Countless vigils for Katrina victims were held in still-devastated New Orleans and across the U.S. last night. Black Students United joined them with their own commemoration ceremony in Appel Commons.
“We should not forget what happened a year ago in New Orleans,” said Elena Camp ’10, a resident of New Orleans. “This vigil serves as both a commemoration of all that was lost and as a reminder that the city still has a lot of work to be done.”
Camp opened the ceremony with a speech about her personal experience with Katrina — from her initial denial of the hurricane’s impact to her feelings of emptiness and despair afterwards.
“If you go to New Orleans, you’ll still see Xs on houses from FEMA and FEMA trailers in front yards. There are signs that corpses were found and that animals were found in trees,” Camp said.
Other planned performers included Spoken Ink, Uhuru Kuumba and the Chosen Generation Gospel Choir. BSU expected an audience of 100.
“We picked performers who would enhance the mood leading up to the vigil,” said Keziah Calmese ’07, who is in charge of community outreach for BSU. “We wanted to show that we have hope for the future, but also that we haven’t forgotten Katrina’s destruction.”
The planned speaker from Spoken Word wrote the poem while participating in Katrina on the Ground. Many BSU members participated in the nationwide service group dedicated to helping hurricane victims.
Justin Davis ’07, co-president of BSU, said that the ceremony acknowledges the Tulane and Xavier students who attended Cornell last year. He also said that it shows that Cornell “all the way up in Ithaca, removed from the disaster,” answers the call to engagement with public affairs.
BSU held the vigil partly in response to the havoc wreaked on black communities in New Orleans.
“The situation is terrible for black people in New Orleans,” said Enongo Lumumba-Katongo ’08, co-president of BSU. “There have been a few situations of people being treated in the worst way.”
Lumumba-Katongo recalled an NPR broadcast on which a woman asked a police officer for help. The officer’s response was a series of racial slurs.
“In the middle of that madness, that’s the last thing you need to hear,” she said.
BSU is the umbrella organization for all the black student groups on campus. Other groups, including the Black Women’s Forum, will hold events to remember Katrina victims, too.
Ken Clarke, director of Cornell Religious Work, made the closing remarks. He pointed out that the ceremony is about what “we have to do as a society to live up to our democratic ideals.”
Clarke said that because the hurricane exposed poverty, racism and class differences — particularly in the 9th Ward of New Orleans — it’s only fitting BSU respond.
“This ceremony is representative of BSU’s historic legacy about social responsibility and the concern for social justice, which began in the 1960s,” he said.
Katrina hit New Orleans at 9:38 a.m.. Aug. 29, 2005. Over 1,800 people were killed, and 204,000 homes were destroyed or severely damaged.