heroes who are willing to share what little they have with their neighbours, and even risk their lives for them. 

Kimberly, Scott, and their dogs

The film follows Kimberly and Scott after they eventually flee New Orleans (in a stolen truck with their neighbours) and are able to access FEMA services. Kimberly and Scott begin to see the disaster of the hurricane as an opportunity to start their lives anew and escape their past as self-described street hustlers. Later on in the film, Kimberly reflects on the fact that for many of New Orleans’ poor Black residents, their flight from Hurricane Katrina was the first time they had left Louisiana and got to see how Black people live in other states. It appears to them that the standard of living of Black people in other states is much better than for those in New Orleans. 

As we watch the film, we will learn that Kimberly is already a survivor. Her mother died of AIDS when she was thirteen years old. Kimberly lived on the street with her little brother, stealing in order to survive and avoid child services who she worried would take her brother away. She eventually got into drug dealing. Kimberly is also an aspiring hip hop artist and we get to see her perform in the film. 

By the end of the film we learn that Kimberly and Scott have started their own record company Born Hustler Records. Scott has given up his life as a drug dealer and got a job in construction rebuilding homes damaged by Katrina. 

Through my own research, I’ve learned that Kimberly and Scott now have a daughter named Skyy, who was born on Martin Luther King Day. 

The filmmakers intersperce Kimberly and Scott’s story with facts about the disaster. We learn that the Louisiana National Guard was not on the ground at the time to help New Orleans’ residents evacuate because they were stationed in Iraq. When they finally return, Scott thanks them for coming but says that he hopes they stay in Louisiana because “it’s not our war.” We learn that the levees that eventually broke had been sited several years earlier for not being adequate. We learn that New Orleans’ residents who were homeless at the time of Hurricane Katrina, such as Kimberly and Scott’s friend Brian who is a recovering addict who was living in a group home, don’t qualify for FEMA compensation because they can’t prove residence. We learn that although the majority of white residents have returned to New Orleans, the majority of Black residents have not, thus dramatically changing the demographics of the city. 

Personal Reflections 

I found the film truly inspiring. It showed the power of community and how crisis, which we often think would bring out the worst in people, can actually bring out the best.

I found it interesting how often the city’s affected residents reflected on how their experience reminded them of people in Third World countries and how if America is the richest country in the world it could let its citizens suffer like this. In many ways, the victims of Hurricane Katrina were made refugees by the disaster. Many of the cities Black residents have been resettled in other states and might never return to New Orleans. Kimberly and Scott’s journey reminded me of the stories of survival of many of my neighbours who were refugees of war. Perhaps this experience could help people living in the First World better understand how easily things can fall apart in a city. We also need to reflects on the standard of living of everyone in our own countries before we judge other countries for their poverty and human rights violations. Living in Canada, a reality is that many of the Aboriginal peoples here live in “Third World” conditions, with no adequate drinking water or shelter. We have developped some parts of our country and underdevelopped others. And, just as in New Orleans, your race and class determines whether or not you will get to live in “First World” conditions or “Third World” conditions.

Further Reading: 

Website for Trouble the Water 

“Trouble the Water star, rapper Kimberly Rivers Roberts, readies her cd” by Randy Lewis in the LA Times April 2009 

Four years on, Katrina remains cursed by rumor, cliché, lies and racism” by Rebecca Solnit in The Guardian August 26 2009

Zeitoun, a work of non-fiction by Dave Eggers, based on a true story that took place during Hurricane Katrina

A Series of Fortunate Events: How I Found My Father

Posted in All About My Nigerian Father, The Woyingi Blogger by the woyingi blogger on April 5, 2010

Growing up, I thought I was like most of my friends and neighbours, a child of a single parent, whose father was off somewhere, not at all interested in being involved in my life. Fathers were rare figures in my community. Fathers were not considered very important in the world of my childhood.

However, I was aware that if it had not been for my father, I would not be Black. My skin was a constant reminder of his existence.

I think most children who grow up without their fathers are often curious to learn something about these mystery men. I began asking my mother about my father around the age of three. I was told that my father came from Africa, had been a bad man who cheated on my mother, didn’t want me because I was a girl and he had wanted a boy because he came from a sexist culture, was lazy and didn’t work. My mother had left him because of his laziness and cheating and he had eventually been deported while I was still an infant. I also learned that he had tried to commit suicide and had threatened to kill me before being deported. So, basically, I was told that my father was something of a loser and it was best that he was out of my life.

I think my mother had hoped that this would nip any further interest in learning about my father in the bud; it didn’t. I also think she felt that if I thought my father was a loser, I would not feel that I had lost anything by not knowing him. She was wrong about this as well. Knowing at such an early age that my father had been a bad person while at the same time drawing my own conclusions that my mother’s family was abusive and dysfunctional and my mother was powerless to protect me from it, I grew up feeling that I was doomed to be a basket-case and a failure because I was genetically-loaded for this fate on both sides.

