Crumbling Facades: Dismantling the Colonial Legacy
The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do… People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”
Ten days ago was Malcolm X’s 94th birthday. It also marked a year since a 16-foot statue was hoisted off of a 68-foot column in the middle of a circular street in the middle of New Orleans. Both the circle and the statue were in commemoration of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. It’s impossible to ignore the significance of a monument to a renowned white supremacist being removed on the birthday of one of the greatest Pan Africanists ever to walk the Earth. It was almost like the universe aligned to offer a gift to our ancestor for all his work to make the planet more livable for black folks worldwide. Speaking of ancestors, I’d like to think my dad was smiling from some ethereal place on that day. It was he after all, who introduced me to the legacy of Malcolm X, the seed for much of what would eventually inform my blackness and eventual activism.
On a soft chair in a Harlem apartment in 1980-something, my dad sat with my youngest brother on his lap, my middle brother at his feet, and me perched on the arm. All of us aged somewhere between 4–8, clad in the requisite tight white undies and t-shirt. Our dad had disrupted Saturday morning cartoons once again to give us more unsolicited lessons on black history, this time reading from a book on Malcolm X. When he got to the words, “and they shot him,” his voice cracked, then crumbled like a mountain in avalanche. A trickle fell from his eyes, steady as a running stream. My brothers and I turned rolling stones fumbling away from the looming disaster. We had never seen him break before.
In the years that followed, Malcolm became a demigod for me. The sound of his voice, the sight of his face, triggered feelings of personal pride that ran blood deep. Once my dad died about 5 years later, leaving little in the way of pictures to remember him by, posters of Malcolm always served as a quasi stand in. It’s by way of this personalized history lesson that I came to understand the investment that can be placed in a symbol. Particularly those embodying people that have affected others so deeply, and those anchored in histories that so pungently inform our present.
Add that to the fact I grew up in Brooklyn in the 1980s and early 90s where Malcolm X hats permeated the streets as much as white supremacist names do street signs in the South. All while Chuck D offered the sonic symbolism of “Fight the Power” atop drum beats sampling a soul singer that told our parents’ generation to “Say it Loud! I’m Black and I’m Proud!” Suffice it to say my youth was saturated in black consciousness. The lessons of teachers, elders, god forbid — rappers at the time, all signaled to me the importance of my history and culture. To the point I was almost impervious to any counter narrative. So years later, it was an icy splash of water to the face when I would be introduced to the notion of symbols designed to oppress.
I had my eyes opened to white supremacist symbols by a movie I watched as a college freshman. It was called “Slam” starring poet Saul Williams. At the end of the movie, Saul walks towards the Washington Monument, a giant obelisk. He places his hand slowly, gently against its backdrop. And then the movie fades to black. The End. That’s it — just a small black hand raised against a 555 foot white phallic symbol. A small, visionary act of resistance that I didn’t completely appreciate at the time. But in the years that followed, after being taught the significance of symbols in public places, I came to understand what Saul was trying to show us. When I saw him speak at a film screening this past Fall, and he mentioned the movement to remove racist monuments in New Orleans, I got to ask him about that scene and his head nodded vigorously when I told him my take on it — spot on.
My analysis was rooted in a book that I read in college by late African American behavioral scientist, Dr. Frances Cress Welsing. Her book, The Isis Papers diagnoses white supremacy by decoding its symbols. She qualifies symbols as “entities that carry highly compacted messages pertaining to the origin, identity and survival of individuals and collective peoples.” So what did that have to do with the image in Saul Williams’ movie SLAM or white supremacy at large for that matter? Well, the obelisk of the Washington Monument is also a phallic symbol that essentially represents white male patriarchy, which is at least one of the intertwining if not underlying forces beneath what we know as white supremacy.
Further, the obelisk was co-opted from ancient Egypt as their obelisks, which were originally called Tekhen, on the Nile Valley commemorate the mythology of Isis and Osiris, or the Ausarrian drama as it was originally called.
Obelisks were originally erected to honor Egyptian gods, the most prominent being the male Sun God Ra, and the phallic nature of their design has been said to represent masculine energy. So the Washington Monument, created by white men in the center of America’s capital, standing taller than any Egyptian obelisk ever created, not only represents white masculinity, but dominance, and also a co-optation of an age-old black narrative.
