NOLa may be “Confederacy Statue Central” right now but it is now and has long been a public hotbed around ensuring the civil rights of people of color. If you know the why of the streets names of A.P. Tureaud or Oretha Castle Haley among others, or remember the fight by Dorothy Mae Taylor who was the first African-American woman to serve in the Louisiana House of Representatives who (when serving as on N.O. City Council) insisted that those using public amenities for their parades had to sign a pledge that they did not discriminate on grounds of “race, gender, handicap or sexual orientation.” then you know what has been done here. (Believe it or not, a few century-old krewes stopped parading instead of affirming their belief in equality which showed the need for her pledge.) Or if you have talked to those who have been on the front lines since at least Father Twomey was around, you know the subject is lit and has been for generations here.
If you doubt that, here are some signs of it. This is a collection of different things people here have done or said, so choose the stories that are helpful to you:
• Go to Treme and view the cross made of shackles put up in 2004 at the church of St. Augustine built in the 1840s by free people of color. Read about the 19th century War of the Pews where whites and FPOC duked it out to see who would have prominence in this church. The FPOC won by purchasing 3 pews for every one a white person bought and even bought pews so slaves could attend services.
• Or read the piece in Playboy which includes my favorite new image of these statues from someone I already admired: a local writer who is described by the author of the Playboy piece as “Maurice Ruffin, a native son who’s a lawyer, restaurateur, and novelist rolled into one—a NOLA combo for the ages. He scoffed at the idea that there could be any doubt about the preponderant local sentiment, and not only among his fellow African Americans. “Does anyone think that most people in this city want to keep those horcruxes up? “ he asks. “Of course not. That’s why the pro-monuments people are mostly out-of-towners.”
• If you still doubt our resolve to find and share the truth, search out the telling of the real history now happening on social media, in person and in close quarters in family homes. This quote below was in response to one of those posts by someone who thinks of themselves as the keeper of the history but who was just quoting fake propaganda taught in our schools circa 1880s-1950s:
Actually, 143 years ago a minority calling itself the White League, whose primary goal was sustaining white political power in Louisiana, overthrew the local government, and forcibly disarmed and disbanded the black state militia. The monument, erected in 1891 and honored with wreath-laying ceremonies by children of White League veterans until the 1930’s, went up at the time Jim Crow laws were widely passed (for example, the 1890 law barring black and white Louisianians from riding together in railroad cars.) Today the monuments are being defended, with threats of violence, largely by white supremacists.
Which long-ago time did you wish to honor here?
Dozens and dozens of these calm explanations from New Orleanians to other misguided Southerners and adherents to the White Cause movement exist.
• I also like this comment below by a friend of a friend on FB, that mirrors my experience up north too. I remember the neighbors of my parents’ generation laughing about how there was a code used on police scanners to indicate a person of color had crossed into my lily-white suburb. The car would be stopped, likely ticketed for some minor or non-existent traffic offense, and turned around to the Cleveland border. Yeah, I’m looking at you, Lakewood Ohio.
As to the underlying racism of “just between us” moments, in the nearly 30 years since I moved here, I have always found my hometown of Chicago to be much more racist than New Orleans, if for no other reason than that, in Chicago, black culture is considered sub-culture and in New Orleans, it is the culture. Growing up in Chicago, you could, as a white person, go your whole life not encountering black people in social settings, if you wanted to live that way (yuck!). Here, that would be next to impossible, except in the highest economic brackets.
What’s also important about that one is it is been my experience that those without family ties to this place, or more correctly, those with some family ties and time away someplace else- are often the ones who have a hard time with the removals and who favor some unlikely “middle ground” of the statues remaining but with a plaque. That has always seemed to me the definition of the old phrase about putting lipstick on a pig. These folks are often very forgiving of all of the oddities of the place and become expert in telling stories about New Orleans to outsiders in a way that shows the charm of it all and hides the shame. Yet, it is time that they also confront the statues of Jim Crow and like the lady above, truly become a local by saying it is time for some of that shit to go.
