Zachary Richard: Let’s celebrate our diversity

by Zachary Richard

The celebrated singer-songwriter-poet-Francophone-activist argues that South Louisiana can show America how race relations are done by erecting a monument to Clifton Chenier.

I was very saddened to see that the statue of PGT Beauregard at City Park in New Orleans was defaced. Saddened not by the vandalism of a public monument, not by the fact that this act was perpetrated upon a memorial dedicated to one of Louisiana’s most notable historical figures, but saddened because this monument, which I have seen hundreds of time with indifference, is now charged with a powerful and divisive racial overtone.

I do not deny and have come to appreciate the powerful significance with which Civil War era symbols are viewed in the black community. In the wake of the horrendous killing in Charleston, it is appropriate, I believe, to re-evaluate the nature of institutional iconography and I believe that it is also appropriate to remove from public exhibition symbols that are offensive to members of our society and/or promote racist philosophy. In our efforts to redefine our public persona, however, I hope that we will be able to proceed with openness and respect.

It is perhaps a good thing that someone attacked Beauregard’s statue with a can of black spray paint. We can no longer pretend that there is not an insidious and ongoing problem of race in America, and this incident allows the possibility to learn of one another’s feelings and to close the racial divide that for so long has characterized life in the United States. Even more problematic is the statue of Robert E. Lee that stands atop its victory column in the middle of the aptly named Lee Circle at the divide between uptown and downtown New Orleans. I am not a resident of New Orleans and therefore the question, although of significant interest to me, does not concern me directly. I hope that the citizens of the Crescent City will be able to find common ground as they navigate the briar patch of race relations in this climate of resentment and fear.

Which brings me to the object of this missive. In my hometown of Lafayette in front of what was previously the mayor’s office on Jefferson Street stands the statue of Jean-Jacques Alfred Mouton. Mouton was a Civil War hero who died at the battle of Mansfield on April 8, 1864. Picked off by a Union sniper as he paraded in front of his troops, his death provoked a furious charge by the 18th Louisiana (the Acadian brigade) which resulted in casualties of over one third of the brigade. Alfred was the son of Alexander Mouton, first generation Louisianian (his father Jean arrived in Louisiana as a child, exiled from Acadie), and ninth governor of Louisiana. Alexander Mouton presided over the secession convention of January 1861, which voted 113 to 17 to secede from the United States and which would plunge Louisiana into a bloody Civil War, the effects of which we are still suffering today. And Alexander Mouton was the owner of 120 slaves.

Although the large majority of Acadians in antebellum Louisiana were not slaveholders, there existed a small minority of wealthy Acadian planters whose fortunes in sugar and cotton were built on the backs of African slaves. One of these slave-owning Acadians was my great great great grandfather. While not a major plantation master (he owned but 36 slaves) Olivier Abram Boudreaux (born 1788 Cabanocé, died 1885 Lafayette) was a member of the slave-holding elite. His son Aurélien Drozin Boudreaux was a captain of a home guard unit of the Confederate Army. Drozin was the secretary of the Committee of Vigilance of Lafayette before the war and the secretary of the White League after (maybe because his penmanship was so good — I have seen samples). There is nothing I can do about my slave holding ancestry except try to understand. It is difficult to imagine the lives of these people who were coincidentally my ancestors. Olivier Boudreaux’s farm was planted primarily in sweet potatoes. Of the 36 people that he owned, only three were adult males. The rest were women and small children. I learned this from the U.S. Census report of 1860. The ages and the sex of the slaves are listed, but chillingly, not their names.

And so what about the statue of Alfred Mouton in Downtown Lafayette? Should it be removed? The Mouton family is one of the area’s most illustrious families, and their contributions to South Louisiana society are significant. Should the sons and daughters be held responsible for the sins of their fathers? Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were slave owners. What do we do about them?

I can only hope that race relations in my country will improve and that we will be able to transcend the turmoil of Charleston and of Ferguson and ultimately evolve past the bitter legacy of racial hatred that still afflicts this country 150 years since Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. The national discourse is something over which I have very little or no influence, but I do believe that I can make a difference in my community and so I am calling on the government of Lafayette not to take down the statue of Alfred Mouton but to erect another one to celebrate the contribution that citizens of African heritage have made to the society of South Louisiana.

I propose that a statue of Clifton Chenier, a black man, be commissioned and erected in a prominent location in Downtown Lafayette to honor his contribution to our society. No one has had a greater impact in bringing our musical and cultural heritage to the world and no one is more deserving of the recognition.

Our French language culture is unique in America and I am passionately devoted to its promotion. Being Francophone is not simply a matter of speaking French, but is also a way of seeing the world, a vision based on inclusion and on tolerance. The French teachers who are on the front lines of the preservation of our culture come to us from all over the world: from Québec, from Acadie, from Belgium and France but also from Haiti and from Africa. The founder of la Francophonie as we know it today was Léopold Sédar Senghor, poet and first president of Senegal. His vision of La Francophonie was that of “a wave of humanism spreading around the world.”

A statue to the memory of Clifton Chenier would honor the considerable contribution that the people of African heritage have made to our society and express the values of inclusion and tolerance that are at the heart of Louisiana French culture. Let us set an example for the rest of the country and for the world of humanism and inclusion. Let us celebrate our differences with respect.