As I grew older, I asked more questions and my mother was able to provide me with more details about my father. I learned that he was from a country in Africa called Nigeria. I learned that he was studying languages, such as German and Spanish, at Carleton University and had been supported to do so by the German Lutheran Church on Preston Street. I learned that he had worked for a pizzeria while my parents were together. I learned that my father’s brother had also lived in Ottawa and had children here. I learned that his last name was Oniyemofe and that the name I had been given by my father when I was born was Tamara-Emi. The only possessions of my father I had were a red long-tooth comb and an Intermediate Spanish Text book with his name written inside the cover.  My mother had destroyed all her pictures of him. Or so she thought. When I was eight years old, while playing with an old typewriter at my grandmother’s home in Aylmer, I discovered a Polaroid of my father  that had been taken in Nigeria stuffed in the back of the typewriter,  underneath the keys. My mother had no memory of putting it there.

As I learned more about Nigeria, most significantly from reading a memoir by Adewale Maja-Pearce, a man who also had a White mother and Nigerian father, I wanted to learn what ethnic group my father came from. My mother could not help me with this one. She recommended that I contact the Nigerian High Commission. However, at this time, relations between Canada and Nigeria had deteriorated over the planned execution of Ogoni Activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and going to make inquiries at the Nigerian High Commission didn’t seem that easy a task.

My father and I

A few years later, I was walking down Metcalfe Street and realized that I had passed the Nigerian High Commission. I didn’t immediately go in but instead decided to call and make inquiries about the ethnic origin of the name Oniyemofe. After being passed to several people, I eventually spoke with a Cultural Attaché who informed me that the name was of Yoruba origin. But he also told me that the name sounded familiar and that I should come to the High Commission to discuss this further. I went to the High Commission and met with the Cultural Attaché who introduced me to another High Commission Staff Member , Mrs. Abiola Agoro, who said that she had known my uncle. She told me that he and his family had moved to Britain and that he now worked for the Nigerian High Commission in London. She said that she would make inquiries and try to relay a message to him that I was looking for my father. She asked for my contact information so that she could get in touch with me if she had any news. She also told me that “My father was all over my face.” I wasn’t sure what this meant but I guess she was simply making the observation that many other Nigerians have made subsequently that I have very strong West African facial features despite being of mixed race.

Mrs. Agoro kept to her word and a few months later she called me at home to relay the disappointing news that my uncle had passed away and that no one could get in touch with his widow or children. I thanked Mrs. Agoro and left that the search was at an end. At least I now knew I was of Yoruba descent, which was great news as the Yoruba have a rich history and religious traditions both in West African and the diaspora in Brazil, the Caribbean, and North America.

When I discovered Google, I decided to search the name Oniyemofe just for fun. I came upon the name Agnes Oniyemofe who lived in Britain. I wondered if this could be a relation of my uncle who had worked for the Nigerian High Commission in Britain. I called the operator in the UK and asked to look up the name Agnes Oniyemofe but I was told that no phone numbers were registered under that name. Another dead-end.

While I was a University Student at Carleton, I ran into a Nigerian who said that he would help me find my father. He said he had worked with a man who had spent a lot of time in Ottawa around the same time as my father and might have known him. I kept in touch with this man for a few years, but after I converted to Islam tensions arose as he wanted me to become a Christian and seemed to be romantically interested in me. I subsequently cut off all contact with him.

In early 2003, I received a phone call from Mrs. Agoro, who I had kept in touch which in an effort to learn more about the Nigerian community in Ottawa. He told me that she had a guest staying with her named Labi who knew my father and that I should come over and meet him. It ended up that this man was the same man who the Nigerian man I had met at Carleton University had worked with. Labi told me that he had last seen my father ten years ago in Lagos. He had been working as a security guard at a bank there. Labi, who worked as a petroleum engineer, was planning to go back to Nigeria soon and promised to make inquiries about my father. He took my contact information, including my e-mail, and a photograph of me.

Later that year, while I was going through a very troubling time personally, I received an e-mail from Labi while he was in Lagos. He told me that he had went to the bank where he had seen my father 10 years earlier and had learned that my father no longer worked there. Another dead-end. Or so it seemed. A few days later, Labi e-mailed me to tell me that someone who worked at the bank often ran into my father in the city and would try to contact him. A few days after this, I received an e-mail from Labi saying that he had found my father and was planning to meet him.

The next day, I received my first e-mail from my father:

Dear Daughter, this is the first time i’m calling someone my Daughter.I’m an Ijaw man one of the most powerful tribes in ngeria and oil producing area .in Ijaw language your name is Tamara–Emi which means there is God and really there is is only God that has made it possible for us to meet again in this world.  I want you to come to nigeria very soon to know your origin ‘cos you have an interesting origin.

