Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones is a narrative of black femininity and its restraints on a young black girl in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Throughout the progression of the novel, Ward provides commentary on the oppression of black women in a place America turned its back upon in its time of deep crisis. To highlight this, much of the book describes the ways in which the main character’s, Esch, identity has already left her feeling trapped and worthless before the storm hits—her pregnancy, economic status, and sexuality all work to separate her from the men on her life and leave her feeling alone. These factors work to support awareness for intersectionality in politics, as a young girl is left to fight for her worth due to the combination of her race and gender amidst one of America’s most catastrophic natural disasters.
Following Hurricane Katrina, researchers Pam Jenkins and Brenda Phillips went into the city to discover what role gender plays in the effects of natural disasters. What they found was a confirmation of Ward’s fictional representation of feminine invisibility and abuse that appeared several times throughout Salvage the Bones. With the support of their findings, Jenkins and Phillips argued that women living in places ravaged by disaster are prone to fall victim to masculine abuse and rape1. According to Jenkins and Phillips, this has a direct correlation to times of disaster and stems from the systematic negligence of feminine issues and protection. In their essay, both researchers explore the influence the female body has over an individual’s protection and worth in times of catastrophe, strongly reflecting Jesmyn Ward’s narrative of Esch’s body and how it was taken advantage of repeatedly without ever being noticed due to seemingly more pressing issues being dealt with by the entire family.
Rachel Luft reiterates this idea of female negligence in her article, “Racialized Disaster Patriarchy: An Intersectional Model for Understanding Disaster Ten Years after Hurricane Katrina,” in which she discusses how it was not just women, but African American women who suffered the most during times of crisis. BY incorporating gender and race equally in her analysis, Luft stresses the importance of intersectional politics regarding black women and their treatment within society. Esch’s character, being a member of both the black and female community, is the embodiment of these intersectional communities and represents how this collective identity results in abuse and degradation, which Luft insists are pre-existing issues that were only exacerbated during the storm2.
The way in which both gender and race collectively played a role in the mistreatment and negligence of black women during Hurricane Katrina was also analyzed by researchers Lori Peek and Alice Fothergill. Testimonies given by members of diverse communities displaced or affected by the storm revealed that by an overwhelming majority, black women were faced by significantly more hardships in the wake of Katrina. The maternal and domestic responsibilities placed upon the black, female community resulted in unequivocal stress upon the black women living in New Orleans3.
In my own analysis, I hope to use the ties between Esch’s character and the intersectionality of race and gender that resulted in the exacerbation of mistreatment toward black women during Hurricane Katrina in order to explore instances of symbolism and imagery that Ward used to help express these issues. More specifically, perhaps using the research of previous scholars in order to argue that the maternal imagery of Esch and China was used to highlight the underlying issues already present in society that were brought to light by the storm. Much as fetus’ grow and develop within the women, the sexist and racist constructs that have already been planted in their society continued to worsen until they climaxed in the wake of the storm, where their worth was compromised and aid was refused for those already trapped by their pre-existing circumstances.
Jenkins, Pam, and Brenda Phillips. “Battered Women, Catastrophe, and the Context of Safety after Hurricane Katrina.” NWSA Journal 20, no. 3 (2008): 49–68.
Luft, Rachel E. “Racialized Disaster Patriarchy: An Intersectional Model for Understanding Disaster Ten Years after Hurricane Katrina.” Feminist Formations 28, no. 2 (December 13, 2016): 1–26. https://doi.org/10.1353/ff.2016.0023.
Peek, Lori, and Alice Fothergill. “Displacement, Gender, and the Challenges of Parenting after Hurricane Katrina.” NWSA Journal 20, no. 3 (2008): 69–105.