I can’t wait to get back to New Orleans, where I’ll be writer-in-residence from Jan. 4-25 through The New Quorum, a non-profit arts organization dedicated to bringing professional musicians and writers from across the globe to New Orleans for meaningful cultural exchange with local and regional artists.
When I get there, Lee Circle will still be Lee Circle. But probably not for long. Assuming the decision withstands a legal challenge, the New Orleans City Council voted earlier this month to remove the statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee along with three others of confederate heroes.
As a symbolic act, the move carries real weight. It also raises interesting possibilities. Here’s what Wynton Marsalis wrote in the Times-Picayune website, Nola.com, about the issue:
“Man, you must be crazy!” replied a customer in a Pigeon Town barber shop in 2010 to the suggestion that we should erect a statue in front of the Superdome honoring the Super Bowl losing coach of the Indianapolis Colts, Jim Caldwell, instead of the victorious Sean Payton, coach of our New Orleans Saints. That sensible customer understood the meaning of symbols.
Our national myths and symbols tell us what we need to know about ourselves. They commemorate grand victories, evoke despair over tragedies and elicit joy over triumphs. Some celebrate courage under fire, while others remind us of what must never happen again. The most significant of these symbols represent values that should be considered and reconsidered by each generation as part of its civic duty.
Our Constitution is designed to be amended with the passage of time and custom. The flexibility of this most sacred text is considered to be ultimate proof of the visionary genius in our Founding Fathers. At the heart of our democratic process is the possibility of creating change. Through argument and compromise, we adapt, improvise and course-correct, ideally in search of “a more perfect union.”
Like the Constitution, national stories and symbols also need amending as time and custom demand. There can be as much benefit in removing things of little worth as there is in erecting things of great value. Be it a person, city or country, there are always aspects of personality that can be improved. For all there is to love about New Orleans, a pervasive racism and inequality has plagued our civic life since the earliest days.
This foul condition forced our greatest ambassador, Louis Armstrong, to choose not to be buried in this home that he cherished and glorified night after night before the world audience. He was hurt to the bone by what he’d seen and experienced here. And though he represented our city as a place of magic, mystery and good times, he lived our shameful legacy of social injustice and racism. In 2015, that tradition is no longer a skeleton in our closet: It’s a whole cemetery. Now is the perfect time to remove the head tombstone.
Take Robert E. Lee’s statue down from its place of honor overlooking our city and rename and repurpose the circle that bears his name.
When one surveys the accomplishments of our local heroes across time from Iberville and Bienville, to Andrew Jackson, from Mahalia Jackson, to Anne Rice and Fats Domino, from Wendell Pierce, to John Besh and Jonathan Batiste, what did Robert E. Lee do to merit his distinguished position? He fought for the enslavement of a people against our national army fighting for their freedom; killed more Americans than any opposing general in history; made no attempt to defend or protect this city; and even more absurdly, he never even set foot in Louisiana. In the heart of the most progressive and creative cultural city in America, why should we continue to commemorate this legacy?
I have never felt compelled to tell anyone who was not from New Orleans about the true racism that I experienced growing up here. People from other places aren’t interested in hearing all of that when they really just want to talk about gumbo and find a good place to hear live music. Don’t get me wrong, I love talking about po-boys, and recommending clubs, but all the Crescent City “fun” in the world can’t cover up the damage inflicted on our way of life by lingering Confederate aspirations that still pollute a portion of our dreams, still influence our decision-making and ultimately prevent us from joining the modern world, let alone defining it.
A stubborn tradition of entrenched segregation and generational prejudice has stifled the development of a diverse, productive social and business environment that should have naturally evolved from our hybrid culture and unique cross-cultural creativity. The pernicious effects of this legacy are clearly evidenced by gross inequalities in everything from education to housing, to employment and access. We are accustomed to these conditions and perhaps don’t see them, but we are capable of being so much more. It’s time to live up to our potential, not down to the flaws that we have inherited.
Robert E. Lee betrayed his sacred oath to support and defend the Constitution and instead chose to lead an army intent on its violent overthrow — and he lost. The Civil War was a costly victory for democracy, but long after it had been decided, the backwards thinking leadership of this city erected monuments to Confederate generals who had committed treason against the United States — and lost.
In a nation founded on the credo of freedom struggling to overcome its inhumane legacy of chattel slavery, only profound hubris would lead one people to conclude that the enslavement of another should be THE SUPREME law of the land.
Lee’s monument was erected to proclaim this arrogance across the ages, and reclaim as a victory what was lost on the battlefield. It’s time for this age to speak back in clear opposition to this hubris. A monument in the middle of our city glorifying a losing general who fought against our country, against freedom and against the maximizing of our human potential through integrated creativity, is ridiculous.
After Hurricane Katrina, the support we received from people all over the world clearly demonstrated their appreciation of our culture and our character. The intensity of this love was demonstrated with unprecedented assistance of all kinds. We should transform the current Lee Circle into an inviting space that celebrates the communal intentions of the international community that helped us survive Katrina. This place would fill the heart of our city with something uplifting for us all and for all times. That, and not the stubborn echo of a shameful period of our history, should be the mythology we strive to teach to our kids and leave for our descendants.
Wynton Marsalis, a New Orleans native, is a trumpeter, composer and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City.