Blight, David: The Battle for Memorial Day in New Orleans

David Blight

The Battle for Memorial Day in New Orleans‘, The Atlantic, 29 May 2017

Examines the recent Memorial Day oration of Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans, at a time when the former Confederate states of America are again taking down monuments to the Lost Cause. (Video.)

New Orleans, he said, is a city made by all the nations of the world [Yale historian Blight writes], but one great “gumbo” made from many. The speech was as deeply patriotic as it was also deeply political—“e pluribus unum” carries a weight right now in Trump’s America that makes most politicians shy from such fulsome embraces of pluralism and brutally honest historical consciousness. Indeed, any historical consciousness, save for toxic forms of nostalgia, is out of style among Trump’s supporters as well as his cowed, silent enablers in the Republican Party …

Wittingly or not, the mayor gave the whole country a serious lesson in how Americans should contemplate their war dead, indeed their broader past, in this divided and quarrelsome nation. He suggested they learn some good history first, face its most troubling parts however painful, and separate “remembrance of history and reverence for it.” It is an extraordinary act for a Southern white politician to ask his fellow citizens to seriously separate heritage from history, to look down the dark tunnel of slavery and New Orleans’s infamous “slave markets,” and the “misery, rape, and torture” that followed for so many unnamed individual Africans, Creoles, and African Americans sold as property into the Mississippi River valley. Landrieu argued that ignorance or denial of this past for so long had been collective “historical malfeasance, a lie by omission…”

He asked his auditors to learn a more complex past and to grow some historical and moral backbone as they think about memorialization.

Blight goes into detail about the history of Memorial Day (29 May), a day which in some respects parallels Anzac Day in Australia. Blight agrees, though, with Mayor Landrieu when the Mayor asks: “Why are there no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame … all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans?”

More than any other Southern politician, Landrieu has expressed this reckoning with the Civil War’s legacy in a newly eloquent honesty. Americans ought to debate how best to take up his call. Many great and challenging monuments, both old and new, exist in the United States. The world wars, the Irish famine, the Vietnam War, the civil-rights movement, the attacks on 9/11, the Holocaust, and even the Civil War itself have inspired brilliant works of public art. But Americans have to know more history in order to learn to think about them more imaginatively …

Monuments, those removed after more than a century of struggle, or those erected in a new era with new histories, may never accomplish as Mayor Landrieu hopes, “making straight what has been crooked and making right what has been wrong.” But if this process makes Americans learn and think about our history more knowingly and reflectively, if painfully, it is all for the good.

In similar vein, if in a much smaller circulation outlet, is American blogger and peace activist David Swanson (Let’s Try Democracy) who argues ‘our war monuments are killing us‘. (He was speaking at the Lincoln Memorial on 30 May.) Even more than Mayor Landrieu’s speech, Swanson’s post echoes the things that Honest History has been saying for nearly four years.

Washington, D.C., and much of the rest of the United States, is full of war monuments, with many more under construction and being planned. Most of them glorify wars. Many of them were erected during later wars and sought to improve the images of past wars for present purposes. Almost none of them teach any lessons from mistakes made. The very best of them mourn the loss of a tiny fraction — the U.S. fraction — of the wars’ victims.

But if you search this and other U.S. cities, you’ll have a harder time finding memorials for North American genocide or slavery or the people slaughtered in the Philippines or Laos or Cambodia or Vietnam or Iraq. You won’t find a lot of monuments around here to the Bonus Army or the Poor People’s Campaign. Where is the history of the struggles of sharecroppers or factory workers or suffragettes or environmentalists? Where are our writers and artists? Why is there not a statue of Mark Twain right here laughing his ass off at us? Where is the Three-Mile Island memorial warning us away from nuclear energy? Where are the monuments to each Soviet or U.S. person, such as Vasili Arkhipov, who held off nuclear apocalypse? Where is the great blowback memorial mourning the governments overthrown and the arming and training of fanatical killers?

People who object to the removal of Confederate monuments see history as composed mostly of wars. Swanson asks: Would peace monuments make the world more peaceful? Where are the monuments to the non-war parts of history?

In a sane society, the war memorials would be one small example of many types of public memorials, and where they existed they would mourn, not glorify, and mourn all victims, not a small fraction deemed worthy of our sorrow.

 

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