Easy Chair — From the January 2017 issue

The Monument Wars

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A city is a book we read by wandering its streets, a text that favors one version of history and suppresses others, enlarges your identity or reduces it, makes you feel important or disposable depending on who you are and what you are. When I called Maurice Ruffin, a writer and lawyer who lives in New Orleans, to discuss his city’s Confederate monuments, he told me, “The statues — a lot of them physically beautiful — argue that if you’re white, you’re human, and if you’re not, you’re not.” He’s not.

Who is remembered, and how? Who decides? These are political questions. “Who controls the past,” George Orwell wrote in 1984, “controls the future.” Those in the United States trying to shape the future know this, as well as the rest of Orwell’s admonition: “Who controls the present controls the past.” We are not who we once were — “we” meaning the citizens of a country whose non-white population has grown, in numbers and in visibility and in power, but remains marginalized in countless ways. Racism is so embedded that if we were to cease honoring slaveholders, we would have to rename cities and counties; sexism is so deeply entrenched that the great women of history are largely missing from our streets and squares. What is to be done with a landscape whose features carry the legacy of violence? Do we tear down what’s already standing? Do we work toward parity by erecting new buildings, new monuments? Do we recontextualize or reclaim what is already there?

A quarter century ago, in Birmingham, Alabama, a series of sculptures were erected to commemorate the civil-rights movement. The most startling, by the artist James Drake, flanks a pedestrian path in a city park. From a wall on one side and the ground on the other, snarling bronze and steel dogs lunge as if to tear apart any passersby. The sculpture suggests that to understand the violence people once met here, we need to experience at least a shadow of that violence ourselves. It’s a rare thing, an official memorial to institutional savagery on the site where it transpired.

History, unlike physics, does not have an equal and opposite reaction for every action, but sometimes it has a curious way of advancing. In June 2015, nine black people were killed inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a city where the Confederate flag is frequently displayed. The bloodbath, which was intended to be the opening salvo of a race war, had the opposite symbolic effect: it forced people to confront the flag’s association with racist violence.

The standard defense of the flag is that it is an emblem of history, but its display in South Carolina doesn’t date back to the nineteenth century: it first flew over the statehouse in 1961, ostensibly resurrected to mark the centennial of the Civil War but really as a symbol of opposition to integration. After the Charleston massacre, the activist Bree Newsome scaled a flagpole at the capitol to take it down; she was arrested. A month later, in a milestone marking the road away from Jim Crow, legislators finally ordered it taken down for good.

Across the South, public memory has been shifting — or at least expanding — to acknowledge previously overlooked facets of history. Last October, the town of Abbeville, South Carolina, unveiled a monument to a man named Anthony Crawford, a century after a mob beat, tortured, shot, and hanged him for arguing with a white man over the price of his crops. In Montgomery, Alabama, the Equal Justice Initiative is building a memorial to the more than 4,000 black victims of lynching. The city also houses a Rosa Parks Museum.

Many of these advances meet ferocious resistance. In New Orleans, when the obelisk honoring the Crescent City White League was removed, in 1989, from its prime location at the foot of Canal Street, a follower of David Duke, the Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, led a successful lawsuit to make sure that the landmark at which so many Klan marches had originated remained present and visible in the city. In 1993, it was installed in a less conspicuous location a block away.

So far, all efforts to remove New Orleans’s statues have been stymied. In 2014, jazz musician Wynton Marsalis asked Mitch Landrieu, the city’s white mayor, to look at the towering statue of General Lee:

Let me help you see it through my eyes. Who is he? What does he represent? And in that most prominent space in the city of New Orleans, does that space reflect who we were, who we want to be, or who we are?

A year later, the mayor proposed that the city take down the statue, along with others that commemorated the Confederate cause. Then city employees were threatened, and the contractor who accepted the job of removing the statues received death threats and withdrew.

Residents’ frustrations over the delay have erupted periodically into outright conflict. Last September, Take ’Em Down NOLA, an activist group led by African Americans, began protesting the statue of Andrew Jackson that sits in the heart of the French Quarter. Jackson fought against Native Americans, owned and traded slaves, and signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which dispossessed the Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, and other southeastern tribes of their lands. The several hundred demonstrators who poured into Jackson Square found that the statue had been placed behind barricades and was being protected by police. Meanwhile, a counterprotest sought to obstruct the activists. When Duke himself showed up at Jackson Square, a quarrel broke out, and in the scuffle police arrested seven people, including the gray-haired woman who had wrested Duke’s megaphone out of his hands.

The statue remained standing, but Duke’s followers seemed worried that it was doomed. On Duke’s website, a commenter wrote, “To the victor go the spoils — and the ability to humiliate the vanquished. One of the most iconic ways is to destroy the statues and monuments of the defeated side.” He has a point. If you want to see defeat, Berlin might be the best place to look. The city has repudiated its role in the Third Reich with a formidable array of museums, statues, memorials, and other urban aide-mémoire. After any true conquest, a city’s landscape changes to reflect the values of the victors. In New Orleans, in the places where these monuments still stand, so does the Confederacy.

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