Dr. Welsing specifically had this to say about the Washington Monument: “It is not without significance that the Washington Monument, as a phallic symbol, towers over a predominantly black population in the capital city of the most powerful government in the global white supremacy system.” Now, as we zoom in on more recent history like the struggle to remove racist monuments around the world in the present day, and most specifically in New Orleans, Louisiana where I currently live, we can more accurately diagnose how vast and age old this conversation about white supremacist symbols in public spaces actually is. Western Civilization has been laying down its mark in very covert and overtly oppressive ways since its inception. Which is to say whiteness has been codifying its imperialism since Greece invaded Egypt millennia ago and since Rome followed them and stole 8 obelisks from Egypt and placed them in the Roman empire.
WHITE SUPREMACIST SYMBOLS IN NEW ORLEANS & WORLDWIDE
While global white supremacy was using symbols to enforce its neo-colonial conquest, Southern white supremacy was erecting them to clamor for a power that it had already lost: the power to enslave black people.
In places where the Trans-atlantic Slave Trade was most prominent, especially in islands in the Caribbean like Trinidad (where I visited last summer and originally delivered some of these words in a keynote speech), the campaign of imperialistic symbolism continues in the form of figures like Christopher Columbus — the original pirate, thief, rapist and murderer of the colonial and imperial era — still standing in a square ironically named Independence. While in Trinidad, my host Shabaka Khambon of the Cross Rhodes Freedom Project enlightened me to the fact that most of the monuments to Columbus were erected between 1880–1930. This was done with intention. The white supremacist governments and corporations of the early 20th century had to valorize their colonial era ancestors in order to validate the next era of Western imperialism known as the Industrial Age. That fact really struck a chord with me. It made me think of a similar campaign that took place around the same time period in the American South.
In the United States, there are over 1500 symbols to the Confederate Army. After the Confederacy lost their fight to keep slavery, they promptly spawned a movement called The Cult of the Lost Cause which existed for the sole purpose of commemorating their Confederate ancestors. Most of the Confederate monuments that exist in America are in the South and they primarily came up between 1900–1920. The other time that white supremacist monuments saw a huge upturn in construction was during the Civil Rights Era. This was in obvious response to the progression towards equal rights that black people made during that time. So while global white supremacy was using symbols to enforce its neo-colonial conquest, Southern white supremacy was erecting them to clamor for a power that it had already lost: the power to enslave black people.
It’s important to note that while monuments were being constructed to preserve psychological violence towards black folks, that campaign merely enforced the physical violence that we were forced to endure. Between 1877 and 1950, during the Jim Crow era, there were more than 4,000 lynchings of black people in the United States. That’s nearly one a week for almost a century. Meanwhile, the year 1877 was a crucial one for black folk in America, because it is the first year that we existed outside of the crucial but, underreported era of Reconstruction, which lasted from 1866–1876. During that time, black people in the United States saw more political and socio-economic progression than we ever had in United States history. There was an unprecedented amount of black politicians, business owners, and black sovereignty in black communities.
In New Orleans, Louisiana, we presented the world its first black Lieutenant Governor in the form of an erudite politician named Oscar Dunn.
Dunn would die at the young age of 45 due to what rumors say was poison by the white elites who envied his comeuppance. While that can’t be proven, what is indeed a fact, is that directly following his death, white elites made caricatures of him at that year’s Mardi Gras masquerade ball by costuming as gorillas and basically berating his namesake. Further, the monument that was originally supposed to be made to Dunn, was replaced for a monument to Robert E. Lee instead. Robert E. Lee, general of the Confederacy, a man who, like Columbus to Trinidad, never set foot in New Orleans. In 1884, his statue was erected in the middle of the city, angled towards the North in a symbolic act of defiance against the Northern states that defeated the South in the Civil War.
Another gross injustice that occurred during Reconstruction was the swift violent reaction of Southern white supremacists. In Louisiana, a group of elite businessmen, politicians and Confederate army veterans formed a group called the Crescent City White League, which was basically the Louisiana version of the Klu Klux Klan. The White League are said to have murdered some 3,000 black people during Reconstruction. One of the most infamous massacres they pulled off was at the Battle of Liberty Place in 1874 when they attempted to overthrow the Reconstruction Era government. The governor at the time was Northern transplant William P. Kellogg, and the Lieutenant governor was PBS Pinchback a black man who had replaced Oscar Dunn. During the massacre, the White League murdered 11 black and white men, both military officers and civilians.
