“I cannot remember a time when the issue of race was not part of my life or our family’s,” Mitch Landrieu writes in his new memoir of sorts, In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History. “It’s like a song you can’t get out of your head … Race is a soundtrack that stays with me.” It’s certainly the soundtrack for the mayor’s first book, which filters Landrieu’s life from childhood to today, all through the lens of race. As Landrieu puts it, “I have been searching for my way through race for all of my conscious life and will keep doing so until God mercifully takes my last breath.”
The genesis of this book was the nationally admired speech Landrieu delivered last May at Gallier Hall as, blocks away, the statue of Robert E. Lee at Lee Circle was removed in a true Hollywood South moment. (The speech itself is included as an appendix.) Landrieu is blunt about its effect: “The speech gave me a great deal of favorable attention in the national media,” he admits, “but in my hometown, the tide has not so quickly turned.”
Those in his hometown might well ask: For whom is this book written? It clearly seems aimed at those who are just being introduced to Louisiana politics and the Landrieu family in particular, but the mayor’s voice - passionate, prolix, fast-talking, often strong-headed - will be familiar to local audiences. Those looking for political gossip or score-settling will be disappointed; this is not that kind of book.
[jump] Landrieu recalls classmates and others taunting him when his father, former Mayor Moon Landrieu, effectively desegregated City Hall in the 1970s, and answering the phone at home to hear someone shout “Moon the Coon!”. Another lesson for the young Landrieu comes during a scrap with a black man during a college pickup basketball game in Washington D.C., which he says is “the first time anyone had challenged me solely on the basis of my race” (or, at least, the first time he noticed it). “I had played hundreds of basketball games in my backyard with black boys and no one ever spit hate-eyes like that guy did at me,” he recalls. “And then it hit me. I learned that day black people can be blinded by race, too.”
Stronger than these anecdotes - and more interesting - is a chapter titled “David Duke and Donald Trump, A Nightmare Loop,” in which Landrieu, as a newly minted state representative, observes the ascent of neo-Nazi former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke to the state house. “I watch our country’s institutional crisis provoked by [President Donald] Trump,” he writes, “and my thoughts turn again to the parallels with David Duke’s psychodrama. There is nothing the country is experiencing today that we in Louisiana haven’t seen or faced in the last thirty years.” Two more chapters - one on Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods, another on the recovery under Landrieu’s mayoralty - follow Landrieu’s ascent to the lieutenant governor’s office, and what he was and wasn’t able to do in the years between the storm and when he took local office.
But it all comes back to the issue of the statues, and conversations Landrieu had with friends Terence Blanchard and Wynton Marsalis, who convinced him they had no place in a 21st-century New Orleans. “My education came late, but it caught up with me in a hurry,” Landrieu writes. “So here I am in my second term, thinking, if anyone can rid of those symbols it’s me.” Though just about everyone in New Orleans (and elsewhere) has made up his or her own mind on the matter, Landrieu still walks the reader through his thought process: “What did Robert E. Lee, who allegedly spent one night in New Orleans, actually do for this city, compared to Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Tennessee Williams, the Marsalis family, the Neville family, Anne Rice - how many names do I need?”
Publishing a book that melds policy and biography is a rite of passage for any politician hoping to ascend to a national stage (see: Bobby Jindal, Leadership and Crisis), and the publication of In the Shadow of Statues - coming as it does in the last weeks of his mayoralty - naturally will raise questions as to its ultimate purpose, as well as its intended audience. (Despite requests, the publisher, Viking, did not provide Gambit with a galley or finished book for review purposes.) Landrieu will go on a book tour later this month, starting in New York and continuing through Atlanta, Philadelphia and Washington D.C., but Viking hasn’t announced any local readings or signings, which may provide a further clue to that intended audience. (No coauthor is listed, though in the book’s acknowledgments Landrieu thanks local writer Jason Berry as a “collaborator,” and his former deputy mayor and longtime aide d’camp Ryan Berni for “shepherding and writing from beginning to end.”)
Most conspicuously absent from In the Shadow of Statues is the answer of where those statues ultimately will end up, the context in which they will (or won’t) be displayed and what will replace them on the now-vacant plinths around town. Early in the book, Landrieu writes, “Symbols matter. We use them in telling the stories of our past and who we are, and we choose them carefully.” It seems strange, then, that what's next for the statues is a question as open as what's next for our outgoing mayor.
In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History
By Mitch Landrieu
Viking. 227 pages. $25
Publication: March 20, 2018