There’s been a pretty big dust-up in New Orleans recently over Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s commitment to removing statues that glorify not only the Confederacy but also white supremacist terrorism during Reconstruction (the Battle of Liberty Place monument, which was removed on April 24. The marble obelisk celebrated a bloody victory of the racist White League over New Orleans' Reconstruction-era police force – Jelani Cobb reporting in The New Yorker) A dear friend of mine recently sent a text, noting “Removal of flags, statues, monuments is like pulling art from a museum and destroying it because it is offensive to someone. Look at these relics from the past in whatever capacity and realize for yourself there is much to learn.” In principle, I agree. There is a place for these statues and monuments (not the Confederate Battle Flag) but only if we insure people are genuinely being given a history lesson. Rather than removing them, then, I would propose the following: for every statue that represents a Confederate General or Jefferson Davis we erect another statue, right next to it, of Frederick Douglass (I hear he’s doing an “amazing job”), Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, and so on AND make sure there is a plaque between the two statues which states something like this.
Let’s use a Robert E. Lee statue as our example, with a Frederick Douglass statue alongside it. Here’s how their plaques might read.
General Robert E. Lee turned down the leadership of the Northern army to preserve the Union and took up arms to lead the Confederate forces in rebellion, trying to destroy the Union. The Confederacy’s reason for leaving the Union was ostensibly for “state’s rights” but ALL the Confederate state declarations for leaving the Union cite the preservation of slavery unambiguously to be their primary purpose for leaving the Union. (www.nola.com)
The Confederate cause was about protecting the enslavement of other human beings as chattel --- less than human beings whose only purpose was to serve the superior white race. Enslaved people were forbidden by law to learn to read and write, were denied basic human rights, and were raped maimed, and lynched at the discretion of the “master” class of whites.
Lee thought black people inferior to whites; through his wife's estate, he owned many slaves; and he fought for the independence of a nation founded to preserve the institution of slavery for economic gain. (www.nola.com, May 13, 2017)
And here's Frederick Douglass's plaque:
Frederick Douglass was an African-American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. After escaping from slavery in Maryland, he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York, gaining note for his dazzling oratory and incisive antislavery writings. In his time, he was described by abolitionists as a living counter-example to slaveholders' arguments that slaves lacked the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens. Northerners at the time found it hard to believe that such a great orator had once been a slave. (Wikipedia)
A dramatic voice for African Americans, we do not know how many other African Americans with Douglass’s intelligence and gifts never saw the light of day or had their voices heard because of the inhumane and systematic kidnapping, oppression, and enslavement of African people between 1619 and 1865. The ensuing legacy of institutional and de facto discrimination and racism that persists in our society are the reasons statues such as these are in our public squares, so we and future generations can confront the genuine history of our nation .
For those who don’t think the statues should be removed, you may want to note that Robert E. Lee seemed to advocate removing war memorials in general in order to "obliterate the marks of civil strife, and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered." (www.nola.com, May 13, 2017) Be that as it may, I have no problem with the statues remaining as educational landmarks, as long as the accompanying statues of African Americans --- and an honest rendition of the reason for the Civil War --- is clearly spelled out for any and all viewers.
It is significant to note that the New Orleans statue removal has led to a statement like this:
Richard A. Marksbury, a member of the Monumental Task Committee, which advocated the preservation of the Confederate symbols, argues that the monument removal has had a negative effect. "This issue has brought more racial tension than anything I've seen or witnessed in the 44 years I've lived here," he is quoted as saying. "It's sad." (www.nola, May 13 2017)
If the statue removal has led to increased racial tension I believe it reaffirms that these statues are about white supremacy and dominance and not just about “heritage.” I’ll stand by my proposal: leave the statues and erect a companion piece, clearly explaining why the Civil War occurred --- it was about slavery, period. And that’s our nation’s heritage --- let’s own up to it, individually and in public spaces.