By Frank Bruni — These are hard days of coarse language — of tweets and catcalls that appeal to the worst in us, not the best. Maybe that’s why a big, sweeping, old-fashioned speech delivered in New Orleans on Friday made such an impression on me. It was a reprieve. It was an antidote.
But it also addressed matters that are forever tripping us up — race, history, healing — better than anything I’ve heard or read in a long time. It was the masterpiece we needed at the moment we needed it, and I fear that it was lost in the brutal whirl of news these days. It shouldn’t be.
I’m referring to remarks by that city’s Democratic mayor, Mitch Landrieu, upon his removal of the last of several bitterly contested Confederate monuments there. And I’m thinking of the way his words responded to so much of what’s going on in this country without stooping to the rants that too many other Democrats are being drawn into and that represent a trap.
Although outrage is the order of the day, his speech trafficked in empathy. It felt like a holdover from a past that we left behind without exactly meaning to, and that we’d be wise to get back to.
Because Landrieu has been mentioned as a possible Democratic presidential candidate in 2020, I should spell out a few things: I’m not putting my thumb on the scale of his political future. I haven’t followed his career closely. I once crossed paths and shook hands with him. I can vouch for his grip. That’s about it.
But his speech: wow. He spent his energy not on vilifying anyone but on stating in the least hysterical, most persuasive manner possible what’s right and what’s wrong.
He didn’t talk in terms of Democrats and Republicans. He didn’t mention any political party, period. Predictably (and justly), he invoked the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama. But he invoked George W. Bush first.
Our country’s leader was denied even a cameo. But he was most certainly present in Landrieu’s warnings about holding on to any “false narrative” and his plea that we not “marinate in historical denial.” This was a speech about facing and owning the truth.
It cut straight to the heart of things, making the case against monuments that glorify the Confederacy by asking us to consider them “from the perspective of an African-American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth-grade daughter” why a statue of the most famous Confederate general occupied such a lofty perch above the city.
“Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her?” Landrieu said. “Do you think she will feel inspired — and hopeful — by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential?”
He then put her experience in a larger context. “Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are, too?”
Landrieu dismantled the argument that statues like the one of Lee merely recognize the past by asking where the rest of that record is. “There are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks,” he said, adding that the defenders of Confederate monuments “are eerily silent on what amounts to this historical malfeasance, a lie by omission.”
We talk plenty about diversity these days, but too often in abstractions, and too often by listing various minorities, tallying how they’ve been wronged and specifying what they’re owed.
Landrieu took a different tack. He indeed did a roll call of the tribes and ethnicities that built New Orleans, but he dwelled on how they’d come together — in the tapestry made possible by such varied threads — and how much poorer all of us would be without it.
“We gave the world this funky thing called jazz, the most uniquely American art form,” he said. “Think about Mardi Gras, think about muffuletta, think about the Saints, gumbo, red beans and rice. By God, just think.”
I didn’t realize how starved I was for talk like this until Landrieu fed me. It’s the stuff of solace, the grist for hope. We subsist now on a meager vocabulary of winners and “losers,” of “sad!” naysayers and “nut job” adversaries. We’re asked to see an absence of eloquence as the presence of authenticity.
But that’s bunk. Words, like monuments, matter. They nudge. They shape. That’s true when they elevate what shouldn’t be elevated, encouraging complacency or evil, and that’s just as true when they show us a better way and help us get there.
Landrieu did that, putting some poetry back in public life and demonstrating afresh that in language beautifully rendered, we find our humanity fully acknowledged.
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