On Monuments and Post-Monuments

Allison Glenn reflects on her own understanding, as someone who is not from the South, of the removal of Confederate monuments in New Orleans.

The statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee before being removed from the column in Lee Circle, New Orleans, in May 2017. Photo by Charles Lovell.

I grew up in Detroit, Michigan, and the surrounding suburbs, where I attended both private and public schools. I’ve spent most of my life in the Midwest; prior to moving to New Orleans last fall, I lived, worked, and studied in Chicago for almost ten years. In my formative education, I learned of the South not as a complex geographic locale, but more as a series of events. “The South” became a catch-all term to articulate the inadequacies of the United States. I was taught that this region of the country cultivated the institutions of slavery, Jim Crow, and other segregationist platforms. Whenever the topic of the South came up in coursework, it was through a battle, a purchase of land, or a legislative action. The South was often framed as a region that upholds a separatist mentality; a far from equitable society. It’s safe to say that my knowledge was formed around the South as an ideology, never as a physical site.

Living in New Orleans over the last year has afforded me the opportunity to experience the South as a place full of nuance and to unpack my prior understanding of it as monolithic. Amidst Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s plans for the removal of the four Confederate monuments in New Orleans, I found myself immersed in the story around the sculptures and the diatribe against their removal. Landrieu, who has come under intense scrutiny for his decision to remove the monuments, likened their presence to, “put[ting] the Confederacy on a pedestal—literally—in our most prominent public places.” When reading about the removal of the first monument, an obelisk dedicated to the Crescent City White League, and their failed insurrection against Louisiana’s Reconstruction government, I was shocked to learn of the great lengths that had to be taken to ensure the safety of the city contractors who were hired to dismantle the statues, including “wearing bulletproof vests and masks to hide their identities.” The safety precautions had to be taken because contractors, firefighters—anyone associated with the impending removal—experienced horrific backlash, including death threats, the burning of private property, and other harassment. I attended the removals of two of the four monuments: Confederate Generals P.G.T. Beauregard and Robert E. Lee.

Watching the Beauregard statue being taken down this past May was a social gathering. The police erected barricades to separate the protestors from the supporters. For hours, people gathered at the banks of Bayou St. John, across from the entrance to City Park. Despite the small cluster of Confederate flags (some with designs I had never seen before) on the other side of the barricades, the atmosphere was convivial. As we watched and waited for the thick yellow straps to properly fasten around the bronze body of the general, I could not help but consider the history of City Park and what parallel scenes from the past 200 years might look like on this extremely charged site. City Park was Native land before it became the site of the former Allard Plantation. John McDonogh, who, according to Take ’Em Down NOLA, was “one of the largest and cruelest slaveholders in Louisiana,” acquired the land after the Allard family defaulted on their mortgage. McDonogh willed the land to the City of New Orleans, and it officially became a public park in 1854. Throughout the 1800s, duels were held under its mammoth oak trees. City Park was integrated in 1958, though the public pool remained segregated until it was finally closed shortly thereafter.

On Friday, May 19, three days after the Beauregard removal, I watched the removal of General Lee. I decided to walk over to Lee Circle during my lunch break, hoping to catch the arm of the crane just as it was lifting the general off the column and away from the circle that bears his name. When I arrived, the crowd was light, and full of supporters of the monument-removal efforts. Every time the crane came closer to the monument, it halted. As the previous monument removals had happened in the evening and early morning, it became evident that I may be there all day. Around 5 pm, the crowd had grown in size. As the event was nearing crescendo, a pair of suspicious-looking men walked toward the nearby barricades and stood in proximity to the crowd of supporters. They were holding foamcore signs that were facing one another, rendering their messages illegible. Being curious, I asked them what was on their signs. They smiled, said that they wanted the United States to think bigger, and showed me one sign, which stated “Why stop here? Take them all down!” Within seconds, they had affixed the boards to the barricade with zip ties. At that point, I could read the message in its entirety: “Why stop here? Take them all down! The Statue of Liberty is next! Love, Mitch.” Clearly pleased with themselves and their sarcastic response, the men fell back into the crowd. It was very challenging to discern exactly what they meant with this message. Did they want the liberties represented by that iconic statue to be removed too? The whole exchange took seconds, but for a moment it felt like time was suspended. In a crowd full of police on the ground and with snipers on buildings, how could these men get away with affixing these signs and then disappear into the crowd completely unnoticed?