About two decades later, in 1891, the city erected the Liberty monument to this egregious act of domestic terrorism. In case there was any doubt as to the nature of the monument’s purpose, in 1932 a qualifying plaque was placed on the monument stating that the “National Election [of] 1876, recognized white supremacy in the state and gave us our state.” The results of that election were undoubtedly influenced by the violent force applied only two years prior. By 1906, a monument was erected to Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, and by 1915, one was constructed to PGT Beauregard, a lieutenant in the Confederacy and the only local New Orleanian in the Confederacy represented by a major statue in the city. The aforementioned four are but a small fraction of the well over 100 symbols to white supremacy in New Orleans including at least 12 other monuments. But they were the only four selected by former New Orleans Mayor Landrieu for removal in 2015.
Now back to Dr. Welsing’s qualification of symbols. She says they are to pass on messages to support the origin, identity and survival of a people. And it is through that lens that one must understand the hypocrisy of erecting white supremacist symbols in a city like New Orleans, which has been predominately black for 295 years of its 299 year existence. It’s obvious that all of the street names, school names, public squares and monuments to white supremacy in New Orleans were put there to sustain the false narrative of white supremacy such that it would reign over black people in the city for the foreseeable future. These symbols obviously don’t represent the majority black citizens of New Orleans, much less an origin we need identify with for survival.
Conversely, if what you seek is the destruction of a people, then there’s nothing better to do than force them to identify their origin with symbols of their own degradation, enslavement, and genocide. The systemic inequity that New Orleans still endures on a daily basis is a testament to the slave state that these monuments seek to maintain. A recent study released by Keen Independent Research at the behest of The Collaborative, a local group of business owners created to improve economic parity for people of color in New Orleans, revealed some details of the racialized economic disparity in New Orleans. Black families make one dollar for every three that white families make. Black business contractors get only 29% of city contracts in a city that is 60% black. The average contract granted to black firms is typically one-half the value of what is offered to businesses run by white women, and one-third the value of businesses run by white men.
Meanwhile, New Orleans has historically ranked among the lowest in education in the US and among the highest in unemployment and poverty — with approximately half of black men unemployed, half of black children living beneath the poverty line, and black women suffering the largest pay gap of any group in the nation. The poverty leads to our crime rate (also one of the highest in the nation) which is only treated with over-policing, hyper-surveilalnce, and aggressive imprisonment which ultimately makes us the prison capital of all the world’s history, incarcerating more people per capita than any other city or state in the world. Our biggest prison is called Angola, named after the plantation that it once was during slavery. The legacy of slavery has preserved itself in New Orleans, changing very little but its namesake. Its practices remain the same.
A HISTORY OF RESISTANCE
The legacy of oppression by way of symbols in New Orleans has not been accepted without resistance, however. One of the earliest known acts of resistance was in 1954, when a group of black preachers organized a protest against Founder’s Day. Founder’s Day was once an annual ritual in New Orleans, where black students were made to stand in the hot sun and wait their turn behind white students to lay reefs at the feet of a statue to John McDonough, one of the largest slaveowners in Louisiana history. A protest organized by the black church put an end to that. Twenty years later, in 1972, the New Orleans chapter of the Black Panthers faced off against former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke at the Robert E. Lee monument and sent Duke running away. A year later, a member of the black church picked the torch back up as Rev. Marie Galatas recruited legendary Civil Rights activist and state senator Rev. Avery C. Alexander to organize for monument removal.
Five years later, in 1978, revolutionary scholar Malcolm Suber joined the fight. Through public protests, forums, and civic engagement, he, along with several others continued the fight well into the 90’s. Between 1993 and 2006, Malcolm and his cohorts saw a major victory in the form of 31 school names changing from antebellum racists like Governor William C. Claiborne and Governor Francis T. Nicholls to significant contributors to African American history like Frederick Douglass and Langston Hughes. Another huge victory from that era was the passage of a city ordinance declaring all public symbols that represented the oppression of a people to be public nuisances. By that definition, half the city was up for reupholstering. By 2015, when New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu entered this conversation, he used this very ordinance to call for the removal of four Confederate monuments in the city. But before that ever happened, I would sit in a lecture presented by Malcolm and his business partner, revolutionary scholar, Leon Waters, and have my worldview changed forever.
