Thursday, April 12, 2018

Taylor Circle

Save All Monuments
An all-monuments-matter type household tells us how they feel during Carnival 2016  

Ever since the Confederate statues came down last year, a parlor game has blossomed on our city's op-ed pages and at public meetings and candidates' forums and whatnot over the question of what to do next with the space they occupied.  Why bother to do anything?  We just wanted the Jim Crow monuments taken down.  It's perfectly fine to just strip the name Lee off of the circle (return it to Tivoli or whatever) and just leave it alone after that. There's no pressing reason a person should be commemorated there at all.

On the other hand, if we do re-name the circle, the way to do that would be to give it a name that directly speaks back at the propaganda we have removed.  The Confederate monuments were themselves a political statement made by the white supremacists in power at the time of their erection.  If we choose to continue using that public space to express our political purpose, we should do so in a way that rebuts the original statement.

The reason I had given up on rededicating the circle at all is most of the ideas I've seen bandied about fail to address the definitive conflict that makes the space significant in the first place. Some attempt to sanitize it with tourist-friendly symbols drawn from entertainment. Some would replace monuments to the exploitative capitalism of the 19th Century with monuments to the exploitative capitalism of the 20th and 21st.  One idea that might have been acceptable was the suggestion that we acknowledge resistance to Jim Crow and rename the circle after Homer Plessy. But Plessy is already being honored in a location more appropriate to his historic act of protest.

Perhaps the worst argument I've read has been this suggestion by Arthur Hardy to create a "Mardi Gras Circle."  Hardy's stated intention to "bring us all together," is, like many of the other lame ideas,  an inappropriate attempt at sanitizing the space.  But his idea is actually even worse than that given that his subject is freighted with much of the same social and racial conflict as the Lee Monument itself.  This isn't a knock against Mardi Gras. Far it be it for us to speak against that. But re-naming Lee Circle "Mardi Gras Circle" as Hardy suggests and for the reasons he gives, degrades the social and historical significance of the circle and of the holiday.

It's fair enough for Hardy to say that the celebration of Carnival "brings people together." But that is a superficial assertion. Mardi Gras brings us together, yes. But as it does that it also heightens and  illuminates our contradictions. It's actually the underlying social and political discord that makes the communal experience of Mardi Gras such a powerful act of civic catharsis. And, sure, that's a bit more than most people are consciously grappling with while screaming at the Nyx "Dancing Queen" float for a bedazzled purse.  But any reflective treatment of the pageant, say in the form of a monument, that does not evoke this idea does not do the subject justice.  Except Hardy isn't interested in a symbol of social conflict. He's interested in something that has a benign "healing effect." In trying to do this with a Mardi Gras Circle, he confounds his own purpose.

It's a bad purpose anyway.  Twisting our own uncomfortable history into myths intended to please the powerful is how we got into this mess in the first place.  Case in point, Hardy's supporting argument is so far off base it necessitates paying reverent homage to a white supremacist organization.
As New Orleans celebrates its tricentennial, it is worth noting that Mardi Gras has been an essential part of the city’s history for more than half these 300 years. Street masking and private balls occurred in the late-1700s. In 1857, the Mistick Krewe of Comus presented the first organized Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans.
Of course it was the very members of the "Mistick Krewe" and associated Old Line Carnival organizations who established the revanchist Jim Crow government in the first place.  These clubs comprised (and in fact still comprise) the cream of the city's elite business and political class. After the fall of the Confederacy, they turned their street parades (these "bringing people together" activities Hardy is on about) into acts of un-subtle racist protest against the Reconstruction government.
During Reconstruction, New Orleans’ white elites used the pomp and ceremony of Mardi Gras to reassert symbolic and political control after the Confederacy’s defeat. The Louisiana Constitution of 1868 ushered in desegregated schools and public transportation, recognized the citizenship of African Americans, and granted the right to vote and hold office to African-American men without property requirements. Local white men perceived this new racial equality as a threat and were eager to recapture their former power.

Carnival krewes took their political arguments to the streets and manipulated their festive displays to provide evidence of the illegitimacy and incongruity of black citizenship.

The Crescent City Democratic Club, later renamed the Crescent City White League, whose stated goal was to prevent the “Africanization” of New Orleans and Louisiana, formed the city’s second krewe in 1870. The Twelfth Night Revelers regularly caricatured African-American lawmakers as bumbling crows or backward strongmen.

