Sometimes you need an old friend to help you see the world from a new perspective. At least that’s what happened when two New Orleans natives, jazz musician Wynton Marsalis and the city’s mayor, Mitch Landrieu, pals since they began playing trumpet together in high school, first sat down to make plans for New Orleans’ 2018 tricentennial celebrations.
One of the topics on their agenda was the many Confederate statues — an issue that has sparked national debate — and in some instances deadly encounters, as in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017.
Marsalis encouraged his friend to walk in a his [Black man’s] shoes — those who are among the millions of Americans who view Confederate statues as symbols of oppression and hate. Marsalis also poked holes in the rhetoric of Southern patriots who have long asserted that statues, roadways and buildings named for or raised to honor leaders from the Confederacy, suggesting that they’re nothing more than 20th century efforts to reinforce Jim Crow laws and keep Blacks in their place as second-class citizens. The impact on Landrieu would be profound and lasting.
“The people who lost [the Civil War] decided to put these statues up to send a message to people just like Wynton, that you’re lesser than [us],” Landrieu said in an interview with Katie Couric.
After the 2015 murder of nine African-American churchgoers by a white supremacist in Charleston, Landrieu said he’d had enough: “We can’t wait anymore.” And so, on May 19, 2017, Landrieu oversaw the removal of Robert E. Lee’s statue from its column in downtown New Orleans with these words: “These monuments celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy — ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for.”
Since then, other statues have been removed dedicated to men like Lee: Jefferson Davis and P.G.T. Beauregard, among others.
But the removal of the statues has caused controversy both in New Orleans and beyond. Most recently, Karl Oliver, a Mississippi Republican, spoke out against taking down the statues and went as far as to say that any lawmakers that take them down “should be lynched.” Oliver has since apologized for the remark.
But as a Black man with parents from the South who eventually moved to the North, those statues have always been powerful, subtle reminders of white privilege, white oppression and hatred of those who look like me. Just as the walls came tumbling down in the former Soviet Union, we in America have had to come to grips with the real messages that lie behind these so-called benign examples of the white, Southern hierarchy — and allow that these symbols must be removed from our sights.
Of course, their message will continue to resonate with the vitriol that has been the impetus for white-led violence and oppression for more than three centuries. Americans are great at signing songs of patriotism — demanding that we place our hands over our hearts, standing upright in solemnity and solidarity — vocalizing words like “let freedom ring.”
But the question remains, when will we end the rhetoric, end the hypocrisy and finally ensure that such lofty phrases are more than just lyrics to a quaint song?
Freedom for all or freedom for some?