• What a favorite writer with one of the keenest eyes for modern American farce, Joan Didion said almost 50 years ago about why she came to the South:
…that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.” (2017). South and West. Alfred A. Knopf
Malevolent and benevolent energy. I think I’ll steal that forthwith. But sadly she was right- the South’s lack of self-awareness about it’s own energy was this country’s future in 2016+. Writer Nathaniel Rich wrote in the foreword to Didion’s book:
How could the hidebound South, with its perpetual disintegration and defiant decadence, at the same time represent the future? Didion admits the idea seems oxymoronic, but she is onto something. Part of the answer, she suspects, lies in the bluntness with which Southerners confront race, class, and heritage–“distinctions which the frontier ethic teaches western children to deny, and to leave deliberately unmentioned.” In the South, such distinctions are visible, rigid, and the subject of frank conversations.
• A drum roll, please. The next two worthy statements about what is happening here (good and bad), one from a native New Orleanian and the other from a decades-long resident who has extended the culture through his contributions:
So come on. Learn along with us and explore YOUR own area’s history of inequity and confront your own privilege. Because it is there.
I do that daily in a city with a majority African-American population who have given the world so much culture and indigenous knowledge and community that is hilariously and evidentially so wrong when those with pointy heads here say they are superior. Still, the subjugation of the majority of people (or in those areas where they are a minority, it doesn’t matter) continues and it is time for us to truthfully see our country as not entirely made by Daniel Boone or John Wayne but also by millions of hard-working and creative people who are not identified by monuments and are not white and not men. America was not made only by white people and yet remains a place where going to the better schools in any town or the nicest suburb, or the corporate meeting will offer mostly whiteness. And going to the prison or the changing room in the hotel employee area will show the opposite.
This does not ask whites to hate themselves or their own history but instead asks them to see themselves as part of a larger humanitarian future where the color of skin should not offer any advantage. To see the evidence of institutional racism that we benefit from in a thousand tiny ways and too often don’t spend any energy to rid our places of it.
As I wrote that last part, I stopped to read this post by native Cheryl Gerber, which is a thoughtful and heartfelt outpouring:
This particular photo haunts me.
There have been a handful of events in my life that have really shaken my complacency. Like the time in my early 20s when I did jury duty in a murder case and I was the only white juror and the only juror who believed the policeman’s testimony. That really opened my eyes. I didn’t know better, but I do now.
And when the planes struck the towers. I convinced myself that no one could have seen that coming but the signs were there.
And when the levees broke. For my entire life I had been told that our city could drown, but I didn’t believe it. Not even when the cat five storm was barreling straight toward us. I should’ve known. I do now.
And when we elected you-know-who. Didn’t see that coming, but I should have.
And now I am equally, if not more perplexed by my community who wants to keep the Confederate monuments up. Even while they have drawn hate groups from across the country. Even while our African-American neighbors have been complaining and marching for decades.
This photo of Pastor Marie Galatas, who ran for mayor in 2006, really shook me out of my complacency. I have seen her march and preach for decades. And while I never thought she was a joke, I never really took her as seriously as I should have — not until I saw her holding up her cross and bravely marching past KKK members hurling the N-word toward her. I can’t believe she still has to march! She and others have been trying to tell us for years that racism is our city’s biggest issue. While I haven’t been blind to racism in our fair city, I have been guilty of wearing rose-colored glasses. Now I see clearly.
It is also important for all of us here to remember that we do this work on our own biases in a city that can have an impressive history of different races and ethnicities respecting and honoring each other. The Italians and Creoles living together in the Quarter for 100 years; the Vietnamese being cheered as heroes when they stood up to City Hall post-Katrina; the black and white faces of ACORN/A Community Voice fighting for minimum wage hikes, to stop the sell off of the public water system, the intrusion of a industrial truck corridor in their shared neighborhood in 2017; and last but not least, the multi-generational sea supporting the city’s takedown of these concrete nooses held tight by our ancestors’ post-Reconstruction Jim Crow attitudes.
Latest: Wynton Marsalis weighs in on the takedown and the racism of his hometown.