The University of Southern Mississippi's Oral History program is one of the best in the nation. When I was an undergrad, and then a grad, in the history department, I had the pleasure of working closely with a number of faculty who'd been involved in the oral history program since its inception, and when I checked my Facebook feed today, I've never wanted to be "back home" more.
If you want to hear the voices of the families who're trying to continue living on the Mississippi Sound and the Gulf of Mexico, go no further than USM's Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage.
Follow me below the curvy orange transom. Let's visit folks in Biloxi.
Coping and reinventing one’s life in response to tragedy and disaster is something the Vietnamese interviewees have experienced time after time, said Van Zandt. Silenced by Communism after war, barred from education, stripped of their property, livelihoods, and country, they chose to risk imprisonment and life by escaping on boats into the unknown. From there they navigated a new culture and language in America, losing homes and boats to Hurricane Katrina, and most recently, losing livelihoods to the oil spill.The first date is familiar to most: after the fall of Saigon, the terrifying, perilous journey of the "Boat People" to safety here in the US brought thousands of Vietnamese families and parts of families to cities and towns throughout the nation. When the UN declared a humanitarian crisis, 700,000 refugees were resettled in four countries - including the US. After escaping almost certain death and the certainty of only a fractional life if they survived in Vietnam, these strong, desperately poor people started lives in a new country.
When asked what dates have defined their lives, Van Zandt said a group of out-of-work “fisherfolk” answered 1975 (fall of South Vietnam), 2005 (Hurricane Katrina), and 2010 (BP oil spill). Many still struggle to recover from the displacement by Hurricane Katrina, and now the loss of livelihood in the wake of the oil disaster.
As the refugees were resettled, many, if not most, found themselves in communities which had limited contact with Asians. Texas' refugees had one of the most difficult times, with their persecution at the hands of the KKK. Even with all my years of studying Mississippi history, I've never seen any documentation of similar responses by Klansmen in that most southern of states, though I'm hard-pressed to believe that it didn't occur. At any rate, the Vietnamese fisherfolk worked long, hard hours and made marginal successes, raising families and enriching the communities they supported.
After the storm, I remember hearing frequent discussions of the plans to renovate Point Cadet - the easternmost point of Biloxi. At the turn of the century, the Point was Slavic, Slovenian, and Moravian to the core. The Slovene Brotherhood off of Mabel Street, not too far from the Boomtown and Imperial Palace, still stands as testament to the thousands of central European immigrants that came to Mississippi to pack shrimp and pick crab. The Vietnamese slowly moved in to the homes where their fishpacking brethren had lived before them, and by the time I left Mississippi in 2003, the Point was a mix of gaming, restaurants, and working-class Vietnamese residential streets, a little tired, yes - but the tired of good people working hard.
I remember the first time I heard a thinly veiled racist comment about the Point. Biloxi's mayor, O'Keefe, I think it was, or something like that, made the comment that Katrina had given Biloxi the opportunity to "reinvent the Point". "Reinvent". I always wanted to ask him which "reinvention" he had in mind - the one that made the Point sing in its heyday? The Slovak, Slovene and Moravian Point that gave us the Voynivichs, the Gillichs, and Cospelichs? Then they started showing all their giant mock ups of plans and full-color drawings and renderings of condos and parks where the working-class bungalows and flowerbeds used to be. I asked my Mom and Dad that Christmas after the storm where the Vietnamese fishermen were supposed to live. They didn't know. And I always got the impression that the people who ought to have didn't care.
And then BP went and had its giant cock-up in the Gulf. Dead people, dead cultures, dead fish, dead ecosystems: some of the richest and most biodiverse land and water in the world was covered in Haley's "sheeeen" and orange sludge and tarballs. "It'll come back," we all heard. "It's been under assault for years from agricultural runoff and non-native species and overfishing, this won't be any different," we all heard. But now there's this.
And these families, who came and worked and worked and weathered the storm and rebuilt and only wanted to fish?
One interviewee, Biloxi shrimper Tuan Tran, talked of his father’s death on the battlefield during the Vietnam War. Tran was forced to quit school to begin fishing to help feed his family. After years of suffering under Communist rule due to his father’s “friend of the enemy” status, he made the difficult decision to leave his family in hopes of finding a better future for them, and he escaped Vietnam by boat, feeding the crew by fishing while lost at sea for 15 days.Where is their American Dream? Katrina made sure it wasn't on the Point. And BP's done its best to make damn sure it won't be in Biloxi.
Eventually making it to Biloxi to fish, the only work he could pursue immediately without knowing English, he has supported his wife and two children, who still live in Vietnam, through the shrimp he catches and sells off Biloxi’s Back Bay dock. Since Katrina, Tran has been living on his small boat to save money for his family in Vietnam so that they can attend school and “have a better life.”
Since the oil spill he now says there is “no shrimp, no shrimp” and worries about his family’s future more than ever. “Most fisherfolk interviewed say the oil spill impact is worse than Katrina’s, where at least they could pick up a hammer and begin rebuilding,” Van Zandt said.
The University of Southern Mississippi has many of its interviews available for listening online. Visit the Center virtually for more information.
Their Mississippi Moments podcasts are a treasure trove of information, from how to grow oyster beds to the Deacons of Defense.