Disaster, Memory, and Popular Culture

May 18, 2016
Living-learning course takes an interdisciplinary look at disasters and memory

Disasters like the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center or the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina can become part of the fabric of our lives. These events, while devastating, also have the potential to bring communities together in their aftermath.

But as time passes, how is a disaster remembered, especially by those who were not directly affected by it? How do the media and entertainment like TV and movies shape our memories of these events?

Those were some of the questions that Melissa Ooten sought to answer as she designed her Sophomore Scholars in Residence (SSIR) course Disaster, Memory, and Popular Culture. “For the folks that study this sort of thing, they find that popular culture really shapes how people remember an event,” Ooten said. “I wanted to take an interdisciplinary look at the ways disasters are remembered, and how popular culture influences that memory.”

She knew she wanted to frame the course around 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. “These are both things students remember, even though they were quite young for 9/11,” Ooten said. “I also wanted to talk about social disaster, and how things like slavery and segregation still impact African-Americans lives today.”

The class studied disaster from multiple perspectives, including psychology, sociology, and science. They also turned their attention to media portrayals of disasters, trying to look beyond heroic stories of individuals to see what communities did as a group, and how negative portrayals of events — even factually inaccurate ones — impacted people’s perceptions of what was happening.

“I think all of us have a little bit of a fascination with these horrific events that become big meaning-makers within society as a whole,” Ooten said. “Trying to parse apart how this affects society, how we remember it, what it means for the human experience, is really what interested all of us."

“We only hear about the disaster when the event happens; I was interested in learning about what happened to disaster sites when the media coverage died down,” said Brittany Woo, ’18.

The SSIR format included travel to New York and New Orleans, which brought their classroom learning to life. “Being able to take them places, to walk the Slave Trail here in Richmond, to visit the 9/11 Museum because museums really do help shape our memories of events, to talk with people in the Lower Ninth Ward who lost their homes, it’s invaluable,” Ooten said. “I cannot recreate those experiences in the classroom.”

Woo said she only remembers 9/11 through the lens of what she saw and heard in the media, but visiting the 9/11 Museum added nuance. “It was interesting to analyze the disaster through real life recordings and footage, and I found it infuriating to experience how the corporate world has turned this disaster site into a tourist site,” said Woo.

The trip to New Orleans reinforced the idea of social and economic impact of a disaster, as students visited the Lower Ninth Ward and kayaked through the bayou to learn about the land loss that New Orleans is experiencing.

“While we were walking through a neighborhood of homes that were rebuilt by Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation, Robert Green invited us into his home,” Woo said. “He shared his tragic experience of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. His humble outlook and attitude towards the disaster was truly inspiring and touching.”

“Now, I understand that the aftermath of what affected communities feel lasts longer than the news coverage,” said Woo. “It’s an ongoing social and economic battle that most people overlook.”

Back in Richmond, Ooten’s students were left wondering what to do next. The class capstone project offered an opportunity to explore a different kind of disaster—and one closer to home.

“After studying these often horrific examples of disaster, I think there is this element of wanting to feel like you’re doing good in the world,” she said. “They came to me wanting to work in the community, so we worked with folks in the [Bonner Center for Civic Engagement] to make that happen.”

The students focused their work on the Richmond neighborhood of Highland Park, which Shaina D’Souza, ’18, described as a formerly middle-class white neighborhood which became middle-class African-American in the 1950s and 60s after the interstate was put through the heart of nearby Jackson Ward, a historic African-American neighborhood. The building of the interstate led to the displacement of many African-American residents of Jackson Ward, some of whom subsequently settled in Highland Park. “We are considering the partial destruction of Jackson Ward a social disaster,” said D’Souza. Discriminatory lending practices and housing public policy created a state of urban blight in Highland Park by the 1980s. Today, residents, nonprofits, and city government are working together to reverse that trend.

The class worked with community organizations and researched how social disasters like poverty and institutionalized racism affected the neighborhood over time.

“While natural disasters are significant, sometimes social disasters go unnoticed and unresolved,” said Julia Wren, ’18.  

Ooten hopes her students will leave the course with a broader perspective, regardless of where their major or career takes them. “I hope they’ll continue to realize the importance of thinking across disciplines,” she said. “You learn more and you learn in deeper ways by studying what lots of differently situated people think, rather than just looking at one perspective.”