Dr. A and I had dinner last Friday night at the house of some old friends. Actually, our hosts were the parents of some friends who have become our friends over the years as well. These are white folks in their 80’s and I *never* talk politics with them. The good news is that they’re not the sort of people who sit around and watch Fox News all-day everyday. I know a few people like that and try to avoid them.
Our hostess asked me what I thought about the whole Confederate monuments controversy. I follow my usual policy with people I’d rather not go there with: I briefly express my real opinion and immediately try to change the subject. I prefer not to bite the hand that’s feeding me, especially when there’s brisket involved. Unfortunately, she asked a follow-up question prefaced with her opinion: “I hear Mitch wants to tear down the Jackson statute and change the name of the Square. What do you think of that?”
The Mitch in question is, of course, Mayor Landrieu and he’s never addressed Jackson Square nor is he likely to. He’s only discussed Confederate monuments erected in support of white supremacy and the so-called lost cause., which are one and the same. The Jackson Square meme is being put out there as a straw man by the “don’t erase our history and heitage” crowd. What does one do with a straw man? You knock it over or set it ablaze. I don’t believe in playing with matches so I’ll try to defog history without burning down the house. In any event, it’s too hot for striking matches. To my friends’ mom I offered a terse comment about Lee having nothing to do with New Orleans and Jackson being the hero of the Battle of New Orleans. I politely changed the subject. This time it worked.
More details after the break and this video:
The “them people” want to whitewash (an ironic phrase but if the shoe fits, wear it) our “history and heritage”meme popped up in the City Council chambers when the Mayor’s proposals were debated. Landrieu said bupkis about Jackson Square or banning everything that commemorates prominent New Orleanians who were slave owners. This letter to the editor in the Advocate covers the waterfront:
If the statue to Robert E. Lee causes discomfort, unease, pain and anger to some of our citizens, why don’t these same citizens feel similarly when walking across Jackson Square and encountering the “slave owner and Indian killer” Andrew Jackson perched on his mighty steed?
Not only did Andrew Jackson own slaves while holding the highest office in our country, he signed the Indian Removal Act, which resulted in the forced removal of approximately 50,000 Native Americans from their 25 million acres of homeland. Remember the “Trail of Tears”? Surely, those with Choctaw, Creek, Cherokee or Seminole blood take great offense at the honorific position Andrew Jackson has been granted by the city of New Orleans. Why are our elected leaders silent on Jackson?
I am not an Andrew Jackson fan. I think he’s the most overrated President in American history. I believe that he was the only psychotic Oval One ever. He made Tricky Dick look sane. I do not approve of the American government’s policy in the 19th Century towards our native people BUT there’s a difference in motive behind the erection of the Lee statue, and the naming of Jackson Square after the lunatic General/President. First, Jackson Square was renamed to honor his role in the Battle of New Orleans soon after it happened. As far as I know, Robert E. Lee never stepped foot in either the Gret Stet or New Orleans. (Unlike say, General William Tecumseh Sherman who was the first superintendent of what became LSU. Maybe we should put up a monument to him, he said maliciously. )The Jackson statue was installed in 1856 and had nothing to do with the talk of secession wafting about the Deep South at that point. The Lee statue was installed in 1884 as a symbol of white supremacy and the “redeemed South.”
Second, Andrew Jackson WAS NOT A TRAITOR. Jackson was adamantly opposed to the notions of nullification, interposition, and secession that were espoused by his first term Vice President, John C. Calhoun. In contrast, Robert E. Lee joined an armed rebellion against the United States government, which qualifies as treason in my book. The adherents of the lost cause and the “don’t erase our history and heritage” crowd are the ones who have rewritten history.
I am personally opposed to renaming Jackson Square or removing the Jackson statue. I would have no problem, however, with adding a plaque that explained the complexities of Jackson and his role in some of the less salubrious aspects of our history. That would, of course, give the “don’t erase our history and heritage” claque the vapors. Somebody find a fainting couch, a park bench will never do.
