We recently marked the 47th annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and although I’ve never skipped a year, I must admit I no longer have the stamina for more than one day’s attendance. But the weather this day (after two of the fest days being filled with thunderstorms) was unbelievably perfect–60s and 70s, gentle BabyCakes–er, zephyrs (it’s only the local baseball team has morphed names).
The 12 music stages included many types of music — jazz, Cajun, Dixieland, gospel, some country, some folk, a bit of rock — but the predominant genre, this being, after all, a New Orleans heritage festival, was the outgrowth of what is now called rhythm and blues, but back in the day even in New Orleans was referred to on the radio as “race music.” Walking back to the car at the end of the day, I noted with a chuckle the scores of bicycles chained to the fence underneath a sign clearly ordering NO BIKE PARKING, and I was feeling very happy and mellow when we got into the car parked on Jeff Davis Parkway. Heading back toward Uptown, my pleasant musings were abruptly interrupted by the sight of about a dozen protesters with giant Confederate flags, across the street from the Jefferson Davis monument, which was protected by a temporary chain link fence and eight NOPD squad cars filled with armed cops. My spirits plunged. I’ve been here nearly three decades, and the only Confederate flags I’ve ever seen in New Orleans before were at the Civil War (nee the Confederate) Museum.
As a longtime journalist and a recently certified New Orleans tour guide, I don’t usually express my opinions on the news. I don’t sign petitions, don’t put up campaign yard signs, don’t post my thoughts on Facebook. Following doctors’ orders, I won’t discuss the new administration, not even the issue which sets me afire, the growing threat to the existence of a free press, noted in our very Constitution as vital to a continued democracy. But remembering my PTSD therapy after the federal flood caused by the 2005 levee breach after Katrina (which I like to refer to as “the late unpleasantness”), I now feel the need to vent a bit of pent-up emotion repressed since last November: these demonstrations would have never happened until now.
I know the intentions of Mayor Mitch Landrieu were noble: after a Confederate-flag wielding zealot shot up a church in South Carolina in 2015, His Honor decided that four New Orleans monuments to the glorious past must come down — not only the one many would interpret as commemorating a racist event, the battle of Liberty Place, but also those to PGT Beauregard at City Park, Jefferson Davis on Jefferson Davis Parkway, and the iconic Robert E Lee at, well, Lee Circle.
In the past year-and-a-half since then, the controversy over “why” and “whether” and, if so, “how” the monuments should come down grew against the background of a most divisive Presidential election. I respect the passionate claims on both sides of the monuments issue — arguments for keeping them, e.g., those outlined by some prominent citizens who have taken out angry, full-page ads in the local papers, as well as of those who see the monuments as politically incorrect, outdated symbols. But I’m not a native New Orleanian, my ancestors weren’t even in this country in 1865, and I have no personal opinion either way (and it would be moot in any event: as of this writing, three of the four scheduled to be removed are already down, with preparations afoot to remove Lee as well).
But my heart is heavy with the collateral damage of the controversy and what it is destroying here where many identify as a sort of mixed race of New Orleanians by cultural appropriation, if not literally, since we all eat the same New Orleans food, we listen to the same music, and all cheer for the Saints. No one had thought the monuments our most pressing problem, as we’re all much more concerned with the horrendous crime rate and with trying to rebuild the city streets still torn up from the late unpleasantness in 2005, not the one 150-plus years ago.
And since these Troubles have begun, some folk are now demanding the changing of the names of scores of streets here, and maybe someday Washington there, while those openly-armed, admittedly “outside agitators” threaten locals leaving the celebration of our mixed heritage by waving Confederate flags at them, bringing visions of Alabama in the ‘60s to mind. All I can think of is, this never would have happened before last November’s election. What hath been wrought? Poor New Orleans, preparing for our 300th birthday next year, poor U.S. of A., poor weary, weary world. Even in New Orleans, can we no longer spend even a couple of carefree weekends dancing, united, rejoicing in our heritage together?
S.L. Alexander is a journalist and book author, recently retired from the faculty of Loyola University and can be reached at SLAlexander@courtroomcarnival.com.