    Like father like daughter.i speak up to fourteen languages . ijaw, english, french, german, italian, spanish, yoruba, hausa, igbo, urobo, benin, calabar, idoma and arabic.   i’m a security guard earning a very small salary.

I had found my father.

Black Canadian Profile: William Hall (VC) 1827 to 1904

It is only fitting that the first Black Canadian Profile I write for my blog be that of the first Black Canadian I ever read about with any interest. During my Grade 10 history class, which I had with a wonderful visiting teacher who was originally from Scotland, I learned about William Hall (VC), the first Black person, the first Nova Scotian, and the first Canadian sailor to be honoured with a Victoria Cross.

William Hall (VC)

William Hall was born in 1827 in Horton Bluff, on the Minas Basin, in Nova Scotia. He was the son of former American slaves Jacob and Lucy Hall who had fled to Halifax as refugees of the War of 1812. . He grew up in Hansport which was a thriving wooden shipbuilding area. Hall began his career building wooden ships but eventually joined the American merchant navy, then the British Royal Navy. His first service was a Able Seamen with the HMS Rodney. He spent two years in the Mediterranean and Black Seas during the Crimean War, during which he took an active part in a gun crew during the bombardment of Sebastopol (in present day Ukraine) and was captain of one of the Lancaster Guns on Green Hill. He received both British and Turkish medals for his efforts during this campaign.

Hall went on to join the crew of the HMS Shannon as Captain of the Foretop. Indian regiments with the British Army mutinied violently in resistance to the British occupation. In 1857, Hall volunteer to accompany a relief force bound for Lucknow where mutineers were besieging a British garrison. The army was required to breach the inner wall of the Shah Najaf mosque that was being used as a fortress by the mutineers.

According to the biography of William Hall written for the Nova Scotia Museum:

William Hall volunteered to replace a missing man in the crew of a twentyfour- pounder. The walls were thick, and by late afternoon the 30,000 sepoy defenders had inflicted heavy casualties from their protected positions. The bombardment guns from Shannon were dragged still closer to the walls and a bayonet attack was ordered, but to little effect. Captain Peel ordered two guns to within 20 yards (18 m) of the wall. The enemy concentrated its fire on these gun crews until one was totally annihilated. Of the Shannon crew, only Hall and one officer, Lieutenant Thomas Young, were left standing. Young was badly injured, but he and Hall continued working the gun, firing, reloading, and firing again until they finally triggered the charge that opened the walls. “I remember,” Hall is quoted as saying, “that after each round we ran our gun forward, until at last my gun’s crew were actually in danger of being hurt by splinters of brick and stone torn by the round shot from the walls we were bombarding.”

For this act of bravery, he was awarded the Victoria Cross on October 28th, 1859. The Victoria Cross (VC) is the highest military decoration awarded to those who have shown valour “in the face of the enemy”. It was introduced by Queen Victoria in 1856 to award soldiers who fought in the Crimean War.

Canada Post Stamp

William Hall (VC) retired from the navy in 1876, having reached the rank of Quartermaster. He went to live with his two sisters, managing a farm in Avonsport. He died of paralysis and was buried without military honours in an unmarked grave, His grave was neglected for some time until local community members launched a campaign in 1937 to have his valour recognized by the Canadian Legion. In 1945, his was reburied in a special plot in the cemetery of a Baptist Church in Hansport and in 1947 a memorial cairn was erected on ground obtained by the Hansport Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion. The inscription on the memorial reads as follows:

William Hall V.C. the first Nova Scotian, and the First Man of colour to win the Empire’s highest award for valour

A branch of the Canadian Legion in Halifax was also named in his honour.

William Hall’s medals were returned to Canada from England and were put on display during Expo ’67 in Montreal. They are now property of the province of Nova Scotia and are kept at the Nova Scotia Museum. Canada Post issued a commemorative stamp of William Hall in time for Black History Month in February 2010.

Personal Reflections

When I first learned about William Hall (VC), I remember feeling surprised, surprised that a Black person had been able to achieve what William Hall had achieved in the 19th Century. As a Black person, I feel that I have a complicated relationship with history. So much of the history that directly relates to my ancestors is not accessible to me and/or is deemed unimportant within mainstream Canadian society because it is considered to not be of any significant consequence to the more important history of Western Civilization. William Hall’s achievement of the Victoria Cross places him within the “important history of Western Civilization”. Both his involvement in the Crimean War and the Siege of Lucknow place him at key moments in the development and expansion of the British Empire. As Black people, we are often made to feel, or are even bluntly told, that we have not contributed anything of worth to Western Civilization. The life of a Black person like William Hall (VC) contradicts this belief and can be used effectively to help Black Canadian students feel that Black people like them have played a significant role in Canadian as well as British and Western history.