A new straw man was introduced in the Sunday Advocate by a tour guide. I should say straw woman or person:
What will happen to the plaque in the sidewalk on Royal Street honoring Henriette Delille? For those unfamiliar with her story, she was born in New Orleans in 1812, the daughter of a free woman of color. Henriette’s mother and sister followed the placage system, which means entering into “concubinage” with a wealthy white man once a daughter became of age.Henriette chose a religious life instead but was turned down when she applied to join the Ursuline and Carmelite sisters because she was of mixed race. As a teenager, Henriette began working to bring the Catholic faith to the enslaved and free people of color. Eventually, she founded the Sisters of the Holy Family in 1842, and all the sisters were free women of color. The sisters taught, worked in hospitals and tended to the elderly and those dying. They were Louisiana’s 19th-century hospice!
The Sisters of the Holy Family played an important role in Louisiana history. They cared for orphans and the sick during the worst yellow fever epidemics in New Orleans history, 1853 and 1897. These nuns continue to serve their community almost 175 years later.
Mother Henriette owned a slave. Her name was Betsy. Henriette freed her in her will when she died in 1862. Many African-Americans are descendants of free people of color that owned slaves.
Mother Henriette is in the process of sainthood. There are four phases, and two of them are complete. The venerable phase was decreed by Pope Benedict XVI on March 27, 2010.
The plaque honoring Henriette is on the sidewalk on Royal Street behind the St. Louis Cathedral. As a mixed-race slave owner, will the plaque honoring her and the Sisters of the Holy Family be removed if the city takes down statues and removes monuments that have anything to do with slavery?
I’d like to see the statues of Lee and Gen. PGT Beauregard on horseback repositioned in a green area with newly-commissioned works: A grove of figures, to include the rebellious slave St. Malo, civil rights pioneer Homer Plessy and other historic figures, in City Park as a Forest of the Ancients for us and generations to come. Don’t hide them. Ground them in a new constellation of historical memory.<snip>The past is messy. It intrudes like an unwanted cousin, spilling wine and gravy at the supper table. But we cannot grow as a city or a people without an honest confrontation with that messy past.
Even the ubiquitous symbol of the city, the fleur-de-lis, came under fire. Just this Friday,WWL-TV published an article by Wynton Yates entitled “Historians say fleur-de-lis has troubled history.” The piece quoted slave historian Dr. Ibrahima Seck as describing how slaves accused of fleeing “would be taken before a court and the sentence would be being branded on one shoulder and with the fleur-de-lis[.]”
Yates mused that “some may wonder whether there are parallels to the Confederate flag.”
At least he has the Courreges of his convictions, but he’s Owen us an explanation as to why he’s taking a piece by a baby reporter for WWL-TV so seriously. I know why: he needs a straw man to back up his thesis that the city’s “history and heritage” is being destroyed by having this discussion. He also failed to link to the piece he found so horrifying, which was written by a reporter who’s wet behind the ears as opposed to all wet…
Repeat after me: nobody is arguing for the expungement of the fleur de lis, which was imported to New Orleans by French royals who were long ago removed from power. The Courreges piece combines two forms of specious argument. First, our old pal, the straw man. Second, the slippery slope argument. Ain’t no slope slippery enough to make New Orleanians give up something that now symbolizes our beloved NFL team and the city’s resiliency after Hurricane Katrina and the Federal Flood. Symbols have a way of changing over time, the best example being the swastika, which started life as a symbol of good fortune and now symbolizes genocidal Nazi depravity. At least the fleur de lis has come up in the world.
I’m glad we’re having this debate. I only wish people didn’t feel the need to create straw men and ascribe non-existent motives to various actors in this contemporary drama about the past. Nobody in power is trying to dismount General/President Jackson or rename his Square, which is a good thing since the crazy sumbitch may return from the grave and challenge all and sundry to a duel if anyone messes with the Square.
I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of the Jacksonian straw man but I did my best to knock it over without resorting to arson or mendacity. If only the “don’t erase our history and heritage” crowd could say the same.
NOTE ON FORMATTING: I *almost* lost this post. The only way I could save it was to cut and paste it from my Feedly reader. That, in turn, lead to some paragraphs getting squished together. I tried to fix it but couldn’t. Besides, what’s a little squishiness among friends?