As a longtime teacher of American literature in multicultural New Orleans, I have always tried to encourage students to maintain hope for the future. Despite the long, bumpy and sometimes bloody road of human progress, I strive to communicate the idea that things can be improved if citizens work for the good of all. That’s why I was encouraged by the recent proposal — advanced by Mayor Mitch Landrieu — to replace the Confederate monuments.
I know change is not easy. It took a huge effort to rebuild the city after Hurricane Katrina.
I also know that some admire the military courage and acumen of Gen. Robert E. Lee and other Confederates in leading the slave-holding states in the Civil War. That’s fine. Those qualities can still be admired in museums or at other historical sites. I have close friends who hold dear to their Southern heritage. I do, too, in many ways. In fact, I attended Lee High School in Huntsville, Alabama, and whistled along when the pep rally band played “Dixie,” the anthem of the Confederacy. Our sports teams were even nicknamed Generals in honor of the Confederate war hero. It wasn’t until I played baseball with an African-American teammate and I heard one of my other high school associates use a racial epithet toward my teammate that I really lost my naivete and began to learn more about the history of racial discrimination.
Later, I read the autobiography of Frederick Douglass and his vivid descriptions of life as a slave. Guiding multicultural students through 400-plus years of American literature involves discussing some tragic history. For example, I think students need to know about the time when Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act (circa 1857), which spurred John Greenleaf Whittier to write in a poem titled “From Massachusetts to Virgina”:
No slave-hunt in our borders, — no pirate on our strand!
No fetters in the Bay State, — no slave upon our land!
Indeed, let us not forget the cultural history of the Civil War (1861-1865) in such stories as “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce, “The Brothers” by Louisa May Alcott, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet B. Stowe, and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain. All these literary monuments reflect on the tragedies and injustices caused by a cultural system that OK’d slavery. To maintain public statues that honor that time of discrimination and disunity certainly does not seem to reflect the learning of lessons from the past or “best practices” in fostering positive outlooks for the future.
Hence, as a teacher, as the city approaches its tricentennial year, I urge the people of New Orleans to support replacement of the Confederate monuments with positive, unifying symbols.