Rethinking the Old South

Posted March 25, 2018 3:26 p.m. EDT

New Orleans is a great U.S. city, but it’s not often that its mayor becomes well known on a national scale. That happened in May 2017, when Mayor Mitch Landrieu delivered a speech about the removal of the last four Confederate monuments in the city. “These monuments celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy,” Landrieu said, “ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for.”

The speech was widely shared while arguments about how best to remember and commemorate history continued across the country.

In his new book, “In the Shadow of Statues,” Landrieu surveys Southern history and its lingering divides in deeper detail, and also shares details about his childhood, when he was harassed and threatened because of the progressive racial politics of his father, Moon Landrieu, who was then mayor of New Orleans.

Here, Landrieu discusses the differences between writing a book and writing a speech, how musical theater helped shape his view of the world and more.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Q: When did you first get the idea to write this book?

A: When I gave that speech, it was directed to a local audience, so I was taken aback by the fact that it struck such an incredible chord across the country. We started to field a lot of requests to write a book. I always wanted to write a book, but I wasn’t sure exactly what I would write about.

The ideas of race, class and understanding diversity as a strength and not a weakness — it seemed an appropriate time to get this down. The message met the moment.

Q: What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?

A: The toughness with the form. It’s a lot more constricting than giving a speech. You don’t always speak the way you write or write the way you speak. And you don’t use as much historical detail in speeches because speeches, by design, are supposed to be short. The more you talk, the less people listen.

I read Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow.” That was really instructive, how it jumped off the page. Although I don’t agree with everything he says, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book was interesting.

There was a pretty intense reaction to the issue of taking the monuments down. My mother would say, “I’m not sure that’s a smart thing to do.” And I’d walk through with her what the history is. And she said, “We didn’t know any of that stuff. We didn’t know whether Robert E. Lee ever stepped foot in New Orleans.” A gentleman named James Loewen wrote a book called “Lies Across America” that does an exhaustive job of going back and talking about miseducation.

Q: In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

A: I always conceptualized writing a book after finishing 30 years of government service, which I’m getting ready to do in May. I assumed the book would be about how my team and the people of New Orleans rebuilt a great American city, what we actually did to turn the city around.

Part of taking the monuments down, as much as it was about how the past informs the future, was also an aesthetic choice about how you rebuild a city and where you put physical structures.

Steve Jobs always talked about the symbiotic relationship between function and design. Every mayor is in some ways an architect.

But then when I gave the speech, it reignited an issue that I had dealt with my entire life and was the culmination of not only my work but my father’s work and a lot of people in the civil rights movement and probably the biggest issue in the country, which is race. I also thought about writing a memoir, so I decided to write about my life and how race has informed every step of it.

Q: Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?

A: I really wanted to be a professional actor when I was young. I got a degree in theater, and as a consequence I’ve always had a keen ear for poets and playwrights. I always thought that’s where the truth was, not just about human nature but also about history. And I was always drawn to the history of musical theater, Rodgers & Hammerstein and Leonard Bernstein. “West Side Story” was one of my favorite shows. And in “South Pacific,” there’s a song called “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” which is about where racism comes from. I can quote the lyrics: “You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late/ Before you are 6 or 7 or 8/ To hate all the people your relatives hate/ You’ve got to be carefully taught.” When I was doing these shows as a kid, the lyrics informed the way I was thinking about life.

The ultimate writer of the American songbook is Stephen Sondheim. He’s been one of the more incredible inspirations in my creative thinking about how you form thoughts and communicate to people.

Q: Persuade someone to read “In the Shadow of Statues” in 50 words or less.

A: It’s essential if we really want to move forward that we do so together.

We cannot do that unless we deal forthrightly with the issue of race. And unless and until we do that, we’re never going to reach that aspirational moment where out of many we are one.

Publication Notes:

‘In the Shadow of Statues:

A White Southerner Confronts History’

By Mitch Landrieu

227 pages. Viking. $25.