After the 2005 Federal Flood, signs started to appear on telephone and electrical poles around New Orleans that said: Think That You Might Be Wrong. There was a randomness to their placement, which added to the mystery. The signs were around long enough that they began to be altered. On one sign, prominently placed on a telephone pole by the Dumaine Street bridge on Bayou St. John, someone had scratched out the word wrong and changed it to read: Think That You Might Be A Robot. This always made me snicker when I walked passed it.
What is no laughing matter is the great divide that our mayor’s proclamation to take down four confederate monuments has provoked in this city. New Orleans’ Mayor Landrieu, I believe, was responding to an overwhelming response from a group of folks who had come together under the Welcome Table, an initiative based on a platform the Winter Institute has developed to talk about race and equity in communities. I joined the Central City circle and later became a facilitator for the Carrollton circle.
I know when I was with the Central City circle, one of the issues that immediately rose up was there are no historical markers in the City of New Orleans to tell the true history of our city – the good, the bad, and the very ugly. The Central City circle decided to do something about it as their project. What started off as Occupy History morphed into a project the group later named History Matters.
After two years of circling up to talk about what we could do to address racism and inequity in New Orleans, the group chose to put up a historical marker that recognized Civil Rights activist Ernest J. Wright. Wright founded the People’s Defense League, worked with labor unions, organized voter registrations, and even ran for Lieutenant Governor in 1960. His “pulpit” was at Shakespeare Park in Central City (now called A.L. Davis Park) where we erected his plaque.
When Mayor Landrieu picked four statues to remove from the City’s public landscape, I felt that our group had planted a seed. Sadly, I realized what I had already feared, the people at the Welcome Table were not the ones who needed to be circling up. A backlash ensued with some people I know and care about protesting the removal of these monuments that has stunned even me. I’ve been unfriended and gotten into heated discussions because there are those who want to preserve these monuments and feel as if their history is being erased.
To them I say, Think That You Might Be Wrong. The first statue, the Battle of Liberty monument came down on Confederate Memorial Day. The monument stood in honor of the White Supremacist group called the Crescent City White League who fought for the preservation of slavery. Slavery was an institution that was created in this country by white people to make white people wealthy, so the White League had a lot at stake if it was abolished. People have started placing flowers around the 15-foot P.G. T. Beauregard statue because it is on the Mayor’s list. Next up is Robert E. Lee, who urban myth tells us always looks towards the North and at the YMCA, which used to be across the street. Myth says YMCA stands for Yankees Might Come Again.
The fourth statue is two blocks down from my house. The statue of Jefferson Davis is where people want to hold midnight vigils in his defense. At the other end of the quad is the Equity Circle, a monument the Carrollton circle erected last year to promote conversation in the community. Over and over again, those of us who are fighting for racial justice are flabbergasted by the lack of real talk when it comes to racism in this country.
New Orleans was and is ground zero for slavery, Jim Crow, the school-to-prison pipeline and slavery by another name: mass incarceration. That this incredibly history-rich city has monuments that glorify White Supremacy and slavery is a shame. For all who think these monuments add to our city, I ask you to think again. Sit with the discomfort that our mostly white schools did not educate you about slavery and racism, our white parents did not teach how slavery led to generational wealth for whites and generations of poverty for blacks, how white clergy did not connect our white heads to our white hearts so that we could empathize with those who have struggled because of us, and that most of all, we have not taught our white children anything at all if we are teaching them that we still do not value black people. The moment you stood up to speak out in favor of a Confederate statue being removed, is the moment that you stopped listening to the suffering that is going on all around you. Slavery did not end when it was abolished, it has shape shifted and changed into many forms and all of them are oppressive. Open your mind. Learn. Open your heart. Listen.
My son and I look forward to walking by the site “that once held the monument of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy.” Jefferson Davis never stood trial for treason for trying to secede from our nation whose wealth was and continues to be generated by the enslavement of black people. Davis was proud of slavery. He boasted of how the number of slaves in the Southern states had grown from 600,000 to four million in 80 years, and how those ‘brute savages’ had been turned into ‘docile’ labourers under the benevolent care of a ‘superior race’. Thanks to their work, the South had become civilised and prosperous, he said. New Orleans enabled slavery to grow into the most heinous and criminal act ever committed by human beings against human beings on this planet.