by Tara Gulwell
Content warning: Holocaust/genocide, slavery, white supremacy
Under the cloak of night, on the 24th of April this year, an obelisk that celebrated members of the Crescent City White League was removed in New Orleans. It was erected in 1891 to honour the group that, twenty years prior, launched a failed insurrection against the Reconstruction Louisiana state government, murdering police officers in doing so. Its plaque in 1931 read: “the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.”
Three other monuments are set to follow suit: a statue of General Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, P.G.T. Beauregard, another Confederate general, and Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has been part of a major effort to tackle the presence of the Confederacy and slavery within the South. “This is about showing the whole world that we as a city and as a people are able to acknowledge, understand, reconcile — and most importantly— choose a better future”, he told NPR.
Like the Crescent City White League obelisk, all three remaining monuments will be taken down by masked workers under the watch of police guards and snipers, out of fear of violent retaliation. There hasn’t been a whole lot of transparency built into the removal process by Landrieu; I can understand some of the calls from New Orleanians to instead take them down in the cold light of day, where dissent over such a controversial and emotionally-charged topic can be open. But Confederacy-sympathizers are already airing their grievances loud and clear. The Jefferson Davis statue has recently received a candle-lit vigil and elsewhere others can be seen holding posters that read “WITNESS THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILISATION” and “WAKE UP AMERIKA MARXISM IS HERE.” And, of course, protesters and workers safety, in the face of death threats sent to city officials, has to be a priority.
Among those with less-extreme views, however, are people who believe that the removal of the statues is an act of historical erasure. Yet the original proponents of the statues were in themselves committing historical revisionism. Unveiled in 1891, 1884, 1911 and 1915, all four statues were erected decades after the Confederacy-era, in a purposeful attack on Reconstruction efforts, and later proved to be silent defenders of the segregated South. In truth, they’re the petulant acts of sore losers.
There are still many eulogies to a lost Confederacy throughout the South – America has a bad track record of acknowledging the legacy of slavery. Compare how little public space is devoted to producing records and memorials of slavery in America to how much is devoted in Germany to remembering the horrors of the Holocaust. In Berlin you are forced to confront the historical record, to look it in the face despite all its ugliness, and to see it’s truth. No such opportunities exist in the United States.
In Berlin you are forced to confront the historical record, to look it in the face despite all its ugliness, and to see it’s truth. No such opportunities exist in the United States.
The closest thing to the kind of constant self-analysis Germany has put itself through would be the recently-opened Smithsonian African American History Museum in Washington D.C., which I visited a few months ago. It documents the triumphs and tribulations of black people in the U.S. as well as connecting the dots between the legacies of slavery and current racial inequalities. But this museum has been a long time coming; after decades of opposition and reluctance it finally opened in 2016.
And the fact remains that, while marble white supremacists look over the majority-black city of New Orleans, the achievements of Southern black Americans go unrecognised in the public space. In much of American intellectual history, slavery has often been considered as a curse upon the land of America, always overshadowing and disrupting Martin Luther King Jr.’s arc of the moral universe that bends towards justice. You can see it in the writings of George Washington Cable, Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and W.E.B. DuBois, who astutely predicts ‘the colour line’ to be “the problem of the twentieth-century.” Time and time again, throughout almost every period of American history since 1865, the legacies of slavery manifest themselves in ways that go largely ignored in the public space, whilst cold-eyed Confederate leaders and slave holders continue looking over Southern cities.
While marble white supremacists look over the majority-black city of New Orleans, the achievements of Southern black Americans go unrecognised in the public space.
White supremacy has always been, and still is, the curse that hangs around America’s neck. It has never truly processed what slavery said about what it means to be an American, and hasn’t gone through the same kind of rigorous self-evaluation countries like Germany have undergone after mass atrocities. Removing confederate statues from public streets, which in New Orleans are paid for by a black-majority populace, doesn’t ‘take away’ history but rather creates a first step for America to look itself in the mirror and say: this is what happened, where do we go from here?
Featured image: Boone Plantation, via denisbin
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