Here in south Louisiana we are, to a degree, surrounded by levees. For those not familiar with them, levees are manmade earthen barriers that are designed to protect the inhabited areas of the region from rising waters and storm surges. They are not a new strategy, historical accounts tell us of levees being erected by the first European settlers to the area three centuries ago. European styled settlements were always challenged by the climate and ecology of the bayou land.
Levees, locks, canals, and pumping stations are all modern manifestations of this centuries old effort to live against the ongoing pressures from the environment. From another perspective this reality reflects a philosophical ideal of living in opposition to the natural flow of existence. In this sense levees stand as a physical manifestation of this philosophical principle of standing against while, for millennia indigenous peoples here in what is today Louisiana have lived in a state of coexistence with their surroundings. The ebb and flow of life dictated the life-ways of the people of the land and ordered our existence.
Most of my life was spent in Plaquemines Parish (in Louisiana counties have retained their ecclesiastical designation as parishes), which stretches from just south of New Orleans to the mouth of the Mississippi River. Growing up in the southern portion of the parish, levees were a constant part of my physical surroundings. In 1969 we lost our home in one of the small Indian settlements “outside the levee” to hurricane Camille and upon our return took up residence inside the hurricane protection system.
For the next thirty-five years my life would evolve within the protections of those earthworks that surrounded my hometown. High school, marriage, and the birth of my children would all take place in the confines of the same south Louisiana settlement. From my front yard looking east you could see the great ships passing in the river, if you looked up that is. The inhabited land in southern Plaquemines within the levees is on average about 15 feet below sea level and only the levees keep out the Mississippi River to the east and the Gulf of Mexico to the west.
And so it was, for those thirty-five years that despite numerous storms and hurricanes the levees kept us safe and dry. Within the shadows of those man-made dikes the community survived and prospered in spite of nature’s seasonal upheavals. The U.S. Corps of Engineers had constructed a defacto barrier between the manufactured world I lived in every day and the reality of the ecosystem that surrounded us.
This all came crashing down on August 29th 2005 when hurricane Katrina came to call. Her thirty foot storm surge rolled ashore to challenge our hurricane protection walls that had stood for over three decades and our protection was found wanting. Two or three major breeches were all that was needed to put my home and the homes of my neighbors underwater. On that day we learned that no matter how much time, money, and effort is put into levee construction they are not, on their own, a permanent solution for the security of at risk communities.
During those years before 2005 as the real levees grew in high and breath the vibrant marshlands outside them deteriorated as the avarice of 20th century economic development devoured them. From the inside there is a false sense of security that grew with each year that passed while the forces of coastal erosion raged on. Since the 1930s Louisiana has lost over 2000 square miles of land, but since 1969 we were “safe” inside the levees.
I think about that lesson as I contemplate the metaphorical levee that surround us just as those physical one did. We don’t recognize them as levees but they are artificially constructed barriers that seek to shield us from the realities that exist outside of them. They exist in many forms and in many areas but they all have in common a foundation based on a constructed reality. And as we do with the physical ones, we need to set our sights on what is transpiring outside our figurative levees.
Ironically it is again in New Orleans, the focal point for physical levee failures in 2005, in which the failure of a philosophical barrier transpires in 2017. In the last few months all eyes have turned to the Crescent City as several century old monuments dedicated to the long defeated Confederate States were removed from their positions of prominence. Battle lines erected between those who supported the administration of Mayor Landrieu and his removal directive and those who opposed him in the name of heritage and history exposed the fallacy of many of the accepted views on the status of race relations in the city and in the state.
Race relations stand as a levee constructed over decades and giving us the sense of security based on the idea that we have not fully attained equality but we are “headed in the right direction.” The barrier is well known though not readily recognized for what it truly is. We are taught about the progress we’ve made, reminded about the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the election of Barack Obama all of which assures us protection from a social and civil system based on discriminatory statutes and traditions. We have the ability within this levee to realize the great American creed that all men are created equal.
But here in New Orleans within the levees, both physical and metaphorical, stood those statues dedicated to the battles and heroes of the Confederate States of America. For decades they have stood in counter distinction to the civil rights struggles that have transpired in their shadow. As the controversy over their existence reached its recent crescendo one could not help but wonder about the world that has transpired under the shadow of Robert E. Lee’s statue in the now oddly named “Lee’s Circle.”
To the defenders of the Confederate statuary these are memorials to a particular part of the city’s three centuries of history. The monuments to Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, Jefferson Davis, and the Battle of Liberty Place commemorate the men who stood for a noble, though ill-fated cause and attest to heritage and not hate. The War Between the States is framed as a conflict over state’s rights and the issue of slavery is greatly minimized. These noble men fought in what their generation would call The War of Northern Aggression and their memory should continue to be honored.
In truth these shrines were erected in honor of an insurrection that sought to tear apart the nineteenth century United States of America to maintain an economic system that depended on chattel slavery to survive and prosper. No less a voice than Alexander Stevens, the Vice-President of the Confederacy, would declare in 1861 that slavery was the cornerstone on which the Confederacy was founded. This fact is reinforced by the succession proclamations of the individual states and stands in opposition to the modern defenders of these particular monuments and their view of history.
So the question asked in New Orleans, and increasingly across the south is this, can we have both a fair and just society and memorialize those who fought to prevent such a society from coming into existence. The answer for over a century in New Orleans has been yes and with that yes a levee was constructed that sought to protect both sides but in reality only fostered a false sense of peace and progress. From inside this levee we struggle to understand recent events in places like Ferguson, Missouri and movements such as Black Lives Matter because we’re shielded from the reality outside our protected system.
In truth the conflict over slavery and race has never truly been settled in this country, Appomattox Court House was not the final word by any means. When General Sherman tried to implement his famous “40 acres and a mule policy” he understood as the military victor that to assure that victory he needed to dismantle the white power structure of the south and give the former slaves an economic and social step-up to real equality. That effort continued sporadically through the Reconstruction Era but ended when Federal Troops were withdrawn from the former Confederacy in 1877.
The century of discrimination, lynching, and Jim Crow that followed made the Civil Rights struggles of the 20th century inevitable. The just and equal society that was paid for with the pains of the Civil War and built by Reconstruction policies was abandoned for economic and political expediency. The controversial monuments of recent news reports were erected at the end of the nineteenth century more as testaments to the survival of the antebellum power structure than to bravery of Confederate leaders. Indeed the Liberty Place Monument specifically commemorates a violent insurrection instigated by the Crescent City White League against the duly elected Reconstruction government in 1874.
None of these historical realities are addressed within our metaphorical levee so the turmoil that transpires outside their protective heights is misunderstood or ignored. When protesters raise their hands for justice or broach the age old subject of reparations there are many who are indignant or confused. Were not these issues resolved in 1865? Surely they were settled by the events in and around 1965? Why such controversy over flags and statues?
So the levee failed and the reality it held at bay came flooding in. Those flood waters swept down monuments despite all the protestations and cries for the preservation of ‘history.” But for those who cheered the removal the question is do they understand that the waters are rising on them also. If they believe that simply removing monuments will rectify centuries of injustice and assuage liberal guilt they are as oblivious to the historic realities as the confederate flag wavers.
Just as hurricane protection is dependent on the restoration of the ecosystem outside the levees so too is societal protection dependent on the restoration of truth outside our walls of ignorance. Repairing historical inequities depends on our acknowledgement of the historical realities of race and race relations in the United States. From inside the levee there were those who saw the election of America’s first black president in 2008 and thought we had arrived at true equality while today in 2017, outside the levee, we see the body of Philando Castile and know that we have “miles to go before we sleep.”