Two years ago, my cousin Frank Eakin traveled from his home in suburban Houston to New Orleans for the premiere of the movie 12 Years a Slave, which would go on to win a string of awards, including the Oscar for Best Picture. Frank’s mother, Sue Eakin, spent seven of her nine decades rescuing Solomon Northup’s harrowing story from the footnotes of history, and Frank was there for her. She had died only a few years before, and although she was well regarded as a historian in Louisiana, she likely could have never predicted that her name would one day be said on the stage of the Academy Awards. “I’d like to thank this amazing historian Sue Eakin,” said Director Steve McQueen, “who gave her life’s work to preserving Solomon’s book.”
While Frank was in New Orleans, he hoped to retrace Northup’s steps. After being kidnapped in Washington, D.C., Northup was ultimately sold into slavery in a private auction in New Orleans. But as Frank quickly discovered, the history of slavery and its imprint on New Orleans aren’t widely acknowledged. It was baffling to him.
There is a proposal to change this, a mega-million dollar museum about the slave trade built in a replica of a slave ship, but right now, in a city teeming with monuments and streets honoring Confederate generals, the story of slavery — the central reason behind the Civil War — is conspicuously muted.
Last week, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu urged the City Council to spend the next 60 days considering a controversial proposal to replace four Confederate monuments, most notably, Lee Circle, named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Ever since the massacre in Charleston, Americans have finally reconsidered the ways in which our government continues to honor and celebrate the Confederacy.
To be sure, behind the scenes, Landrieu and his staff had already planned to urge for the removal of these monuments, as the city gears up for its tricentennial celebration in 2018. But the sudden and swift call to action in the aftermath of the Charleston massacre sped things up. The Republican governors of Alabama and South Carolina both brought down the Confederate flag. Congress banned it from federal cemeteries, national parks and government-run gift stores. Bubba Watson, the professional golfer, announced that he’d be removing the flag from the top of one of his prized possessions, General Lee, a 1969 Dodge Charger that was featured in the show “Dukes of Hazard.” If there was ever a time for New Orleans to act, now was it.
“History,” Winston Churchill famously said, “is written by the victors.” But as the American South proves, this isn’t always true. Many whites in the South continue to believe the Confederate flag is nothing more than a symbol of heritage and tradition, ignoring that the flag’s reemergence in the public square directly correlates with the rise of the Civil Rights movement and the fight over school integration. And even those who were born and raised outside of the South, like Michigander musicians Kid Rock and Ted Nugent, have fallen prey to the insidious appropriation of the Confederacy as representative of the American badass. They may be rebels without a cause, but they sure love their merchandise.
Predictably, Landrieu’s proposal has already been met with fierce white opposition. To some, Landrieu is engaging in nothing more than cynical and divisive politics. To other whites, the removal of these monuments is tantamount to rewriting history. A petition urging Landrieu to “Save Our Circle” has received more 10,000 signatures, though only a fraction of those signatories appear to actually be from New Orleans.
John Binder, a contributor to the right-wing blog The Hayride, lamented the end of “New Orleans as we know it.”
“These monuments have nothing to do with racism,” Binder wrote. “They have to do with history.” It’s not only an annoyingly tautological argument — the notion that historical monuments communicate nothing more than some sort of inchoate concept of history — but it’s also ignorantly dismissive of the actual history. White Southerners did not decide to erect monuments to Civil War leaders in order to decorate their public spaces with lesson plans on the cautionary tales of history; this was about celebrating defiance, rebellion and, yes, a stubborn belief in white supremacy. In another piece, the publisher of The Hayride, Scott McKay, was even more hyperbolic and absurd. “America, and New Orleans, is in the deplorable shape it is currently in,” he wrote, “because our modern society produces Mitch Landrieus when we desperately need Robert E. Lees.”
