Backwater BluesThe Mississippi Flood of 1927 in the African American Imagination

Backwater BluesThe Mississippi Flood of 1927 in the African American Imagination

Richard M. Mizelle Jr.

Print publication date: 2015

ISBN: 9780816679256

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press

Abstract

Backwater Blues offers a critique of long-standing ideas of African American environmental complacency by showing the ways in which black commentators from W.E.B. Du Bois to Bessie Smith provided an ecological and intellectual criticism of the 1927 flood. Through most of the twentieth-century assumptions of black environmental complacency have given rise to the wide-spread belief that African Americans rarely expressed thoughts or ideas about their surrounding environmental world. To the contrary, African Americans have a long tradition of racial consciousness, intellectual narration, and articulation of environmental landscapes that were heightened during the 1927 flood. Black cultural and intellectual commentary of the flood was rooted in the lived historical experience of race and nature being interrelated burdens; the perils of rain, wind, and water exacerbating existing vulnerabilities of second-class citizenship. The 1927 flood represents a polysemy of both an engineered environmental ecology of vulnerability and a blues ideology of group expression, drawing attention to the multiple narratives that created a backwater flood. While many scholars have written about the blues in the context of the U.S. South and disasters, I bring a fresh approach by contextualizing not only the meaning of blues lyrics but also what the blues archives on the 1927 flood tell us about blues culture and technology. I also take seriously the point that the 1927 flood was a national event that influenced more than the 1928 Presidential Election and flood control policies. It also influenced ideas of charity, migration patterns, and labor rights activism.