When I penned a column about the Confederate monument removal way back in 2015, I barely even considered the various hypocritical, convoluted, and circular arguments for keeping them in place. The funniest was about the monuments being “part of history,” like what my Maw Maw had for lunch on a random day in 1938. (No monument has ever been erected to her excellent chicken and dumplings.)
Back in 2015, the democratically elected representatives of our city, black and white, voted, overwhelmingly, to get rid of these memorials to a former era’s tyrants and terrorists. So I applauded and looked forward immediately to what we’d replace them with.
But then, just the other day, I read in The Washington Post that New Orleans had “joined the movement to take down symbols of the Confederacy and the Jim Crow South.” Joined? Just now? In April of 2017?
We’re not “joining” a movement; we’ve spearheaded it — and not just since 2015. We removed the Confederate flag from City Council chambers in 1969, decades before South Carolina lowered it.
Newsweek trumpeted the news of the monuments coming down with this headline: “Racism in America: New Orleans Confederate Monuments Are Part of City’s Long White Power History.” The article reminds readers that, in New Orleans on the eve of the Civil War, “only white men could vote.” Nowhere does the article remind readers that this was the case pretty much everywhere in the United States, and certainly in every Southern state.
Nowhere does it mention the city’s strong Civil Rights legacy or that Louisiana’s Reconstruction-era state constitution was the most progressive in the South, or the unusually high proportion of free people of color in the city at the time the Americans took over after the Louisiana Purchase, in 1803.
Acknowledging a history of struggle is in no way an adequate apology for oppression, but the paralysis induced by liberal guilt allows only for empty and repetitive mea culpas, a litany of wrongs with zero recognition of the heroes who have been fighting those wrongs for centuries.
And bear in mind that the occasion for this trite spectacle of media outrage over racism comes with our removal of Confederate monuments, not the erection of them. Every story on the removal of these monuments, even the ones, as in Newsweek, that almost forget to mention that we’re tearing the statues down, are careful to nudge readers with the reminder that New Orleans is a majority black city.
The idea of white New Orleanians standing with their black neighbors is apparently unthinkable. It doesn’t mesh with the national media narrative. You rarely see them mention that a majority of white New Orleanians voted against Trump, after voting for Barack Obama twice.
I get mad about constantly being portrayed as a racist just because I live south of the Mason-Dixon line. But then I get slapped in the face by reality: Trump-style (and Trump-supporting) racists still run the state, our beleaguered governor excepted. They surround our city like North Korean artillery batteries trained on Seoul. Congressional Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Metairie, Republican state legislator Cameron Henry, U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, among the most rabidly conservative ideologues in the country, all hail from parishes that border us.
I’d mention ex-klansman and failed presidential aspirant David Duke, except that his well-preserved mummy is just a distraction from the new generation of white supremacists who are more skillful at euphemism. They continue to celebrate racism in the same way that Trump and company do — i.e. by eschewing the n-word and deploring David Duke’s swastika armband, but continuing to rail against “political correctness,” their code words for anti-racism.
Evidently emboldened by the renewal of racist rhetoric in Washington, Nungesser threatened to sic Trump on us by declaring New Orleans’ Confederate statuary to be “national monuments.”
Trump’s fluke election may have put white supremacists back in the catbird seat in Washington, but not in New Orleans. So instead of getting mad about not getting a pat on the back from media liberals, we should take a moment to celebrate this beautiful moment in our city’s history, just among ourselves.
I agree with Malcolm Suber and Michael “Quess” Moore, of Take ’em Down Nola: Dismantling the offensive symbols in the middle of the night is not as satisfying as building a public spectacle to celebrate their removal. In fact, I suggested exactly that last November. But I also understand Mayor Landrieu’s caution, given the blood-soaked history of American racism.
It didn’t take long before 19th-century white supremacists violently crushed the democratically elected coalition of African-Americans, Francophone Afro-Creoles, immigrants, transplants from the north, and native-born whites who ran the state during the brief glimpse of racial equality called Reconstruction. During those years, interracial marriage was legalized, integrated public schools started to get a foothold, and the state, governed from New Orleans, embarked on a journey toward racial reconciliation after 150 years of slavery.
On Sept. 14, 1874, a gang of white supremacist thugs murdered 13 black and white New Orleans police officers. This was a terrorist attempt at a coup, a clumsy one, led by a band of cop-killers. It failed, but through further acts of terrorism, white supremacists eventually succeeded in seizing the state government (as they did in every other former Confederate state).
The lowlifes who killed the 13 New Orleans police officers in 1874 got their monument in 1891. The city took down that abominable obelisk two weeks ago — for the second time.*(The first was in 1989, but white supremacist pressure on the federal court system brought it back.)
The other monuments slated for removal — Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, and Jefferson Davis — all need to be viewed in the context of the terror inflicted upon the people of New Orleans in 1874. The people who put up those statues are basically the same guys who killed the 13 police officers. The Confederate regime was itself terrorist, even more so than the Jim Crow state governments that cheaply used the memory of the most disastrous four years in the history of the South to bolster their morally bankrupt and repressive banana republics.
