Recent discussion of the use of the Confederate Battle Flag has led in New Orleans to long-overdue discussions over the display of Confederate memorials.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu proposed that four particular statues that he selected be made into examples of current displeasure. He even convened a private hearing of local clergy to demonstrate the spiritual depth of his judgments. Clearly, I do not think highly of this top-down approach.
New Orleans remains the people’s city; however, some would wish otherwise. Removing statues is an expensive project, using money better used for filling potholes, unless the community sees it otherwise.
Above all, removing only four statues avoids in suspect fashion an occasion to expose wounds still festering from the racist past. Racism is an attitude, not a statue, and is not so easily removed. Removing statues allows the delusion that problems are solved.
Though no one invited me to the mayor’s meeting to be asked, I ask myself which statue I would remove as a stimulus to focus collective attention on racism. Let us begin by considering what sort of man he was whom we honor in the most emblematic statue of New Orleans. Andrew Jackson held despicable views about Native Americans and saw fit to kill or exile them without compunction.
As a descendant of a woman who chose life as a country stranger’s mistress in Mississippi in preference to the prolonged uncertainty of the Trail of Tears, I have often taken perverse joy in the pigeon’s crapping on Jackson’s head.
Let us remove him to Chalmette Battlefield, where his singular heroic act can be properly memorialized. In his place, let us create in the Square the sort of honor that we have given Louis Armstrong through naming an airport and a major urban park after him.
William Faulkner lived only half a block from the Square. Tennessee Williams and other writers, notably 19th-century Creole writers, lived in the Quarter. Many of them wrote in French. Some wrote the first literature by black Americans here. It was in New Orleans in French, not in Harlem in English, that racism first became a literary theme in the United States.
Let us rename our principal Square “Faulkner Square” and erect a bronze tableau of New Orleans writers in its center.
And we can in this way begin a citywide dialogue, perhaps using the same procedure the mayor used for the budget forums, so we can discuss what, in fact, we want to do with the rest of our history. We do not want to erase our truths, even when they are unpleasant. We want to create a racism-free narrative. Arbitrarily removing statues will not do that.