However, does celebrating the life of the first Black person to be awarded a Victoria Cross  necessarily mean we need to celebrate his role in the expansion of the British Empire? You see, as I have grown older and learned more history, although I don’t doubt the heroism involved in William Hall’s actions during the Siege of Lucknow, I can’t agree that the British were right to be attempting to occupy India. Although British History often portrays the British army as victims of this mutiny, Indian history sees the mutiny as a struggle of resistance against Britain’s colonial ambitions and expanding occupation of the Indian sub-continent. Although there is no doubt that some of the mutineers were involved in unspeakable crimes against humanity, particularly the butchering of the families, mainly women and children, of British soldiers and settlers, Britain’s subsequent colonial take-over and occupation of the subcontinent could hardly be expected to be accepted without serious resistance from the Indians.

Much like African Americans who celebrate the history and achievements of Buffalo Soldiers as somehow “upping the race”, while ignorning that fact that many Native Americans and Filipinos may see these men as agents of American colonialism, we need to look at the achievements of William Hall (VC) as Indians might see them. We live in a very multicultural country and an increasingly globalized world. Far too often, we limit ourselves to seeing our achievements as Black people only in a Western, often North American context. This must change.

Further Reading:

Nova Scotia Museum Biography of William Hall (VC)

Black History Canada: William Hall Profile

Canada Post Profile of Willam Hall (VC) and his Commemorative Stamp

Film Review: Hope and Redemption: The Lena Baker Story (2008)

Film: Hope and Redemption: The Lena Baker Story (2008)
Director: Ralph Wilcox
Starring: Tichina Arnold
Country: United States
Genre: Biographical Film

Lena Baker was the first and only woman every killed by electric chair in the state of Georgia. She was executed in 1945. Sixty years later she was pardoned.

Lena Baker

The film Hope and Redemption: The Lena Baker Story by Ralph Wilcox is more than a biopic about an African-American woman who, like so many others, was a victim of the racism of the American Justice System, but it is also a harsh reminder that although there may be a Black President, America still has a terrible legacy of racism to overcome.

The film chronicles the life and unjust death of Lena Baker from her childhood picking cotton in the early 1900s to her death by electric chair for murdering her employer.

Lena Baker is played by actress Tichina Arnold. Arnold is best known for her comedic roles in shows like Everybody Hates Chris but she is excellent as Lena, a woman who has many demons to face. The filmmakers do not sugarcoat Lena Baker’s life. She is an alcoholic who once was a prostitute and did time in prison. She had three children who were mostly raised by her long-suffering mother.

When Lena seems about to turn her life around she is bullied by Eugene Knight to look after his father, Ernest, who has injured his leg. She is reluctant because Ernest Knight has the reputation of being violent but at this time in Georgia it is difficult for Blacks to refuse the demands of Whites. The film depicts Lena’s relationship with Knight with all the shades of grey that there probably were. Ernest Knight is an alcoholic and in his company Lena returns to alcoholism. They develop a sexual relationship and Lena often stays with him for months on end without being able to return to her mother’s home. When Lena is able to return, Knight repeatedly forces her back to his home. He even at one point takes her to Florida. Because sexual relationships between Blacks and Whites were illegal at this time in the State of Georgia, Knight’s son eventually intervenes to get Lena away from his father, however he blames Lena for the relationship and beats her severely but doesn’t take any measures to hold his father responsible for the affair. The film shows that this is all unfolding with the full knowledge of the town’s sheriff who also holds Lena responsible for the relationship and does nothing to protect her or prevent Knight from repeatedly kidnapping her. Finally, when Lena again attempts to flee from Knight, he threatens to kill her with a gun and in the struggle that ensues she shoots him.

Lena made no attempt to cover up what happened. She went straight to the town’s coroner and told him what she had done. She then told the town’s sheriff. Although Lena claimed self-defence, she was convicted of Capital Murder by an all-White, all-Male jury (hardly a jury of her peers). The film portrays her lawyer as incompetent and racist as he has no interest in listening to her suggestions for her defence. After a 60-Day reprieve, Baker was denied clemency and was executed. Her last words before her execution were as follows:

What I done, I done in self defence, or I would have been killed myself. I have done nothing against anyone. I am ready to meet my  God.

In 2001, Lena Baker’s family, led by her grandnephew Roosevelt Curry, requested a pardon from the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. She was granted an unconditional pardon. The Board did not find Lena Baker innocent of the crime but suggested that a verdict of voluntary manslaughter would have been more appropriate under the circumstances.

Hope and Redemption: The Lena Baker Story is hardly an easy film to watch but I recommend it for anyone who is trying to educate students about the ways in which racial segregation in the American South perpetuated the economic and sexual exploitation of African American women.

Further Reading:

Pardon for maid executed in 1945 by Gary Younge in The Guardian

The Hope and Redemption: The Lena Baker Story Website