Reviewed By: Patty Friedmann
~Louisiana state legislator. Served at same time as David Duke.
~Louisiana lieutenant governor. Held office for Katrina.
~New Orleans mayor. Served two terms of recovery, ending spring 2018.These vita bullets alone qualify Mitch Landrieu to write a definitive front-row-seat history of the politics and history of New Orleans in the past half century. But In the Shadow of Statues is more than a documentation—and very much more than its title about taking down Confederate statues suggests. It is a fine, often lyrical piece of writing, a monument itself. His sad, simple description of what he saw in New Orleans in the four days after Katrina alone is worth the price of the book.
Landrieu calls his full life to date a “journey on race.” By sharing his intermingled personal and professional story, in some measure he uses his milestones to explain how he came to the difficult decision in 2017 to take down four monuments to what were referred to as the “Cult of the Lost Cause.” Best known is the statue of Robert E. Lee atop a pedestal where the famed New Orleans Saint Charles streetcar turns toward downtown; others are P.G.T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis statues, and the White League obelisk.
Landrieu explores with brutal candor his white-boy life in New Orleans, and his ignorance or epiphanies invariably tie into some facet of the existence of the monuments. But only some facet. He recalls going to City Park and passing the Beauregard statue, seeing it and the surrounding flowers only aesthetically, learning later in life from African American friend Terence Blanchard that it made him feel “less than” others when he passed that statue. He recalls working in the Louisiana legislature after a visit to Auschwitz and seeing David Duke hide his anti-Semitism, able to self-promote by hiding the past.
The past matters, Landrieu said publicly, again and again. (This carries forward not only in regard to the monuments, but also to Landrieu’s unabashed concern about the Trump presidency.) Finally, he recalls his boots-on-the-ground service after Katrina. Landrieu saw abject ruin, comparing all the poor people in plain sight to the confederate monuments “we walked and drove past every day.” When he came to City Hall, the devastation was most visible in the African American-heavy murder rate, a culture of violence, happening, he says, in the shadows of statues.
Landrieu writes, “We cannot change the past, but we are not obligated to cave in to some nostalgia-coated idea that a statue is a good thing because it’s old. Symbols matter.” Five courts, 13 judges, David Duke protests, no cranes, belligerent calls—yet Landrieu took down the monuments. Regardless of melanin, no one is better qualified to tell this story.
Like Barack Obama in 2004, Mitch Landrieu is not going to quit his day job to write gorgeous books. But he has the bona fides. He could.
Patty Friedmann is a New Orleans resident and author of Where Do They All Come From?