Lee Circle in New Orleans. Photo by Charles Lovell.

Many public sculptures are erected to house collective memory. These structures act as physical representations of moments in time. As such, they are repositories for the emotional and the ideological. Therefore, a public sculpture that houses the collective memory of the Confederacy firmly posits that moment and its ideologies of separatism—including slavery and, later, Jim Crow—in the present. Narratives are controlled by those who shape history. As David Blight so cleverly articulates in his article about Memorial Day in the wake of the New Orleans monuments’ removal: “There are no utopias in the politics of historical memory.” To remove the sculptures metaphorically dismantles the systems that put them in place. But it does not ignore or erase the impetus for their creation. American sculptor Alexander Doyle, who grew up in Ohio and trained in Italy, was commissioned to create the sculptures of both Beauregard and Lee in the 1880s. Although I agree with the removal of the monuments, I am also curious, as many are, about how the narrative around the monuments will be shaped and what the absence of these sculptures will come to represent.

In 2010, “Post Monument,” the 14th edition of the International Sculpture Biennale in Carrara, Italy, curated by Fabio Cavallucci, questioned the significance of monuments in our contemporary time and our relationships to them alongside significant ideas of reparative (art) histories. For “Post Monument,” Cavallucci asked 33 artists to consider the future of sculpture and monuments, amidst a perceived movement toward demonumentalization. For example, Carlos Bunga created maquettes for future monuments out of cardboard and sand. These models for theoretical monuments were placed on small, marble plinths on the ground. Similarly, artists, activists, architects, and preservationists have had various ideas for and reactions to New Orleans’ Confederate monuments and post-monuments.

In 2016, An-My Lê created The Silent General, a series of seven photographs taken in and around New Orleans that consider multiple perspectives of contemporary life in this region. (The artist had previously worked in New Orleans to produce a series of photographs included in Prospect.2 in 2011.) I first encountered these works at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, where they debuted. Lê’s timely photographs include images of a sugarcane field in Houma, graffiti on the side of a building in New Orleans, and a swamp in Venice, Louisiana. Monument, General P.G.T. Beauregard, New Orleans, Louisiana, 2016, is a color photograph of the entrance to City Park, taken from just behind the grand Monteleone Gate. A semi-opaque banner hanging from the marble pylons obfuscates Beauregard, cloaking the sculpture’s profile in ominous intrigue. Colloqate Design, a New Orleans-based design studio dedicated to social justice, recently started a project called Paper Monuments. They’ve planned Projected Histories at Lee Circle—which the group has dubbed “Free Circle”—which will include a light projection on the column that formerly held Lee’s likeness. Due to concerns about the weather earlier this month, the event is currently being rescheduled.

As part of my work with the Prospect New Orleans triennial, I recently drove around the city with an artist from out of town who is planning a performance here in the fall. She was drawn to the various sculptures, monuments, and post-monuments in New Orleans and had a list of sites that she was hoping to visit. We traversed many neighborhoods in the city, to sites as varied as the sculpture of Margaret Haughery—purportedly the first public monument to a woman erected in the United States, also sculpted by Doyle—and the plinths that held the former leaders of the Confederacy. At each stop, we questioned what the monuments might mean to their sites, to the city, and to this artist.

My understanding of the South—and of New Orleans—as a highly complex and nuanced ecosystem is continually evolving. I’ve learned that, if I listen long enough, continue to do the research, and ask questions, I will come away with multiple perspectives. But that doesn’t clear things up; the plinths still exist. And the history that they represent runs deep. So I ask: What’s next?