In this personal essay, Cherise Morris explores her family’s relationship to—and deep respect for—extreme weather. Morris describes how Black communities have created homes in the most inhospitable places for centuries, and writes about the importance of mutual aid and helping each other in times of climate crisis. It’s a beautiful, ultimately uplifting lyrical essay that’s part of Scalawag’s Salt, Soil, & Supper series on climate justice and the American South.
In the overgrowth of Cypress trees older than humankind, a vast expanse of marshy waters became a mirror. In the morass of swing limbs and undisturbed brush, there was a refuge to be found. The people who found it, the ancestors—familial or collective—who willed their freedom across untamed horizons, were called maroons. While there is no official record or documentation of these free people, history estimates thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of formerly enslaved Black folks made homes in the Great Dismal Swamp throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
The news cycle after Hurricane Katrina was constant, a 24-hour-loop of rising flood waters, record high temperatures, “looting,” unsubstantiated claims of rape, murder, and lawlessness in the Superdome, where a city and country had abandoned its citizens. New Orleans, a city forged by Blackness, Black people, and Black culture became the epitome of a mythic recklessness. The recklessness born from the wrath of nature, the recklessness cradled by untamable waters, the recklessness bred by Blackness. Blackness, in this biased retelling, was an invasive plant watered by the floods, a plant left overflowing and uncontrollable.
But what the news coverage never showed was the ways Black people, at the nexus of nature’s calamity and systemic disinvestment, came together to care for one another, to look out for their neighbors who were also stranded, to plead for help together, and then, when they realized help wasn’t coming, to become that help themselves.