Allen Toussaint was such a hugely gifted composer and musician, and such a cool dude on stage, that it is impossible to imagine hearing a bad word about him. This is one native son who has earned a memorial.
But that doesn’t mean it is a good idea to put his bronze likeness on a 60-foot marble column in the heart of his native city of New Orleans. Toussaint is being touted as a replacement for Robert E. Lee when the New Orleans City Council OKs the Confederate-sculpture purge urged by Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
The general assumption is that if Lee has to go, some other worthy should be chosen to gaze on us from on high. But there is no law that says a statue has to be placed there, and the city would be spared a great deal of acrimony if none were and we concentrated our attention on finding another name for Lee Circle.
Just where Toussaint will finally rate in the R&B pantheon is impossible to say, but New Orleans has produced so many fine musicians that he may not stand out for posterity to the same extent he does in the immediate aftermath of his death. Old Lee’s spot is so prime that, if it is to go to an artist, only a towering genius will do. And Louis Armstrong already has an airport named after him, and a statue at a less elevated level.
If Toussaint ranks as an immortal — and there is a strong case for it — he has plenty of company in the world of New Orleans music. It might be invidious to single him out for such a signal honor, if he didn’t command attention as the one who died most recently.
Landrieu seems virtually certain to get his way, ditching Lee, Jefferson Davis, Pierre Beauregard and the Liberty Monument, which commemorates the White League’s bloody putsch during the Reconstruction era. That some citizens not only agree with Landrieu, but think the purge should go further, became apparent a few days ago when vandals got to work on the Liberty Monument and on the statues of E. D. White and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville.
White, who became Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, was a White League veteran, while Bienville, having founded New Orleans, promptly introduced the oppressive Black Code. There are, of course, many mementos of racially unenlightened times in New Orleans, and the protesters could probably find reason to take umbrage on just about any corner. Since they evidently believe their cause is so righteous that they are entitled to trash public property, New Orleans could wind up looking like a war zone.
The removal of Landrieu’s four targets will merely make parts of the city unrecognizable to its residents, which is just what the activists wanted and the promoters of idealized heritage feared. Those who have campaigned to leave the Confederate monuments where they are presumably figure by now that the cause is lost. The focus shifts to what the future holds for Lee Circle.
It may be, as defenders of the status quo insist, that Lee has gotten a bad rap and was, all in all, a decent chap who worked hard for reconciliation after the Civil War. But that makes no nevermind. What matters, the protesters say, is that he led a slaveholders’ army against the United States; his statue is thus an affront to modern sensibilities.
When it was erected in 1884, the public — or, at least that part of the public whose opinion counted — was overwhelmingly in favor. But it is impossible to imagine that any suggestion for a replacement would now meet with universal approval. Race alone would make the issue highly divisive.
As a native son and a man of undisputed talent and character, Toussaint would certainly be a better choice than some other names that have been bandied about. Saints quarterback Drew Brees and “Twelve Years a Slave” author Solomon Northup, for instance, would look sadly out of place bestriding New Orleans.
But so would Toussaint or anyone else. Lee’s removal will cause resentment enough without stirring up a debate about who should inherit his plinth. What you do with a 60-foot column is the only question left hanging.
James Gill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.