Today, I want to share a post that Jennifer Morrison, a colleague and friend, shared on Facebook recently. I have not altered her post apart from separating it into paragraphs. Her words speak for themselves. All I want to say is that the statue she references is the statue of General Alfred Mouton that the United Daughters of the Confederacy had erected in 1922.
I’ve been thinking about writing something about this for a long time and seeing these images really inspired me to articulate my thoughts. I’ve been paranoid about really commenting in any real extensive way about this subject on Facebook because frankly, I was raised to be a good, Southern girl and not make waves and not offend people.
Always be polite, always be understanding, even if this understanding requires you to swallow what feels like bile in your throat because you-must-not-make-others-uncomfortable. It’s what my daddy told me, it’s what my mama taught me, it’s what their parents, and my uncle, and aunts, and cousins were raised in because we are Black and Southern, and we just need to hold our heads to the grindstone and get ours and ignore all of the other indignities that being Black and Southern can bring. It means ignoring when someone remarks how articulate you are, how you’re attractive “for a Black girl,” how you’re a “credit to your people” at an award ceremony for local women in the area, how your PhD exam compilers designed it “just for you to pass” because it asked two questions about Black literature, or being told that you have “nigger lips” by someone who has been close friends with you your whole life….I could go on and on for days.
I say all that to say that we Black Southerners (particularly the rural ones) put up with a lot and when we look at these “monuments” to Confederate soldiers, it can seem as if this land is not our land. That it is hostile to us, that we do not really belong here, have a place here or had an impact on shaping this community.
I had an interesting interaction at the monument in Lafayette this past Festival [Internationale] that made me realize this is not an innocuous expression of history, but a hostile terrorizing force that prohibits unity in our community. For the most part, I barely ever noticed the statue growing up and when I did find out about who it was and what he represented, I tried to avoid thinking about it whenever I went on Jefferson Street downtown (which has been almost everyday of my adult life). My friend Katie, my sister and I were tired of walking around the Saturday night of this past Festival Internationale and so we collapsed in the grass. Unbeknownst to us, we had chosen to sit underneath the statue. When I looked up and saw where we were, I groaned inwardly but figured I would be able to ignore it and just rest and get up and go on about my way.
However, this woman noticed me looking and turned to me, a face shining and full of pride, and said, “That’s my ancestor! Isn’t it amazing?” And I looked at her and I just remember thinking, “No, it’s not, it’s disgusting and why would you think that I would agree with you when I am clearly an African American, are you insane????” But I didn’t say what I was thinking, I merely offered what may have looked to her delusional self like a smile but was probably actually a grimace.
I knew I couldn’t say what I was thinking, not because my mouth wouldn’t work, but because I was raised to never, ever express those thoughts. It would be rude and impolite, and frankly possibly dangerous to puncture her bubble. So I just sat there and just blinked at her while she went on about how proud of him she was and how amazing it was that this was downtown. So I just sat there, in the “sunken place” feeling gross and angry but knowing there wasn’t much I could do about it. I just had to eat that charge.
I know many Black people, I have been one of them, who take pride in confronting a racist person or speaking up in a racist moment. They may hear of this interaction and think of all the things that they would have said and may even possibly believe me to be some sort of Aunt Thomasina or something for not putting her in her place. Sometimes I wish I did, but the truth of the matter, the thing about it, is that it never really happens like you want it to. You are rarely prepared to clap back because if you live where I live, and experience the things that I have, it can happen at any moment.
And if I’m being honest here, I knew that when she and I looked at that statue we were looking at two different things. She saw pride, power, machismo and domination. She saw the Old South, in all its hoop skirts Gone With the Wind Glory, and all the validation of her identity that came with it.
Yet when I look at that rancid, obnoxious statue of General Alfred Mouton, I don’t see pride or glory or any of those things. I see my dad telling me that there were churches in Lafayette where people wouldn’t shake his hand. Or my mom applying for a job at the Lafayette Parish School System in the 70’s and being told “They didn’t need any more nigra teachers.” Or that she went through the back door of a doctor’s office in 1980 in Scott. Or that my mom’s father could never advance in the Army because of “the times.” Or that my dad’s father, who was also in the army, would come home from his base in Nevada and have to get up from his seat in the front and move to the back of the train somewhere in Texas, and that is how he knew he was on his way “home.” Or that the only option for employment for both of my grandmothers was that of domestics, in the homes of white people who really didn’t have that much more than they did. Or that both of my siblings went to a high school where the mascot was the “Rebels” and they used to fly the Confederate flag at the football games, a practice they ended just before my sister got there. Or that my siblings and I were all called the “n” word in all its infamous glory before we were all ten years old by white classmates. (And when I say “infamous glory” I mean in a way that was meant to make us feel inferior).
I don’t recount these things to act like they are unique and special, talk to any Black person in this area, in this state, in this region, in the country, and they will recount similar stories, maybe even worse ones. I only say all of this to say that I have come to realize that the real offense in her “pride” in that statue is that is based on my subjugation, and those of my ancestors, to people like her and her ancestors…her ability to say this to me and feel good about it is directly related to my inability to speak and challenge her. Which is why when I see these images of the statues coming down, or read about how outraged people are about the possible removal of this statue in Lafayette (thanks KATC comment section), I feel sad. Sad because these people’s whole identity is predicated on them believing, and needing to believe in a lie.
I also feel sad though because they cannot see me as their neighbor, as someone who belongs here too because my ancestors helped build this area, have contributed to it, and make it the rich, unique cultural space that Lafayette likes to market itself to the whole entire world. And what that statue, and those like it says, is that this South has no real place for me, or my ancestors, or future descendants. And if it does, we should know that we will forever be inferior or unacknowledged.