Comus presented its infamous “the Missing Links to Darwin’s Origin of Species” and “the Aryan Race” themes in 1873 and 1877, respectively. The former theme culminated with an anthropomorphic crowned gorilla standing in contrast against a white Comus, suggesting the innate inferiority of black men holding civic office. In like fashion, the Knights of Momus displayed comical yet grotesque representations of mixed-race people among equally grotesque animal hybrids in its 1873 parade themed “the Coming Races.”

Mardi Gras had become a mode by which former slaveholders and Confederate sympathizers could maintain symbolic power and communicate ideas of white supremacy, social Darwinism and the “Lost Cause” even under the city’s interracial Republican government.
After Reconstruction, it was these organizations who raised the funds and political will to create and install the monuments.
Two decades after occupying Union soldiers had made camp at New Orleans' Tivoli Circle, a monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was dedicated at the site. Among the guests at the ceremony on Feb. 22, 1884, were former Confederate President Jefferson Davis, former Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard and Lee's two daughters.

Four days later, Mildred and Mary Lee attended the Comus ball.
By looking past all of this, Hardy suggests it is no longer of any relevance.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  To begin with, Comus and his acolytes continue to exert massive influence on the city's social and political hierarchy.  For proof of this, one need only observe attendees at the annually televised Rex Ball and compare those names with those that appear on campaign finance reports, or the boards of our local "philanthropic organizations" and the corrupt financial institutions that connect them.

Furthermore, the Krewes continue to militate in favor of their "Lost Cause" propaganda to this very day. Comus and Momus no longer parade in an ongoing protest against a thirty year old anti-discrimination ordinance. But their membership does through associated successor organizations.  Over the three years (yes it took that long) of debate over the monuments, Chaos and D'Etat repeatedly ran floats "satirizing" the movement to take them down.

Hardy breezes past all of this context regarding the Old Line Krewes vis a vis Confederate monuments.  Worse than that, he implicitly takes their side of the anti-discrimination dispute which he characterizes as an "attack" on the celebration itself.
Even when the celebration itself was under attack in the early 1990s when reaction to an anti-discrimination ordinance caused temporary battle lines to be drawn, it was Mardi Gras parades that brought the community back together. I’m betting that Mardi Gras Circle will have the same healing effect as we move past the recent controversies over statues and monuments.
Also, lol at that bit about the battle lines being "temporary."  The Krewes still haven't let it go.

Nor have they let go of their beloved Confederate monuments. And they appear to have the sympathetic ear of the incoming mayor on this matter. Last week she told Gambit she's willing to let the krewes "people who care about"  the Confederate monuments display them in a cemetery because, in her words, "Reverence, you know, matters."

That an African American mayor of New Orleans in 2018 is still obligated (and willing) to kiss the rings of the white supremacist Carnival royalty like this is stunning. That Hardy would write their own self-victimization white resentment bullshit into his version of the narrative tells us enough to distrust his proposal.  Our city's most famous Mardi Gras historian is a.. nearly literal, I guess.. court historian. That's not a huge surprise, of course. The niche media career he's carved out for himself depends on a willingness to tell us a top-down version of history.  Nobody rises very far in our little town without flattering a few oligarchs.

Luckily, a letter to the T-P this week provides us with what might be a solution.  
With all the public hullabaloo about Lee Circle, there have been many suggestions about renaming it. While most of those suggestions seem good, I believe I have a better one. Dorothy Mae Taylor was a longtime civil rights advocate before she was elected as the first African-American woman on the New Orleans City Council in 1986.

Taylor became famous (and some would say infamous) when she proposed an ordinance in 1991 to desegregate the gentlemen's luncheon clubs that had been the public face of the Mardi Gras krewes.

Here is a way to address every elephant in the room.  Hardy wants the circle's name to reflect the fact that Carnival parades pass there every year. This certainly does that.  Better, it does so in a more honest and meaningful way than Hardy's bland obfuscation of history would. More generally, we said we would like the re-christening of the space to directly speak back at history in a way that better reflects the best of our present values.  Well, Taylor Circle would do that too.

The only question now becomes, how would we pay for it?  I don't suppose Frank Stewart wants to chip in, does he?

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