I don’t remember exactly where I was in August 2005, but at the end of that month I was mostly in front of the television, like most other people, transfixed and upset by the story of Hurricane Katrina. Most Americans were horrified by what was happening down there, but I think for black people, we took it a little more personally. I’ve been to shantytowns in Angola that taught me that what we consider to be crushing poverty in the United States has nothing to do with what we have materially — even in the projects, we’re rich compared to some people in other parts of the world. I met people in those shantytowns who lived in one room houses with no running water who had to pay a neighbor to get water to go to the bathroom. Those kids in Angola played ball on a court surrounded by open sewage, and while they knew it was bad, they didn’t realize just how fucked up it was. It was shocking. And I know there are parts of the world even worse off than that.
The worst thing about being poor in America isn’t the deprivation. In fact, I never associated Marcy with poverty when I was a kid. I just figured we lived in an apartment, that my brother and I shared a room and that we were close — whether we wanted to be or not — with our neighbors. It wasn’t until sixth grade, at P.S. 168, when my teacher took us on a field trip to her house that I realized we were poor. I have no idea what my teacher’s intentions were — whether she was trying to inspire us or if she actually thought visiting her Manhattan brownstone with her view of Central Park qualified as a school trip. But that’s when it registered to me that my family didn’t have as much. We definitely didn’t have the same refrigerator she had in her kitchen, one that had two levers on the outer door, one for water and the other for ice cubes. Poverty is relative.
One of the reasons inequality gets so deep in this country is that everyone wants to be rich. That’s the American ideal. Poor people don’t like talking about poverty because even though they might live in the projects surrounded by other poor people and have, like, ten dollars in the bank, they don’t like to think of themselves as poor. It’s embarrassing. When you’re a kid, even in the projects, one kid will mercilessly snap on another kid over minor material differences, even though by the American standard, they’re both broke as shit.
The burden of poverty isn’t just that you don’t always have the things you need, it’s the feeling of being embarrassed every day of your life, and you’d do anything to lift that burden. As kids we didn’t complain about being poor; we talked about how rich we were going to be and made moves to get the lifestyle we aspired to by any means we could. And as soon as we had a little money, we were eager to show it.
I remember coming back home from doing work out of state with my boys in a caravan of Lexuses that we parked right in the middle of Marcy. I ran up to my mom’s apartment to get something and looked out the window and saw those three new Lexuses gleaming in the sun, and thought, “Man, we doin’ it.” In retrospect, yeah, that was kind of ignorant, but at the time I could just feel that stink and shame of being broke lifting off of me, and it felt beautiful. The sad shit is that you never really shake it all the way off, no matter how much money you get.
I watched the coverage of the hurricane, but it was painful. Helicopters swooping over rooftops with people begging to be rescued — the helicopters would leave with a dramatic photo, but didn’t bother to pick up the person on the roof. George Bush doing his flyby and declaring that the head of FEMA was doing a heckuva job. The news media would show a man running down the street, arms piled high with diapers or bottles of water, and call him a looter, with no context for why he was doing what he was doing. I’m sure there were a few idiots stealing plasma TVs, but even that has a context — anger, trauma. It wasn’t like they were stealing TVs so they could go home and watch the game. I mean, where were they going to plug them shits in? As the days dragged on and the images got worse and worse — old ladies in wheelchairs dying in front of the Superdome — I kept thinking to myself, This can’t be happening in a wealthy country. Why isn’t anyone doing anything?
Kanye caught a lot of heat for coming on that telethon and saying, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” but I backed him one hundred percent on it, if only because he was expressing a feeling that was bottled up in a lot of our hearts. It didn’t feel like Katrina was just a natural disaster that arbitrarily swept through a corner of the United States. Katrina felt like something that was happening to black people, specifically.
I know all sorts of people in Louisiana and Mississippi got washed out, too, and saw their lives destroyed — but in America, we process that sort of thing as a tragedy. When it happens to black people, it feels like something else, like history rerunning its favorite loop. It wasn’t just me. People saw that Katrina shit, heard the newscasters describing the victims as “refugees” in their own country, waited in vain for the government to step in and rescue those people who were dying right in front of our eyes, and we took it personally. I got angry. But more than that, I just felt hurt. In moments like that, it all starts coming back to you: slavery, images of black people in suits and dresses getting beaten on the bridge to Selma, the whole ugly story you sometimes want to think is over. And then it’s back, like it never left. I felt hurt in a personal way for those people floating on cars and waving on the roofs of their shotgun houses, crying into the cameras for help, being left on their porches. Maybe I felt some sense of shame that we’d let this happen to our brothers and sisters. Eventually I hit the off button on the remote control. I went numb.
Excerpted from Decoded by Jay-Z. Copyright 2010 by Shawn Carter. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau.