Nice to be privileged enough to say no thanks

This past Saturday, the local anti-racism group Take “Em Down Nola held their response to the administration’s approval of armed thugs roaming Charlottesville for 2 days while inciting a man to kill peaceful protestor Heather Heyer. (As of now, no charges against the organizers of this armed encampment for their role in her death.)

The TeDNOla spent days carefully organizing a march in support of the peace activists in Charlottesville from Congo Square (the historic gathering place for people of color) to Jackson Square, once the main public square of the old city, and now the site of wealthy people’s second or third rarely-used abodes, a few tourist shops and one very good and a few not so good restaurants, as well as the workplace for struggling artists, readers and musicians and a whole bunch of 24/7 lively, illegal and informal activity.
it is also the home of the statue of Andrew Jackson, known for his defense of New Orleans in the War of 1812 and his presidency, but also known for his long brutality to Native Americans made into federal policy with the Indian Removal Act resulting in the destruction of many tribes and the Trail of Tears.

On the morning of the peaceful protest in New Orleans, Facebook erupted with disparaging comments about the foolishness of this protest, with many posts indicating that police had told French Quarter shopkeepers and workers that busloads of supremacists and Nazis were on their way, and warning of people climbing the gates of the park to pull down the statue (even though the size and weight of this particular statue clearly precluded a rope being tossed over and a firm yank resulting in its destruction, and the fact that the same group had gathered there previously and not damaged the statue.)

Back and forth about how “we have more important things to worry about” (as if one cannot hold separate issues and plans of action in one’s head on a Saturday), how this peaceful organized protest will result in property destruction and loss of income for FQ (an area where thousands of tourists crowd daily, guzzling sugary drinks until they are drunk enough to feel it proper to use front stoops as their bathrooms and destroy property willy-nilly), and comments of how we have “already dealt with this issue here” (we assume by “allowing” the mayor and council to remove 4 of the 7 statues to Confederates in the city) were posted without embarrassment.
Those well-meaning posters were, of course, white and often native to the area. That second point is important only because there is a firm belief among many that natives are the only ones who can decide on historical context. Those opinions pop up on every post or article about the symbols of the Confederacy and the Jim Crow era that are part of every neighborhood in this city. That native-only line in the sand has grown since the post-Katrina addition of thousands of new arrivals, who it must be said that many of them were clearly drawn here because of the potential to cash in on a rebuilding city with some amenities and a lot of poor people.

The tension between the natives, the long-ago arrived (seen as native by most if they have lived through a hurricane, follow the traditions of Carnival season and have either sent their kids to public schools or rebuilt a crumbling historic home with love and frequent trips to the Green Project) and the newly arrived are seemingly at an all-time high. Maybe the tension following the arrival of the Americans after the Lousiana Purchase was higher, but since that was a boom time for the city, it’s likely this one is worse.
That tension plays into any organizing against the symbols of white supremacy, and is mocked by many natives while any discussion of it as well past time for these to come down is usually met with questions about one’s hold on any Southern or New Orleans genealogy. Even the long-ago arrivals will often admit to being shocked back then at seeing so many ties to the short history of the Confederacy, even as they miss the irony of their later and longer tacit acceptance of it.

The disdain for public assembly over the continuing effect of state-sanctioned racism is certainly another indicator for the privilege that most whites refuse to acknowledge. Business returning to usual is the usual plea by those holed up at home, gnashing their teeth at “how exhausting this year has been already” missing the point as to how every year has been for the disenfranchised. That “business as usual” attitude is shown by belittling public activists through painting them as foolish and selfish and makes the divide even more permanent.

Yet most locals know that organizing against white supremacy through “channels” is not possible when the system itself is perpetuating the racism. It does that through known practices such as redlining whole areas against bank loans, creating pockets of poverty by allowing developers to build substandard housing “back of town” and only incentivizing job creation in tourist-rich areas. And by locking up more people of color than anywhere else in the world and using those prisons as profit-making opportunities. And by allowing unemployment to be close to 80% for adult men in certain areas of the city and across the South. No one who travels through the 7th, 8th or 9th ward of New Orleans or through small towns across Louisiana and Mississippi can miss the hopeless faces of men and women sitting on stoops, knowing from experience they are not welcome to anything of value.
So knowing that truth, how can they deride their neighbors taking to the public streets to counter the approval of a president who called armed supremacists “fine people” and who has not shown any sympathy for the murders of innocent people who were unfortunate enough to be in the path of racist murderers, whether police or any other?
The answer is a word I have used here already and is used often elsewhere: privilege.
That word is also a red flag for many whites who have not bothered to unpack what it means or to understand how prejudice and racism are two separate things. Who often use the inoperable term of “reverse racism” or blithely say they have never heard any black people say they didn’t like the statues, as if the thousands of marchers and years of protest have not happened right in front of them; as if their daily world includes a diverse cross-section of residents who feel comfortable in sharing their feelings of oppression with their white neighbors who wave gaily to them as they get in their air-conditioned personal tank or on their well-functioning 2-wheeler and go to their job or to their appointments to get their eyes checked or meet their friends for coffee at a place where the check may equal what that neighboring family of four spends for food for a week.

I know all of this because I operate in this world of privilege. I know it, and I work to rid myself of the thinking that allows me to think that I fairly came to the opportunities given to me. When I say that, it doesn’t mean that I think I don’t deserve opportunity; it only means I don’t deserve an unequal amount of opportunity. In most workplaces I have had in New Orleans (and in Northern cities too) the management is almost entirely white and the entry-level work held by people of color. Yet, often the go-to employees are the people of color; the employees who stay at that entry-level for decades after people like me have moved on to another opportunity. Privilege.

I live in the French Quarter, partly because my family also lives there and also because, over a 24 hour period, it is the most diverse public space in the region, even though I acknowledge that a large percentage of the resident population is among the whitest and richest, maybe only outdone by St. Charles Avenue. Privilege.

This is why I march and organize with my neighbors of color, no matter how inopportune the time or place. Yet, I can also go back to my regularly scheduled life and ignore this or that action, assuming that no retribution from my alliance with activists will befall me. That in that regularly scheduled life, that a police officer will not stop me and violate my rights because of their antipathy to the color of my skin driving on their city streets. Privilege.

The issue of the Jackson statue is seen as moot by many locals, even those who agree that Confederate statues must come down. (I believe it deserves censure and likely a takedown, but believe that the 3 remaining symbols of the Confederacy in statue form should be targeted first, as well as the names of white supremacists that litter our street names.) The lack of awareness of the connection of racism against Native Americans is even more embedded into white life, with disparaging images on sports teams logos remaining and the destruction of sacred land at Standing Rock and across the US including in Louisiana acceptable to most “business as usual” Americans. Privilege.

I ended Saturday proud of my activist friends and colleagues and ashamed of those I know who mocked the action. It gave me another example of the blanket of comfort that whiteness offers and of how we can choose to not take a stand. As I drifted off to sleep, smug in my social media postings about this day, I suddenly remembered my exchange that morning with an African-American woman I have known casually for about 15 years, known through some shared workplaces and colleagues. I have had detailed conversations with her about racism and privilege and had thoughtful and warm talks about the culture of this place we share, a place that neither of us were born and raised in. When I saw her that morning, she asked me how I was. I answered before considering: “tired. tired of this shit.”
She raised her eyebrows, looked at me with some amusement, a little anger and a tiny bit of pity. She answered,”Yeah well…” with a weak smile and walked away.

https://www.attn.com/stories/17287/farmers-post-about-racism-going-viral

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Confederate Stories

here’s my new conversation starter about the Confederate monuments around town. If you want to honor Civil War history, then (as befits the victors),  for the Lee statue, insert Grant; for the J. Davis one, Lincoln; for PGT Beauregard, Gen. Lovell or Butler. In fact, the history that would be appropriate would be to only have the victor depicted with information about the war and the losers left to a plaque, and would then offer true Civil War history to the future generations…That is my argument; explaining the history of a failed insurrection (of which New Orleans was in for all of 16 months or so of its 300 year history) was not the point of those statues, but rather meant as a defiance of the order of the victors to integrate, and as a way to tell this new tall tale of the “Lost Cause.” The Davis statue, in particular is in that camp as it was put up in the 1900s (I hope no one is arguing for the Battle of Liberty Place Monument to remain). I believe anyone who argues for these to stay as they are is arguing for a false narrative of triumph and encouraging that long ago generation’s view of subjugation of their neighbors. Still, I’d like them to remain in the city, in an appropriate place with other symbols of previous times available to all to see and understand. History is not erased but with the removal of false idols, is also no longer appropriated and altered as it is presently.

When people scornfully use the argument that those who want this change want to deny history, I reply that it is those who argue for the losers of the war to be depicted who are the ones denying history. Yes, let’s absolutely depict the  history of our horrific Civil War, but do it truthfully and with respect to ALL of our people and our (at times, shameful) history. If you truly want to have our history on display, then get actively involved in finding innovative and respectful ways to match the complicated details of it.

Weighing In On A Confederate Past

It’s amazing to be alive at the moment of the tipping point for a social movement: For my lifetime, they already include the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of apartheid in South Africa, Arab Spring, the extension of legal rights for women and for same-sex unions among many others.
What all of these have in common is that they happened well before the formal governing entity signaled that it was ready for the change or even in some cases, before the solid majority had decided to back the change.
All were hard-fought and seemed destined to fail at many points in their campaign. All had active opposition.

The removal of statues of Confederate leaders from public space is another tipping point in a country that is heading toward a time when whites will be a minority (by 2043).
The affronted use mockery (“Why don’t we remove all traces of Washington? HE owned slaves! Where will this end?”) or condescending treatises on what they view as “the real history”, as understood through a lifetime of racist schoolbooks and likeminded family members (“The war was about states rights and not about slavery, duh.”)
To me, the arguments stated above mask the bigger truth: The public lionization of the Confederate past of the South is a barrier to working together for the future and signals to people of color that whiteness is a privilege earned, when it is not. I don’t care what version or scope of history you subscribe to, although I may pity you; have a statue of Lee in your backyard, but holding on the “Lost Cause” narrative in public places is a recipe for the continuing disintegration of our region. It also masks the true vibrancy of the South: that it is based on a multi-cultural, multi-generational belief in place, extreme socialization and culture handed down from person to person.
I wish we had the ability and forethought as a people to have created realistic evidence of the world of slavery and the brutality of the Civil War as Eisenhower ordered to be done with the concentration camps after WW2, but we did not. Instead we have inherited this soft and “heroic” narrative that does not truly represent the history of that ugly time.

Statues of those who brought a civil war to defend a system that allowed people to be sold as chattel should not be kept in public spaces.
Keep all of the statues and throw some Mardi Gras beads on em if you’d like, but put them in the Custom House or another place to properly frame their history as those who ignored the opportunity to expand human rights for their neighbors, along with information on when the statues were commissioned and by whom.

And thank you to Isabel Wilkerson, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of “The Warmth Of Other Suns:The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” for writing this piece in the NYT about how symbols do help to define their time:

With the lowering of the Confederate flag in the state that was the first to secede and where the first shots were fired, could we now be at the start of a true and more meaningful reconstruction? It would require courage to relinquish the false comfort of embedded racial mythologies and to open our minds to a more complete history of how we got here. It would require a generosity of spirit to see ourselves in the continued suffering of a people stigmatized since their arrival on these shores and to recognize how the unspoken hierarchies we have inherited play out in the current day and hold us back as a country.

“Any time, any time while I was a slave, if one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it—just to stand one minute on God’s airth [sic] a free woman— I would.” — Elizabeth Mumbet Freeman secured her freedom in a precedent setting court case on 8/22/1781.

Beauregard Square? who knew?

Turns out the space that has been known since the 1800s as Congo Square is actually called Beauregard Square for a Confed general who also has a statue at the entrance of City Park and a house tour in the Quarter. Seems the name change in favor of the general came in 1893 which seems about right, knowing the revisionist history that went on in the South around that time and that it was the year of his death. From the T-P article: “According to widely accepted historical tradition, African-American slaves were allowed to gather on Sunday afternoons in an open field just outside the city, at a spot known by various names including Place Congo. The slaves and free people of color used this space to market goods, to socialize and to sing, make music and dance, maintaining their cultural heritage as well as social cohesion. White New Orleanians and visitors to the city would go there to witness African-American music and dance.”
Congo Square is within Louis Armstrong Park at the “end” of Saint Ann if you are leaving the Quarter. The park’s current condition is deplorable and maybe the name change for this most important history will spark some action for this public space to be a jewel rather than an locked up eyesore. (Can I suggest a tearing down of the fence to begin?)
Author of “Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans” Freddi Evans is appearing at Octavia Books and I am sure more signings to come to showcase her definitive history. I saw her speak at the TWLF this year and she is a delightful, gentle speaker with a firm grasp of her subject. Do yourself a favor and go hear her speak.

To order book
She will be at Octavia Tuesday at 6 pm.
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