What to do with the monuments?
On July 4, around 8 a.m., the French Quarter was wild with heat. I walked up St. Peter’s and took a left on Bourbon, where street cleaners were hosing off the previous evening’s bacchanalia of regret. At Canal I went left, and by the time I reached St. Charles my glasses were fogged with humidity. I crossed Poydras and went to Camp Street. From there I turned right, my pulse quickening in my anticipation of the famous absence I’d traveled here to witness. I was making this walk well after the press had left town and well before white supremacists terrorized Charlottesville, Virginia, to experience the empty plinth where a statue of General Robert E. Lee once stood.
But then my bearings got uncertain. I was expecting to see the conspicuous display of emptiness about two blocks straight ahead. My body tensed in expectation. But crossing Andrew Higgins Street, I looked right to make sure all was clear, and it was in that nanosecond that I unexpectedly got a direct view of the nothingness that was indeed something, and—a reaction I don’t typically have—I gasped.
The image moved me: Robert E. Lee, that icon of the Confederacy, whose likeness in bronze once towered several stories over New Orleans, was, after 132 years, gone, relegated (for now) to municipal storage. And there I stood, a white person who, by virtue of my whiteness, benefits daily from the legacy of slavery, and took in this poignantly bereft column, feeling the power of history in a way I’d never felt it before.
Weeks earlier, with rare eloquence, New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu had driven home the emotion in a remarkable speech. The Times-Picayune called it “one of the most honest speeches on race” delivered by “a white southern politician.” In the aftermath of the statue’s removal from Lee Circle, Mayor Landrieu explained to a city that is 62 percent black that “these statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.” A lot of people said Amen to that message, and I agreed with them.