I saw Mitch Landrieu on the Daily Show a few months ago and immediately put this book on my TBR list. It’s a fascinating look at race and the history of the American South, from slavery to Civil War to Civil Rights. As the title indicates, the book is about how three confederate monuments were taken down in New Orleans. But as it turns out, much of the book is not about that particular action, but all the events and ideas that led up to it.
Landrieu starts this book with his childhood, and recounts his steps towards racial awareness. I was struck by this paragraph, which describes his visit to Auschwitz.
I had not yet thought about why there were no markers of the atrocities committed on our land, in our city. Why no slave ship markers? Why no plantation histories told through the eyes of the enslaved Africans who worked them? That would come to me later. Auschwitz laid a foundation, a building block, in my mind, not only for how evil humans can be to one another, but also for how we can reckon with and learn from our past so as to not repeat the same mistakes in the future.
Landrieu goes from his own upbringing and career choices to his work with New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He finally gets to his decision, based on the request of a friend, to research the history of Confederate monuments in his beloved city and whether it’s legally possible to take them down. It’s this part of the book that’s most interesting. Landrieu seems genuinely shocked by the vitriol that accompanied his decision, and I was shocked by it as well.
It’s not a perfect book, but it is an informative one. And while I recommend it to anyone interested in New Orleans, racial issues, and our country’s history, I have to qualify my recommendation for two reasons.
- This is history wrapped up in Landrieu’s own personal reflections, and likely his political ambitions. There’s quite a bit of self-congratulation in here, from Landrieu’s handling of racial issues to his handling of Hurricane Katrina. And a lot of name-dropping as well. I could have done with less of that. But it’s his story.
- This is a book about race, told by a white man — and not just any white man, but one who’s grown up in a family that’s practically a Louisiana dynasty. But Landrieu acknowledges his privilege frequently, and he also acknowledges the many others who have influenced his views. Clearly there are writers of color you should read, but Landrieu does have a story to tell, and it’s important that he tell it.
I really appreciated this book for the way it lays out the history of the South, and the way African-Americans have been terrorized by white people over and over again. It seems the more African-Americans gain basic legal rights, the more they are attacked and threatened by the people who fear those rights. When you look at what happened after the Civil War, and then the Civil Rights era, you see that clearly. This is not about the bigotry of 50 years ago or 150 years ago. It’s about today.
What’s impactful about this book is how Landrieu clarifies the history of these monuments and the message they are sending. I think many white people genuinely believe, as we’ve heard so often, that the monuments are memorializing our country’s history and honoring the people who died in the Civil War.
All of this happens in the shadows of statues whose message has always been, as Terence Blanchard said: African Americans are less than.
Lately I’ve been paying more attention to the historical sites of DC, and the way this region has been trying to better teach the history of slavery. I’ve seen it in Colonial Williamsburg, in Jamestown, and in Mount Vernon. In Monticello, there’s the first real exhibit about Sally Hemings. In Alabama there’s the first memorial to the victims of lynching. In some places, this new awareness is eye-opening. And in others it’s sadly inadequate. It’s like we’re just starting to take notice of what Landrieu realized in Auschwitz – that as a country we can’t move forward until we begin taking responsibility for the crimes we’ve committed.
This book, at least, is a place to start.