Robert E. Lee has no real connection to New Orleans or the state of Louisiana. His statue was commissioned and built by a small group of dogged Lee loyalists, similar, in a way, to the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, which was spearheaded by the anti-tax evangelist Grover Norquist. “Our goal is to eventually see a statue, park, or road named after Reagan in all 3,140 counties in the United States,” Norquist’s organization claims on its website. On Feb. 22, 1884, more than a century before Reagan’s death, members of the Robert E. Lee Monumental Association met in New Orleans to dedicate a statute that honors a man from Virginia and that was built by a man from New York.
This is not to suggest that President Reagan is, in any way, comparable to Robert E. Lee, but the impulse and the intention behind the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project are unmistakably similar to attempts to quickly canonize leaders of the Confederacy. It has less to do with acknowledging history and much more to do with shaping history. When we rename our built environment — our schools, parks, civic centers, bridges and streets — after controversial and complicated leaders, we aren’t really attempting to educate anyone; if anything, we’re attempting to censor the full story, to soften these men and women, to ensure their names are inexorably linked to our own daily experience, an irreplaceable part of our culture. If everyone becomes generically honored, their legacies can become secure, their stories accepted and their faults forgotten. Eventually, their names have less to do with who they once were and are instead about a sentimental attachment to the places that honor them and the stories that laud them as virtuous. But this is not necessarily benign.
Culture, wrote the famed social anthropologist Clifford Geertz, is “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and their attitudes toward life.”
Within a mile of my home in Dallas, there are two public elementary schools, Robert E. Lee, the Cougars, and Stonewall Jackson, the Stars. Both schools are 55 percent white and 45 percent minority, primarily Hispanic. All across the American South, children attend similarly named schools, schools that attempt to communicate, simply by their names, something redemptive and honorable about men who broke off from their country, led a war that resulted in 620,000 deaths and fought to preserve the rights of white men to own African-American men, women and children as property.
America is still a young country, and as such, we often have a different understanding of the concept of “historical.” A property need only be 50 years old, for example, to qualify for the National Register of Historic Places. Perhaps too, we have been stubbornly immature about the inheritance of slavery, the culpability of our own leaders in the South, all too willing to perpetuate a flawed myth about valor and heritage instead of confronting the hard and deeply uncomfortable truths.
The South, under the command of its officers, sent hundreds of thousands of its native sons to their certain deaths on battlefields in their own country because they believed enslaving other human beings was a noble cause worth dying for. When we honor them, we are not merely reflecting on history; we are implicitly celebrating a system designed to perpetuate white supremacy.
And Mayor Landrieu is right: Maybe it’s time we grow up, not only in New Orleans but across the American South. Maybe it’s time we finally acknowledge the most obvious open secret about the memorials and tributes he seeks to remove from the public’s domain: The only thing historic about them is that they continue to age with each passing year.
Aside from a tour guide my great aunt once put together, there are not any monuments to Solomon Northup. What endured, however, was his story, something much more valuable and important and instructive than any ostentatious statue or any small elementary school branded with his name. Though those would be appropriate to honor this man’s legacy, his relentless belief in his own dignity and his undying faith in his future, Solomon Northup will always be remembered for his story, and that’s powerful enough. I imagine my cousin Frank would agree with that.
But this also reminds me of another story, that of the most famous Civil War general Louisiana ever knew. He founded and became the first president of what would eventually be called Louisiana State University. He spent many years in Pineville, across the Red River from my hometown of Alexandria, but he is best known for a small mishap in Atlanta. His name was William Tecumseh Sherman, and even though he fought for the Union, he seemed somewhat ambivalent. “Blinded by his implacable racism,” Thom Bassett of The New York Times wrote, “Sherman could see no worthwhile moral or legal debate to be had over slavery. History had forced this institution on the South, Sherman thought, and its continued prosperity depended on embracing it. ‘Theoretical notions of humanity and religion,’ he flatly declared, ‘cannot shake the commercial fact that their labor is of great value and cannot be dispensed with.’”
For Sherman, it was only important and historical because it was already important and historical. If he were still alive today, it’d be pretty easy to predict which petitions he’d sign.
The truth, though, is that these monuments should never have been built in the first place.