The statute of Robert E. Lee may have been taken down, but even with the general gone, Lee Circle continues to be a conspicuous embarrassment to New Orleans. Nobody knows quite what to do with it. We still have to say its name, yet we know we need to change it. Fortunately, the city now has a perfect opportunity to resolve the dilemma: rename the circle after Fats Domino.
Domino, who died this week at age 89, was not just one of the most important figures in New Orleans music, but in all of American music. He is one of only a handful of figures with a plausible claim to have invented rock and roll. At his peak, he sold more records than almost anyone else in the country, influencing Elvis, the Beatles, and pretty much everyone else. He was arguably more important in bringing New Orleans music to the attention of the world than anyone other than Louis Armstrong.
Fats Domino didn’t just represent New Orleans, he loved and cared about New Orleans. Until Katrina, despite millions in record sales that could have taken him anywhere he pleased, he still resided in his Lower Ninth Ward home, and he stopped touring in the 80s because he didn’t like the food in any other city.
And New Orleans has always loved Fats Domino, too. But, strangely, there are few visible tributes to Domino in the city. Louis Armstrong has an airport and one of our best parks. But beyond a tribute on Bourbon Street, of all places, there are no monuments to Antoine Dominique Domino Jr., despite his status as one of the most respected and accomplished New Orleanians of all time.
Perhaps that’s because of Domino’s legendary humility; he famously downplayed his extraordinary achievements. Or, more depressingly, perhaps it’s a reflection of the way the city often shows insufficient gratitude to its musicians. Armstrong is an exceptional case, and in general there are far more streets named after slave owners than jazzmen or R&B musicians. Our music has always been somewhat taken for granted; after Katrina, Cyril Neville infamously put down the city’s treatment of musicians, saying that “the situation for musicians was a joke.” We love our musicians, but how much respect do we really give them?
We now have the opportunity to perform an inspiring symbolic act. Robert E. Lee’s pedestal stands empty. Lee himself isn’t going back, but nobody has come up with a good idea for what do with the space. We can’t just have an empty column, yet what figure is so towering that he or she deserves a 60-foot stone column? I can think of only one individual deserving of such an honor.
Taking down the Confederate monuments has been an important step in freeing New Orleans from the symbolic legacy of slavery and racism. But it’s not enough to decide what we don’t want this city to be identified with. We also have to figure out what we do want its identity to be. Once the statues are gone, we next have to figure out what will go in their place. Fortunately, there’s an obvious answer. Our city has the greatest musical legacy of any in the world. The names of streets, monuments, and public spaces should reflect that legacy, serving to educate newcomers and remind the rest of us of those incredible talents who created it.
There’s no better place to start than by finally giving Fats Domino his due. There’s no need to tussle for years over different proposals, as the column sits empty and the circle retains its shameful name. It’s very clear what needs to be done. Let’s commission the statue right now. Antoine Fats Domino Circle would be a small way of repaying the incredible debt our city owes to the humble piano player who called himself The Fat Man.
Nathan Robinson, a doctoral candidate in social policy at Harvard University, is the editor of Current Affairs, a New Orleans-based magazine of political analysis.
Views expressed in the Opinion section are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.