Civic ritual is amber. It’s the repository of public memory. It’s a place where nostalgia is transmuted into mere curiosity, enshrined or forgotten altogether. Ritual is also an excellent vehicle for irony.
Politically correct people who will never understand New Orleans cluck-cluck over the spectacle of a largely African-American krewe — Zulu — parading in blackface and grass skirts. They will be equally confused to hear that one of the hot carnival throws this year bears an image of the Robert E. Lee statue that a majority-black city relegated to history’s dust bin just last year.
Lee may not have had much to do with wartime New Orleans. The rebs were run off in the early going and Union troops occupied the city for the duration. But in a fit of racist excitement that followed Reconstruction 20 years after Appomattox, Lee was raised high above Tivoli Circle as a monument to segregation and white supremacy.
The Lee monument came down last spring, as did shrines to Jeff Davis and P.G.T. Beauregard. Likewise the mini-obelisk erected in memory of the Battle of Liberty Place, another post-Civil War spasm of resurgent racism and white rioting.
Out of sight was not out of mind, however.
The ugly squabble that preceded removal of the statuary continued after it was toppled. The renewed focus of attention: What to do with the relics?
The argument aligned the usual suspects (pro and con) in their customary coalitions.
Wannabe Johnny Rebs — the stars-and-bars crowd — had fought right up to the edge of violence against getting rid of the statues in the first place, especially Lee.
They had embraced a fake history of the Confederacy, portraying it not as betrayal of the young republic but as a noble Lost Cause. Yep, and you’re still losers, the anti-statue crowd fired back.
The rebs were joined in spirit by another minority: men and women whose tongues have been loosened by the example of our first overtly racist president in quite a while. They now felt comfortable revealing that they, too, had never been all that happy watching schools integrate and African Americans win civil rights.
Then there were the traditionalists. They also broke two ways. Some were garden-variety preservationists, leery — and not without reason — of any moves that might jeopardize the city’s heritage of historic places and buildings, statues included. Whether or not the statues came down, there was a clamor for plaques that would somehow “contextualize” monuments to the atrocity of slavery and why they stood so prominently in a city slaves built.
Others, this columnist among them, suggested that the monuments be packed off to a museum or pocket park as enduring reminders of a crime against humanity that must never be forgotten. The museum option was also a sop to esthetes in the pro-monument crowd who argued, disingenuously, that these rather generic manikins were art with a capital A that only philistines would want to get rid of.
Of course, plenty of people in the anti-monuments crowd — also with good reason — didn’t give a damn if moving the statues reduced them (oops!) to rubble.
Tempers flared and then flared again. The Lost Cause crowd rushed off to Charlottesville, Virginia, and, in a comfy alliance with neo-Nazis, managed to kill a young woman who was demonstrating against that city’s “Confederate” monuments.
Taking our statues down without bloodshed gave New Orleans reason to take a bow — and Mayor Mitch Landrieu took it, in an eloquent speech that drew favorable national comment, along with criticism from local activists who felt they deserved more specific acknowledgement.
Now, the Big Easy’s rich civic culture has digested the lingering issue — what to do with the sculptural relics — and burped up a solution. It’s classy and politically adroit, an only-in-New Orleans response to a dilemma by no means limited to the South.
Even Frank Stewart, the pro-monument funeral parlor magnate, might be wondering if he really needed to get so worked up as the statues came down.
Who needs a sky-high monument to slavery? Who needs a museum to hide it away! Gen. Lee has found eternal life. He has been reduced to a hunk of bio-nondegradable plastic tacked onto a string of Carnival beads over the words “Forever Lee Circle.” (No matter that “Never Lee Circle” might be the appropriate inscription for the statue that stood above what city plats have always identified as Tivoli Circle.)
A reported 10,000 of the necklaces were minted, and parade-goers have been crowing on Twitter and Facebook about catching them. Like many Carnival trinkets — including the 93,000 pounds of beads belatedly pulled out of clogged city storm drains this year — many Forever Lee Circle beads will find their way directly into a Carnival waste stream already choked with king cake boxes, fake diamond tiaras and rubber breasts and buttocks. Others will be cherished as collectibles. Either way, the Confederate imagery has found its proper fate.
Are the Lee bead throwers enthusiasts of the Confederacy enjoying a last hurrah? Or are they people driving another nail into the Confederacy’s coffin, by spending good money on images of the iconic Robert E. Lee and throwing them into the gutter?
As with much about Carnival, the answer is a simple one. Yes and yes.
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.