I assumed that in the room in which I sat, mostly comprised of black intellectuals and artists in New Orleans, that everyone would see what I saw: documented evidence of the crime of white supremacy left by none other than the culprits themselves. I was wrong.
It was about 2010 when I saw the map of my city gridded in the names of our antebellum oppressors. My blood boiled and a bonfire went off in my head. I was equally enraged and excited. I was enraged as I realized that all of the trauma visited on my people in New Orleans (where I had now been a resident since 1993) was not by coincidence. On the contrast, it was literally by design. I was excited because I assumed that in the room in which I sat, mostly comprised of black intellectuals and artists in New Orleans, that everyone would see what I saw: documented evidence of the crime of white supremacy left by none other than the culprits themselves. Armed with information like this, I just knew we would all be ready to rise up in righteous rebellion against our oppressors. I was wrong.
Retorts of, “but it’s a part of history, it needs to be preserved,” perforated the room. I stood up and responded: “We just paid our military to occupy another country (Iraq) and knock down its statue of its leader [Saddam Hussein] before we killed him. How do you support that with your tax dollars but can’t support removing statues to people that actually directly attacked your ancestors?” A few reticent heads nodded in agreement. Some approached me afterward with the “you said that” or “you were sooo right” response. But for the most part, the room felt a bit ambivalent.
It would take another 5 years before my community, and the world at large was ready to act. And as usual, the spark to set off the fire came in the form of black death. Like 14 year old Emmitt Till‘s murder catalyzed the Civil Rights movement, the modern day Black Lives Matter movement would be blood born. The deaths of Trayvon Martin in 2012, Mike Brown in 2014, and a countless list of other names birthed the movement. Suffice it to say that in the United States, a black person is killed by a cop nearly once a week and our killers usually go unpunished. That’s as bad as the Jim Crow era. Furthermore, those numbers have only increased since the Black Lives Matter movement started years ago.
But when I first got involved, it was in direct response to the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, Mike Brown’s killer. At an action with BYP100 NOLA, I launched a petition to remove Robert E. Lee, in an attempt to connect the dots between the system that killed us and the symbols that represented that system. A few months of actions led to my co-founding Take Em Down NOLA, a coalition committed to the removal of white supremacist symbols as a part of the greater push for racial and economic justice in the city. The rest, as they say, is history. Five intense months of actions and rallies pushed City Council to vote for the removal of four of those symbols.
A lawsuit from pro-monument haters, fifteen months of legal hang ups, and a dozen or so TEDN led public actions later, and the monuments finally began to fall. First the Liberty Monument on April 24th of last year.
Then Jefferson Davis on May 11th.
PGT Beauregard on May 16th.
And the big kahuna Robert E. Lee on May 19th.
And yet, even with our victory, New Orleans is still dealing with the ugly anachronistic face of white supremacist bigotry reentering itself into a conversation we thought we were done with. It was recently discovered that New Orleans’ new mayor Latoya Cantrell, the first woman to hold the office and an African American no less, had allowed a secret committee of pro-monument supporters to assemble to decide what to do with the removed statues. Meanwhile, former Mayor Mitch Landrieu is on a self-promotional book tour championing his role in removing the monuments as he co-opts the work of Take Em Down NOLA and the decades of activists that preceded us.
And Mitch is but one of the many self-interested opportunists that have reared their heads to capitalize on an issue that they only stood in the margins of. In so doing, they seek to wreak benefits from work that they in most cases had little to nothing to do with, or stood in ambivalence towards, or worse yet, decried. Alas, such is the nature of the modern day outgrowth of white supremacist capitalism — a pesky little beast called neo-liberalism — but that’s an issue for a separate essay. For now, the true organizers will continue our work knowing that only through standing up to the behemoth of white supremacist, colonial control one voice, one protest, one direct action at a time, will we liberate ourselves from the vice grip of oppressive history.
Baldwin had another prescient thing to say on history and it was this: “An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressure of life like clay in a dry season.” Welcome to the dry season of white supremacy. It’s time to crack and crumble that invented past and its brittle present, one monument, one unjust policy, one racist law at a time. Only then will the voice of the people be heard. Only then, will our true stories be told.