Last night I had the privilege (sorry, bad pun) of hearing Tim Wise speak at Common Ground in the Lower 9th Ward. If you're not familiar with Wise or his work you should know that he's an antiracist writer and activist who spends a lot of his time working with white folks to better understand and dismantle racist systems and structures of privilege.
Wise explained that he is in New Orleans to speak to the Left. He used to live in the city and said he originally moved here to attend college, an institution (Tulane) that just so happened to be a “plantation,” founded by confederates and slave owners. (Indeed, almost all of the land up and down the banks of the Mississippi River used to be parceled as plantation estates owned by absentee Masters and tilled by African Slaves). He says of the many post-Katrina political efforts to reshape New Orleans that he is most concerned about the Left and how bad it could mess up the very important work that needs to be done. The Right-wing is certainly out to do some horrible things to the city's people, especially if they're poor and black, explained Wise, but the Left could also do tremendous harm if the activists who have descended here do not hold themselves to account.
One thing he said that really struck me had to do with the memorial landscape of this city. He explained that earlier in the day when he checked into his hotel downtown he got curious about the view, so he peered out his window, and remembering that there was a certain monument located at the base of Canal he looked closely to see if he could spot it. There it was!
It's the city's memorial to the Battle of Liberty Place, a bloody massacre that took place on September 14th, 1874. According to Wise there was quite a debate about what to do with the monument in the 1970s. You see, it's a tall and imposing marker that was built and sited to celebrate the sacking of New Orleans' and Louisiana's reconstruction government by white racist reactionaries known as the White League. They killed police, Republican representatives, and many others in order to establish control over the government. Their official reign was short lived, but the rise of American apartheid was not far over the horizon. Their goals would eventually be achieved.
Wise believes that the monument's location is can teach us some important lessons about racism in America. First of all, that it still stands is quite strange. It no longer brandishes a plaque commemorating the defeat of the Reconstruction government as it once did, but it's current inscriptions are more than troubling. On its street side face it reads, “In honor of those Americans on both sides of the conflict who died in the battle of Liberty Place. A conflict of the past that should teach us lessons for the future.”
Inscribed between these quotes and on the sides of the marker are the name those police officers, state infantrymen, and representatives who were murdered or forced to flee on that day. The names of White League members are listed on the back, presumably those who died in the successful coup. No reference to what actually happened that day is made anywhere on the monument or anywhere nearby.
The monument is located in a corner, between a concrete wall that separates the Canal Street rail lines from an access road to a major parking garage. All of this is in the shadow of an electrical substation and utility poles.
Wise says that it's “out of sight, out of mind.” The inscriptions seem to say the same thing. The White League's actions of that day are deemed, “a conflict of the past,” not the violent overthrow of an integrated (if imperfect) government to reestablish white supremacy in Louisiana. That the monument still exists is shocking enough, but the ahistorical, neutral tone of its inscriptions, and its location in a place not frequented by pedestrians all lends it an unspoken power and legitimacy. White racism, power, supremacy, and privilege; it's alive and well. It's not in your face. It's not overt and celebratory. That's how it works. It's a big solid structure as real as any twenty feet of sculpted granite, but you're not likely to run across it unless you're willing to look really close and read the fine print. Well, that's if you're white. The rest of America knows it's there because they don't have the privilege to ignore it, to put in the corner, off the beaten path where few will be forced to confront it.