The Gulf is filled with oil and I am filled with despair. Marvin Gaye’s lyrics in 1971 have never resonated so clearly:
Mercy, mercy me….things ain’t what they used to be….oil wasted on the ocean and upon our seas…fish full of mercury…
As I listen to this song, an image comes to mind—my father driving and singing along to Marvin’s lyrics as they blared through our car stereo. Whenever Marvin came on, my father would pass through the bounds of time and space, taken away by the words and sounds of one of the greatest artists of all time. “Marvin,” he would say, over and over again, shaking his head. At 8 years old, I didn’t know the details of Marvin’s death, except that my father would explain that he’d died “before his time.” It was clear to me then, that my father’s love for Marvin wasn’t just about the music, but rather the messages that came forth through his lyrics. I learned at an early age, that there was so much power in simply asking, “What’s Going On?”
As I grew older, I realized that Marvin’s lyrics had this same profound effect on others, like my father, who lived in a distinctive era of poverty, war, and resistance and who carried in their hearts, the names and faces of those who’ve experienced incomprehensible violations of human dignity.
Which leads me to the reason why I searched through my music library to find “Mercy, Mercy Me” in the first place: the Gulf Oil Spill. Perhaps, Marvin had the foresight to see where this oil story ended. There is no cure in sight for our latest Gulf tragedy, produced by the cancers of greed and deliberate indifference. The livelihood of entrenched fishing communities along the Gulf are forever threatened. The sea has turned into a toxic cesspool. And the long-term side-effects of chemical ‘cleansing’ dispersents remains to be seen.
We, the survivors of Katrina, feel helpless. Another man-made disaster complete with the all-too-familiar cast of characters and story lines: 24-hour coverage on cable news, Anderson Cooper, and Katrina metaphors. The oil isn’t the only thing floating to the surface. That old disaster anxiety and post-traumatic stress has returned, filling each new day with dread and hopelessness about the future of our region. Once again, we remain captive to the will of those tasked with fixing such problems. Is it the government? Is it BP? Who knows. This problem feels far more unfathomable and beyond our reach.
Some of us may proudly proclaim, “But this is New Orleans!”—a city and a region where people know how to get things done with a little hard work and determination. We’ve invented the playbook on how to organize communities and rebuild neighborhoods. We know how to recruit volunteers from around the world to gut houses and lay sheetrock. And though our efforts might fall upon deaf ears, we even know how to persuade our nutty politicians to push for stronger levee protection. Our spirit is undeniable.
But how—how on earth do you rebuild the sea?
Mercy, mercy me.