History written in the light of day

by Anita McSorley
anita.mcsorley@theleaven.org

I’ve never been much of one to read autobiographies or memoirs.

I prefer thrillers and mysteries. You know the kind — books with bad guys and good guys, a bunch of clues culminating in an “aha!” moment, then a neat resolution at the end. There. Problem solved.

But for some time now I have been struggling with a recurring issue in the news that seems far from solved — the question of what to do with the many monuments, especially throughout the South, honoring the leaders of the Civil War.

So, when I saw that Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans who had recently led the removal of four such monuments from the city’s public spaces, had published a book on the subject, I put it at the top of my reading list.

You have only to go to the reviews on Amazon of Landrieu’s book, “In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History,” to see how the battle still rages against the removal of these statues. (Apparently, if one’s political enemies have been unsuccessful in voting you out of office, they can at least trash your Amazon customer review score.)

And at first, I was disappointed to see that Landrieu’s personal political history plays as much a part in this story as it does. (Spoiler alert: Landrieu is a Democrat harshly critical of President Trump — and perhaps with presidential ambitions of his own — which the book title in no way indicates. But, ‘tis the season.)

I soon came to believe, however, that Landrieu brings to the discussion some unique credentials on the issue of race, precisely thanks to his political history. And he came by this battle honestly.

Three experiences seem most critical to the formation of his understanding of the race issue in this country. First, white nationalist David Duke hails from Louisiana, the state in which Landrieu also plied his trade. Landrieu had worked for decades to neutralize the threat he believes Duke represents.

Second, Landrieu was lieutenant governor of Louisiana when Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, leaving the city changed forever. The Katrina evacuation was the most successful in American history, Landrieu writes. But Katrina “is not a story about coming together. . . . It is a coming-apart story.”

But it was really his experience as New Orleans mayor that led him to take the drastic action that will forever be part of his legacy.

Landrieu had just begun the process of planning the city’s tri-centennial celebrations when Wynton Marsalis — yes, in NOLA, Wynton is available for planning meetings — urged Landrieu to take down the statue of Robert E. Lee. What follows is really the heart of Landrieu’s story.

I will leave it to him to tell you. But I think there is one thing he gets absolutely right.

Exactly 150 years ago next week, Union forces were able to force the surrender of the city of New Orleans without its destruction. But that doesn’t mean destructive forces have not been at work there ever since.

To break free of those forces requires what Landrieu calls “transformative awareness.”

“We are all capable of it,” he said, “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,” he continued. “This is one of the hardest things for human beings to do.”

But it is what is required.

Landrieu took a beating for what he thought was a righteous cause. But for all it cost him, he does not regret bringing the statues down.

“You elected me to do the right thing, not the easy thing,” he told New Orleanians in a speech given May 19, 2017, on the removal of the statues.

“And this is what that looks like.”

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