August 8, 2017
Confederate statues, submerged tensions, and the end of racism: A southern writer looks at the monuments of New Orleans and Brazil
by Ladee Hubbard
This piece originally ran last month. We’re running it again to celebrate the publication today of Ladee Hubbard’s The Talented Ribkins.
Recently my hometown of New Orleans removed four monuments to Confederate generals from public display, an act that heartened many, provoked anger in some, and received a good deal of attention in the news. I was happy to see them come down, but also disturbed to consider that, in the United States, in 2017, we are still arguing about whether monuments erected to celebrate white power can be defended on the grounds that they represent something as neutral as “heritage.” Although often referred to as “Confederate” monuments, they were all erected after the Civil War, between 1884 and 1932, to celebrate the failure of Reconstruction (the post-war period when people in the South fought to create a more egalitarian society) and nurture the “Lost Cause” mythology that was casting the seditious, slave-holding South as victims of Northern aggression.
Jim Crow, the fraudulent “separate but equal” apartheid system that emerged in the decades following the war, was enforced with great violence. Nothing made this clearer than New Orleans’s Battle of Liberty Place Monument, which celebrated the victory of the Crescent City White League, a white supremacist terrorist group, over the interracial city police force of the Reconstruction government. It was removed last April under the cover of darkness in an attempt to minimize violent confrontation between a ragtag collection of neo-confederates (many brandishing Trump banners) and those local New Orleanians eager to see the monuments removed. In quick succession, statues of Jefferson Davis, P.G.T. Beauregard, and Robert E. Lee were also taken down.
This all happened while I was at the Sacatar Institute, an artists’ residency on the island of Itaparica, across from All Saints’ Bay from Salvador, the capital of the Brazilian state of Bahia. It was an interesting vantage point from which to observe the controversy. Brazil received more enslaved Africans than any other country in the Americas, but never instituted racial segregation and encouraged miscegenation.
Despite their differences, Salvador and New Orleans share some commonalities. Both cities have non-white majorities, and both have cultivated international reputations as important sites of Afro-Atlantic culture. Both have also been celebrated—and often romanticized—as hotbeds of racial and cultural mixture, which has made Salvador Brazil’s most celebrated locus of cultural exchange, and New Orleans somewhat anomalous—and scandalous—in the context of a historically segregated U.S.
Salvador is home to two especially famous works of public sculpture. The first is an iconic monument honoring Antônio Frederico de Castro Alves, a Bahian romantic poet and playwright known for his ardent support for the abolition of slavery. He didn’t live to see emancipation, having died at age twenty-four in 1871 — seventeen years before slavery was formally outlawed in Brazil. His likeness, erected in 1923, stands in a declamatory pose with outstretched arm and open palm in front of the vast, gorgeous expanse of Itaparica and the bay.
Salvador’s other iconic monument, erected in 1895, features an Indian in full battle mode, which symbolizes Brazilian Independence from Portuguese colonial rule. The presence of these monuments is incredibly moving, perhaps especially to an African-American who lives in the American South, where such towering monuments to the struggle towards an ideal of racial equality are largely non-existent, and statues of Lee, Jefferson, and Beauregard dominate.
Yet the idea that race does not exist in Brazil doesn’t bear up to reality. For many Brazilians, “racism” is a term that can only be accurately used to describe the situation and history of countries like the United States and South Africa, where formal slavery was abolished only to be replaced by a form of apartheid. And it is true that the inequity experienced in Brazil was never enforced by terrorist groups such as the Crescent City White League or the KKK. Yet it was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery and continues to be plagued by racial discrimination and inequality.
Activists and intellectuals have had to struggle to debunk the once-cherished claim that Brazil is a “racial democracy.” It wasn’t until the early 2000s that the Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva administration implemented the country’s first affirmative action program to make federal and state universities more accessible to blacks, indigenous peoples, and, more generally, low-income students. Today, though, controversy rages over how it should be implemented in so ethnically complex a society, and racial and economic inequality remain huge problems.
In Brazil, combatting racism means confronting a tradition of duplicitous cordiality, which asserts the existence of racial harmony while maintaining scandalous levels of racial inequality and violence. The task is to dismantle the idea that, despite all evidence to the contrary, race is not an issue there. In the United States, when the myths and monuments of racial superiority are dismantled, vociferous backlash erupts, revealing a deep strain of white ethno-nationalism that is emboldened by the siren song of “America First” bombast. Many here continue to believe that their problems have been brought on by the presence of racial “others.” The removal of monuments that validate such ideas is an important and belated first step, but of course it doesn’t signify the end of racism. That can only be achieved through the continual engagement of people willing to actively confront and demolish the racial hierarchies ensconced in the hearts, minds, and institutions of America.
The Talented Ribkins is on sale now. Buy your copy here or at your neighborhood independent bookstore.
Ladee Hubbard is a winner of the 2016 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and the William Faulkner—William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is the author of The Talented Ribkins, available now from Melville House.