Books Life + Arts

‘Backwater Blues’ brings black suffering to the forefront

The worst flood in United States history, the Mississippi Flood of 1927 is a topic seldom studied extensively in high school history courses.

Richard Mizelle’s “Backwater Blues: The Mississippi Flood of 1927” offers readers a look into a critical event that lacked vital primary resources. At his book discussion and signing on Feb. 3 at Agnes Arnold Hall, Mizelle made his case with the goal to “voice the unspeakable.”

Raised in Raleigh, N.C., Mizelle lived in an “overwhelmingly black” neighborhood that was subjected to powerful ice storms. His experiences in Raleigh sparked an interest in nature, race and where the two intertwine, and he sought to distinguish between the “worthy and unworthy suffering” determined by nature and ethnicity.

Mizelle told listeners that historical fiction narratives, poetry and blues music had been the only media to depict the Flood of 1927 as a destructive and discriminating event in American history. Gathering primary sources was difficult because survivors didn’t have the ability to record their experiences and could not express their reactions in fear of punishment from white sharecroppers.

“I exasperated all resources,” said Mizelle on finding data relevant to the Flood of 1927.

“Backwater Blues” covers Red Cross aid to levee-preserving concentration camps, migration influences and geography’s role on racial discrimination. Mizelle discussed the impact and influence of blues music, as it provided the only universal outlet to express indescribable suffering.

Mizelle’s book also raises questions about other significant events in history that are often left out of conventional American education.

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