New Orleans was part of the Confederate States of America for a scant 15 months. Yet we’re told — usually by people who don’t live in New Orleans — that this single year in New Orleans history deserves endless commemoration, at the expense of the other 300 years and three different national governments that shaped our culture.
Did I say culture? The Confederate misadventure only became “culture” in works of fantasy masquerading as history, the ones that eulogized the suicide mission of the Civil War as some kind of noble and lovely “lost cause.” To call the novels, poetry, and public sculpture that accomplished this revision of history “culture,” is to dignify mere propaganda. The statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang are also “culture,” I guess, as was the Saddam Hussein statue toppled by U.S. soldiers as they entered Baghdad in 2003.
Culture and politics intersect, of course, but representationally unimaginative renderings of generals and political leaders are first and foremost political statements, with culture as an unintended side-effect.
The question then is what political ideology the statues promote? Some people actually do argue, hilariously, that racist subjugation is NOT the main point of statues commemorating men who made war on their own country rather than even consider limiting the expansion of slavery (slavery of, uh, black people, we feel compelled to note).
Louisianians — including the small handful of New Orleanians — who oppose removal of the remaining monuments to racial terrorism hasten to point out that Lee and Beauregard supported or at least acquiesced in the Reconstruction era’s commitment to racial equality. But the statues don’t show them as elder statesmen advocating peace and reconciliation.
In their bronze iterations, Lee and Beauregard are in full battle mode, grimly making war on the United States of America. To use the memories of these men to support causes they had eschewed is deeply cynical. It’s also typical of the Machiavellian genius of white supremacist rhetoric in the bloody era that crushed Reconstruction under the boot of Jim Crow.
Gov. Murphy J. Foster oversaw, in 1898 , the legislative counterpart to the new statues. The Jim Crow laws deprived over 90 percent of African-Americans of their right to vote. They also disenfranchised over half the white people of Louisiana.
It begs a question that’s timely to this day: Why would white Louisianians — why would anyone? — support a regime that forced them to fight a truly stupid war and then stripped them of so much dignity and power? Why would white Southerners today revere the memory of a wealthy ruling elite who used them as cannon fodder and then as petty street enforcers but who wouldn’t let them walk in the front door of their mansions? Why would working white people vote for Donald Trump today, and then stand by him unconditionally as he tries to kill the government programs they depend on so desperately?
Of course racism isn’t the sole reason for these perverse chapters in American social history. There’s also xenophobia, masochism, self-loathing, and sadistic masculine fantasies of power and domination.
Another way of looking at it is much simpler: White working people who revere Confederate leaders and vote for Donald Trump are just ill-informed. While true, this answer doesn’t offer a path to changing minds informed by ignorance and idiocy. In the era of Trump, it seems more and more clear that no combination of evidence or reason can sway the hardcore 10 to 15 percent of the U.S. population that clings to racism über alles. They may have New Orleans surrounded and Washington under siege, but their bumbling incompetence so far has kept them from trashing the whole country.
All little old New Orleans can do is remind America and the world that we are not them, even if it’s hard for the world to spot us in the sea of red that swamps the region. The task is only harder given the apparent need of too many complacent liberals to put the whole moral burden of racism on the South. It’s a handy way of getting past their own vague sense of guilt for the racism they fail to acknowledge in their own cosmopolitan hearts.
Alas, truly racist Southerners are quite happy to agree that “real” white Southerners share their ideology. Condemned by other white Southerners and distrusted by like-minded Americans in other parts of the country, we anti-racist white New Orleanians might seem hopelessly beleaguered. But only if we preference the category of “white” or “Southern” over “New Orleanian.” What we’ve been trying to do in New Orleans for decades (longer, if you count Reconstruction) is live as equals — black and white, side by side. Those white New Orleanians who couldn’t handle that prospect decamped for the suburbs decades ago.
Sharing the same space, as equals, hasn’t always been easy, but just look at the rest of the United States, where white people will run screaming from a neighborhood when more than two black people move in. Both the conservative racists and the guilt-ridden northern liberals need to see that, in removing the monuments, black and white New Orleanians have joined together to celebrate the expulsion of white supremacist icons from our city.
Unlike Reconstruction, removing the monuments to men who led the South to ruin is something we have accomplished all by ourselves, with no help from the feds, and we’ve done it despite constant bickering and roadblocks from the rest of the state.
They’re just statues. I know that — just symbols. But their removal signals an end to a long tradition of excusing white supremacy here in New Orleans. It marks the onset of a new era in our history, an era as significant as the sad and sickening one ushered in by the erection of the statues in the first place, over a century ago. Large swaths of our region and country are in the grip of a new dawn of white supremacist authoritarianism. But not us. L’chaim, New Orleans! We should love ourselves today.
C.W.Cannon is a descendant of Confederate veterans as well as veterans of
the Civil Rights Movement (his parents). His latest novel is “French Quarter Beautification Project.”
*Correction: This column originally stated that the Battle of Liberty Place monument was taken down last week. It happened two weeks ago. (May 8, 2017)
The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.