- Tracie Guy-Decker
In the Shadows of Statues
In May of 2019, I attended the annual meeting of the American Alliance of Museums in New Orleans. One of the keynote speakers was Mitch Landrieu, the city’s mayor. To be honest, I don’t remember much of what he spoke about, but I must have been impressed, because I bought his book, In the Shadows of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History. I finally got around to reading it. The book is part memoir, part manifesto. Landrieu’s purposes is supposedly to recount the experience of deciding to and then executing the removal of Confederate statues in New Orleans on his watch. In the end, he writes on considerably more: He writes of his childhood and adolescence as the son of New Orleans’ Mayor, Moon Landrieu, a staunch fighter for civil rights. He recounts his time as Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina, and as mayor of New Orleans during the surge in gun violence that has overtaken the whole nation in the past five years. There is even a chapter devoted to tracing the parallels between David Duke’s rise to state-level office in Louisiana and Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency. Landrieu’s writing style is clear and digestible, and I found the text to be a pleasant read. He seems to have written the book to help convince other white southerners like himself that he made the right call in removing the statues. Regular readers of mine will not be surprised to learn that I am squarely in the choir for Landrieu’s sermonizing. Of course, DeRay McKesson (next on my TBR shelf) reminded me at the first annual Anti-Racism Book Festival last year that the best choir directors can teach you how to use your voice in ways you never thought possible. I was surprised to find considerable time spent on the issue of gun violence and the disproportionate toll it takes in the African American community. Landrieu seems to come at the issue from a place of deep humanity--and with words that resonate with Jewish texts close to my heart. On page 144 Landrieu talks of “lives that deserved America’s promise.” Of those souls, cut short by gun violence, Landrieu echoes the verse that instructs “whoever destroys a single soul, Scripture accounts it as if he destroyed a whole world” (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5) when he writes, “If it is true that one person can change the world, it must be true that the absence of so many must change it as well.” He goes on to tell stories of specific victims of violence during his tenure as mayor. The stories are heartbreaking, and as a reader I believe that Landrieu is heartbroken. After the heartbreak, he goes on to tell us, “I firmly believe that this is a solvable problem if we treat gun violence as both a public safety issue and a public health crisis. We vaccinate people to thwart disease. Against gun violence, society is passive.” (p 148) And later, “This is a mental health issue, and the greatest moral issue in America today” (150). Landrieu does not avoid the racial reality of the epidemic of gun violence: “In most major cities, someone dies each day from a gunshot. The weapon of choice, most often a handgun; the victims and perpetrators disproportionately young African American men.” (150) He goes further, recognize the racism behind the racial reality: “As former Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter has so forcefully said, if a foreign enemy killed fifteen thousand American citizens, there would be hell to pay. If the Ku Klux Klan murdered thousands of young black men, this nation would be in an uproar. But for some reason we are hardened to domestic gun deaths and remain eerily silent. Maybe it is in slow motion--we refuse to hear it or see it because we place too little value on the lives of young, black men.” (150).
Lest we believe Landrieu’s words on gun violence and racism have nothing to do with his overarching story, Landrieu reminds us, “We must press on, share the agenda that the culture of homicides is evil and unacceptable, and resolve ourselves to changing it, however long it may take or incremental it may be. But to do so requires us to value every life. The monuments hover and tell a different story. The shadow these symbols cast is oppressive. It is in this broad context that people must now understand that the monuments and the reasons they were erected were intended not to affirm life but to deny life. And in that sense, the monuments in a way are murder.” (160). In his crusade to wrest the Confederacy from the Cult of the Lost Cause (those who promoted the message “the South had fought a noble war, for honor and independence, and it would rise from defeat to rule by white supremacy” (40)), Landrieu asks the reader to think about the number six million. “Six million is the approximate number of human beings who were enslaved in our exceptional country until 1865. Six million. Look at it and say it again. You can see it. You can see them. These six million included men, women, children. Many of whom were beaten, raped, tortured.” (177) I have read and written before about the analogy that asserts the Middle Passage and the institution of slavery is to people of African descent what the Holocaust is to Jews. Landrieu’s focus on the 6 million, especially as I read it in the season of Yom HaShoah, cemented that analogy for me. A few pages later Landrieu further underscored the comparison when he quotes “Richard Westmoreland, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, who said that Robert E. Lee was a great general but compared him to Erwin Rommel, the World War II German tank commander. There are no statues of Rommel in Germany, he continued, ‘They are ashamed. The question is, why aren’t we?’ Westmoreland said, ‘Make no mistake, slavery was the great sin of this nation.’” (185) The strength of that comparison makes me wonder if antisemitism in Europe today is moving in the same way anti-black racism pervades the U.S., as what Landrieu calls “the ho-hum racism that eats through our country every day.” (187) If the two historical events are comparable, and I believe they are, one of the biggest differences is in their recency. Obviously the two are not apples-to-apples historical moments. Nevertheless, I find it chilling to think about the parrallels. We are seven decades in to a post-Holocaust world. The Cult of the Lost Cause began erecting monuments to the Confederacy between 50 and 75 years after the Civil War ended. Just as the Cult of the Lost Cause sought to re-write history, to sanitize the actions of the Confederacy. In many ways, the cult succeeded. There are large numbers of people today who genuinely believe the Civil War was not fought over slavery (it was), or that slavery wasn’t “that bad” (slavery was and always will be inhuman, full stop). It took about the same amount of time for us to face those who would sanitize WWII, claiming the death camps didn’t exist, that the six million souls we lost are somehow fictions. Those deniers--of the Holocaust and of the sins of slavery and the Confederacy--they are still out there. They are actively spewing their hatred, and using forms of terror to help propogate their evil. (If you doubt this truth, I ask you to think hard about the flags we saw displayed at some of the recent protests against COVID19 shelter in place orders: confederate flags with the silhouette of an automatic rifle and the words “Come and Take it.” If the symbolism in that image doesn’t frighten you, I guarantee you are neither of color, nor Jewish.) As in most of the books that I read, in this text, I often underlined passages or made notes in the margin where there were moments I wanted to remember. After my chilling conclusions above, I want to close with one of those moments, that gives me some hope. Early in the book, Landrieu articulates one of those transformational moments that sets a person on an antiracist path: “I have often heard it said by elders that you can’t know how a man feels until you walk in his shoes. It has taken me the better part of forty years to find those shoes. This is what I have come to call transformative awareness. We are all capable of it; but we come kicking and screaming to a sudden shift in thinking about the past. To get there we have to acknowledge that we were inattentive, insensitive, myopic, or God forbid, hateful in our earlier view” (40). This passage resonated with me because I had a similar moment of transformative awareness. That moment came to me--and Mitch Landrieu’s came to him--not because either of us is an exceptional human being. Rather, they came for each of us because, for whatever reason, in a particular place and a particular moment, we were truly open to being transformed. That openness is not easy to achieve. Nor is it predictable. But what Landrieu and I and many others like us prove is that it’s possible. And so long as change is possible, we must continue to strive for it. We must continue to tear down the monuments, both literal and figurative, that no longer represent who we want to be, and this monument-relocation must happen at the individual and at the societal level. Both are difficult. Both are essential. We must keep going. May the time come soon and in our time when the only monuments we erect or revere in our minds and in our public spaces celebrate the beauty, the value, and the full humanity of all of us. Amen.