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Backwater Blues

Backwater Blues: The Mississippi Flood of 1927 in the African American Imagination

Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Backwater Blues
    Book Description:

    The Mississippi River flood of 1927 was the most destructive river flood in U.S. history, reshaping the social and cultural landscape as well as the physical environment. Often remembered as an event that altered flood control policy and elevated the stature of powerful politicians, Richard M. Mizelle Jr. examines the place of the flood within African American cultural memory and the profound ways it influenced migration patterns in the United States.

    InBackwater Blues, Mizelle analyzes the disaster through the lenses of race and charity, blues music, and mobility and labor. The book's title comes from Bessie Smith's "Backwater Blues," perhaps the best-known song about the flood. Mizelle notes that the devastation produced the richest groundswell of blues recordings following any environmental catastrophe in U.S. history, with more than fifty songs by countless singers evoking the disruptive force of the flood and the precariousness of the levees originally constructed to protect citizens.Backwater Bluesreveals larger relationships between social and environmental history. According to Mizelle, musicians, Harlem Renaissance artists, fraternal organizations, and Creole migrants all shared a sense of vulnerability in the face of both the Mississippi River and a white supremacist society. As a result, the Mississippi flood of 1927 was not just an environmental crisis but a racial event.

    Challenging long-standing ideas of African American environmental complacency, Mizelle offers insights into the broader dynamics of human interactions with nature as well as ways in which nature is mediated through the social and political dynamics of race.Includes discography.

    eISBN: 978-1-4529-4396-1
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. INTRODUCTION: John Lee Hooker’s Blues
    (pp. 1-24)

    The sheer breadth of the Mississippi River Flood of 1927 continues to present an interesting challenge to scholars. While other disasters such as the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, and Hurricane Katrina might have resulted in more physical damage and loss of life, the 1927 flood stands alone in the ways in which it influenced both environmental policy and culture. No other single environmental catastrophe affected so many states and encompassed such a wide area of devastation. Hurricane Katrina, now universally considered the worst environmental disaster in American history, destroyed property and claimed lives in the Gulf...

  5. 1 Down the Line: Blues Brilliance, Displacement, and Living under the Shadow of Levees
    (pp. 25-50)

    The blues serves as an important theoretical counternarrative to the historical archive and how historians make sense of the 1927 flood through “traditional” sources. For many reasons, traditional archives obscure more than they reveal about black social realities during the 1927 flood. A dearth of firsthand sources from black people precludes tying archives to a materiality of experience. Moreover, we have very little of black people’s own words in the form of letters, diaries, oral history, circulars, census records, and other archival sources from the flood. This is not to say important sources do not exist. Black leaders, institutions, and...

  6. 2 Burning Waters Rise: Richard Wright’s Blues Voice and the Double Environmental Burden of Race
    (pp. 51-74)

    In June 1926, one year before the 1927 flood spilled across the Yazoo Mississippi Delta landscape, W. E. B. Du Bois delivered a speech at the twelfth annual Spingarn celebration honoring Carter G. Woodson; the speech was later published inCrisismagazine as “Criteria of Negro Art.” Already a towering figure in the field of sociology, Du Bois inserted himself squarely into a debate that had existed at least since the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance: whether black art should or could be used as a form of racial propaganda. “What have we who are slaves and black to do...

  7. 3 Racialized Charity and the Militarization of Flood Relief in Postwar America
    (pp. 75-100)

    In early June 1927, Neval H. Thomas, president of the Washington, D.C., chapter of the NAACP, addressed a large crowd of black Washingtonians at a local theater. He spoke at length about the 1927 flood and the responsibility of black Washingtonians to help members of the race during this disaster. Thomas also stressed the need to find a suitable method of sending charity down south that did not directly involve the American Red Cross. While the growing middle class of black Washingtonians had the potential to make a significant contribution to flood relief, Thomas remained adamant about the American Red...

  8. 4 Where Sixteen Railroads Meet the Sea: Migration and the Making of Houston’s Frenchtown
    (pp. 101-122)

    The 1927 flood occurred during the height of the Great Migration, highlighting important ways the environment significantly shapes patterns of movement. Environmental displacement is an anxious and uneasy movement; there is often no choice but to migrate out of certain vulnerable landscapes. But mobility is also akin to freedom, and the decision to migrate after the 1927 flood represented powerful acts of individual and group expression. Most scholarship to date has yet to fully grapple with the crucial role of environmentalism in shaping movement, in particular how floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, the proliferation of boll weevils, and other environmental events add...

  9. 5 Every Day Seems Like Murder Here: The Mississippi Flood Control Project in New Deal–Era America
    (pp. 123-150)

    In early January 1933, Roy Wilkins and George Schuyler emerged in front of a packed house at the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City’s Harlem. The NAACP was holding its annual celebration gala and the crowd waited in eager anticipation for what the two men had to say about their recent trip south, when they had posed as laborers investigating charges of debt peonage and violence in Mississippi Delta levee camps. A native Missourian, Roy Wilkins had been editor of the black-ownedKansas City Callnewspaper before his appointment as assistant secretary of the NAACP in 1931.¹ George...

  10. CONCLUSION: When the Levee Breaks
    (pp. 151-160)

    The 1927 flood was an important moment in the long history of disaster relief and federalism. One of the main questions that arises from the history of the 1927 flood, and in fact the history of all environmental disasters, is where one can look for help in times of distress. Who is responsible for the alleviation of suffering after a disaster in the form of relief? It may be true that early in the American Republic concessions were made to provide disaster relief for victims of environmental disasters, but true to form, the meaning of relief was already a contested...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 161-190)
    (pp. 191-192)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 193-210)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 211-211)