Last week, the city of New Orleans removed four monuments commemorating the Confederacy from the city’s public spaces. The action was the result of sustained pressure from local activists at "Take 'Em Down NOLA," like Angela Kinlaw, Malcolm Suber, and Michael "Quess?" Moore.
To mark the event, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu delivered a stunning speech that is getting a lot of attention, during which he dismantled a false, yet sticky, narrative about the Civil War:
… the monuments that we took down were meant to rebrand the history of our city and the ideals of a defeated Confederacy. It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it … These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for. After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city.
I debated whether to write anything about this speech, because my normal rule of thumb is:
“White dudes shouldn’t congratulate other White dudes just for doing the right thing.”
But the remarkable thing about Landrieu’s speech is that, in 2017, his ability to tell the truth about the past renders him an exceptional member of the coterie of White-men-who-still-run-shit. Landrieu mentions slavery eight times in a twenty-minute speech, while naming the rape, torture, and violence that accompanied America’s foul practice of systematic dehumanization. He calls the Confederate monuments “symbols of White supremacy,” while wondering aloud why his city offers no visual reminders that New Orleans was America’s most active marketplace for trafficking enslaved people.
In recounting these facts of history, Landrieu, with a bit of exasperation, says, “Surely we are far enough removed from this dark time to acknowledge that the cause of the Confederacy was wrong.”
He’s right to be anxious about what constitutes “The Obvious” in America. Telling a consistent, factual story regarding this country’s history of slavery and racial violence is undermined by the same false narrative that was perpetuated by these monuments. The narrative receives the balance of its oxygen from textbooks, history teachers, cable news, and unsubtle paeans to making America great again.
It is rare for a politician – let alone a White southern one – to challenge this sanitized mythology in such stark terms. Georgia Governor Zell Miller tried in 1993, when he implored his state legislature to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state's flag, arguing that to reject his plea meant identifying Georgia with the “dark side of the Confederacy.” President Lyndon Johnson also tried during his 1965 commencement address at Howard University, asserting that “white America must accept responsibility” for “centuries of oppression and persecution of the Negro man.”
What is striking about Landrieu, Johnson, and Miller is that they all told the truth, even though that truth is a direct challenge to White supremacy, from which they all benefit, whether they like it or not. The false narrative about the American South is hard to uproot not just because White people can choose to ignore their privilege to their own benefit, but also because the myth is more appealing than the truth. There is no joy in acknowledging that your ancestors were complicit in the systematic dehumanization of millions of enslaved people, and it’s hard to find pride in hearing that your grandparents’ heroes were bigoted losers. The lies start as a coping mechanism, but after centuries of metastasizing they have become a giant dam behind which we contain the crushing power of our collective past.
As James Baldwin said, though, "To accept one's past - one's history - is not the same thing as drowning in it.”
The only way to prevent ourselves from drowning in the real pain of our collective history is to stop aggrandizing the traumatizing events of our past. Landrieu spares no words in correcting the record, but he offers a life preserver of sorts to the folks set adrift by the accurate version of the war. Towards the end of his speech, he proffers a new narrative to replace the old one:
… we are becoming part of the city’s history by righting the wrong image these monuments represent and crafting a better, more complete future for all our children and for future generations. And unlike when these Confederate monuments were first erected as symbols of white supremacy, we now have a chance to create not only new symbols, but to do it together, as one people … It is in this union and in this truth that real patriotism is rooted and flourishes.
Landrieu casts pluralism as patriotic, offering a rebuttal to the ugliest corners of our contemporary discourse.
The reality of pluralism in this country, however, has never matched the aspiration of its idealized form, just as the removal of the symbols of White supremacy does not mean its inevitable demise. Pluralism in practice too often means that people of color continue to be on the receiving end of institutional racism, while White folks get to celebrate having a Black friend or two. Correcting the narrative is a necessary, yet insufficient, component of making this country a more just place for people who don’t look like Mayor Landrieu.
The future of American life will be much less White than its present, and as a result its political leadership should become much less White – not to mention much less male – than its current incarnation. Many White people struggle with this idea, because they view that outcome as an inevitable loss. The only thing we have to lose, though, is a false sense of unearned superiority. We must tell different stories if we’re going to have a different America, and the next generation of American political leaders should aspire to speak the truth about our past. They should speak that truth not just so that all of us can hear, but so that all of us can see our past and future selves in the narrative. Mitch Landrieu offered both words and deeds last weekend. Neither were perfect, but they’re a good start