Statues and Limitations

I am not from Connecticut, and this aint King Arthur’s court – but it is New Orleans, in the national spotlight of late because the mayor orchestrated the removal of four major Confederate War monuments. And I am from Minnesota.

A transplant, my family and I moved here nine years ago – my wife and I becoming inner-city teachers, helping to rebuild one of the worst school systems in America, post-hurricane Katrina. My perspective on the controversy and local angst over the removal of the statues is one of a citizen and a teacher; I see this as a teachable moment. Or rather, a series of them, a long-time in the making, as two of the four monuments I have driven by very regularly over the past nine years.

I’ll be blunt: I think the statues need to go – at least, be removed from their prominent, public locales, and placed in a museum or park, along with some historical context. Especially the first one to be removed – the Liberty Monument, which commemorates a group of white supremacists who tried to topple a biracial post-Civil War government in New Orleans. Why this one had remained in public view for so long is way beyond me.

The others, all of war heroes in various forms, I can at least, on some level, understand a historical attachment to.

Many who are pro-removal speak of the offensiveness of the statues, but I eschew the ‘O’ word, as I think it has been horribly overused as a concept the past few years. Still, not having grown up here, living my entire life with these legacies, I do understand those who are offended by the Confederate monuments and their legacies – real and implied.

As an American (not a Southerner, not a Midwesterner – an American) I find Confederate monuments in general to be more embarrassing than offensive. Embarrassment, coupled with puzzlement: where I am from, we generally don’t commemorate the losers.

In fact, where I am from, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, we commemorate a wide array of folks less imbued with automatic controversy. Those that came immediately to mind included a couple of famous American authors, along with the most famous characters created by one of them, a Norwegian violinist, and a bunch of famous cartoon characters.

I’m talking full-fledged statues here – not plaques or granite markers of some sort.
When mulling over my hometown statuary, a bunch of images lacking names came to mind, so I needed to hit Google for a virtual, refresher-course, tour to refresh my memory, and the wide array of actual statues was a pleasant eye-opener.

I had immediately thought of the statue of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the poet, and of the bronze rendition of Minnehaha and Hiawatha together – his most famous literary creations.These were familiar from a childhood hanging around the parks where those edifices stand – in popular, high-traffic parks, where each has stood, independently, for over a century each. Only major point of controversy?  That the depictions of Hiawatha and Minnehaha were ‘not Indian enough’.

Then there was the more recent vintage, twenty years or so, bronze tribute to F. Scott Fitzgerald, which stands outside of a hotel I once worked at, and with whom I took a selfie a few years back.

Okay, I am a writer and English teacher; Fitzgerald and Longfellow were gimmes.

I also remembered the statue of Ole Bull, famous Norwegian violinist, erected in 1897, but I had forgotten about the one honoring Gunnar Wennerberg, a Swedish poet and stateman, which dates from 1915 (there is that ‘poet’ angle again). Then there was the biggie: The Father of Waters statue in Minneapolis City Hall.

This behemoth was carved from a block of marble that weighed 44 tons and now covers a large area in the main lobby, under a rotunda, and when I looked up some stats on the statue, I also learned something I did not realize. From the Minneapolis City Hall, self-guided tour, brochure:

‘The Father of Waters” statue features symbols of the countryside the river flows through on its journey from the headwaters in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. The figure reclines on a Native American blanket and leans against the 1 paddle wheel of a riverboat. He holds a cornstalk, while surrounded by a fish net, alligator, and aquatic turtle, and his head is adorned with a pine cone and leaf wreath. When New Orleans was unable to afford the statue, twelve leading Minneapolis citizens and the Minneapolis Journal presented the “Father of Waters” to the City of Lakes in 1904.’

Added bonus, statue-wise: rubbing dad’s toe brings good luck.

Crossing the Mississippi river to St. Paul, you can seek out any of the dozen or more, life-size bronze statues of various ‘Peanuts’ characters scattered throughout town as a homage to creator Charles Schultz, a St. Paul native. St. Paul is also the hometown of Fitzgerald, and his tribute, and also features a statue of the renowned German philosopher, poet, and dramatist, Johann von Schiller.

Me either.

A most intriguing monument from my hometown is one of particular curiosity, and some confusion, to visitors not from the area (and many locals): a bronze statue, mounted on a wide, concrete base, with a lot of adornment and words of praise, for Thomas Lowry – the father of the Minneapolis streetcar system.

A bit overdone, in a lot of people’s eyes.

Then there is another monument, a bronze statue of Theodore Wirth, considered one of the finest in America. His legacy is secured not only by the parks, but by the four, life-sized, bronze children playing around him…and the one clutching his hand.

Very moving, and playful.

There, of course, the typical variety of memorials to wars fought, and people who worked to build America (Abe Lincoln, Nathan “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country” Hale, to name two) along with statues commemorating pioneers, immigrants, and initial white inhabitants – some fodder for controversy amongst indigenous peoples, but largely accepted. There are also a number of paeans, in statue form, to local native populations.

I guess I come from a different statuary environment.

Not that there isn’t some hometown controversy involving some deeply-rooted cultural feelings about symbols, and what they represent; Minneapolis is currently in the process of trying to rename its largest, most prominent lake – Lake Calhoun. This is no small thing in a place that bills itself as, ‘The City of Lakes’ and has thirteen identifiable lakes within its borders.

The lake was named for John C. Calhoun, U.S. Vice President in the 1800’s and strong proponent of slavery; having the city’s largest, most famous, centrally located lake named for a famous secessionist has not sat well with a lot of the local populace for years, but now the park board and the city have moved to change the name of the lake back to its original Dakota name, Bde Maka Ska (be-DAY’ mah-kah skah).

The move is not without controversy, but is lacking the, at times, overwrought, hand-wringing, angst of doom over any impending loss of ‘cultural heritage.’ In fact, many of the businesses in the cosmopolitan neighborhoods around the lake, that have ‘Calhoun’ as an identifier, have already begun changing their business names.

Changing the name of a lake is a big deal; approval still needs to come from the state department of natural resources, as well as U.S. Board on Geographic Names, due to the implications of changing maps – no small deal. Still, opposition has been limited and fairly tame, compared to the removal of statues in New Orleans. And, as opposed to being a divisive issue, returning the original, Dakota name, Bde Maka Ska is seen as a point of reconciliation with the local indigenous populations, and is strongly supported by a wide array of business, community, and religious organizations.

A far cry from the lack of vocal civic support here in New Orleans.

There have been plenty of individual citizens speaking out here regarding statue removal – perusing either of the local papers, or any of the local broadcast media outlets will get you a plethora of material, but there has been very little said by any of the major civic organizations in town.

This surprises me somewhat, as I believe that much of what is driving the removal of the statues now is largely driven by economic and business realities. I get that groups don’t like to take sides in such things, and don’t want to alienate constituencies, but there is also a part of me that feels someone should be stepping up about why this benefits the community – especially the tourism industry, the largest segment of the local economy.

You see, New Orleans celebrates its 300th birthday in 2018, and has a full slate of events to celebrate, and expects the world spotlight to be shining brightly on the city, generating more tourism, and substantial monetary value to the city. I believe there are many who will benefit greatly from these statues being gone, and by the positive press getting them removed has been generating around the world, but nobody wants to talk about that.

In the meantime, a lot of passion and anger is being stirred up about ‘cultural heritage’ and ‘erasing history’ and nobody seems to want to get involved in giving anything any reasonable, thought-out context.

My adopted city could possibly learn a few things from my hometown.

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