Today, we’re talking about symbolic statues and monuments. In this moment, many are demanding the removal of memorials believed to perpetuate a legacy of systemic racial and ethnic injustice. Recent acts of violence against Blacks in the United States have brought these memorials to the center of a nationwide debate.
On Memorial Day, in the year 2020, Minneapolis police killed a Black man named George Floyd. The public incident ignited the resurgence of a 21st century civil rights movement known as Black Lives Matter. In 2013, with use of the hashtag BlackLivesMatter, thousands responded on social media to the acquittal of a white man, George Zimmerman. He had been charged with the shooting death of Black teen Trayvon Martin.
Black Lives Matter is now the leading force behind massive protests across the U.S. and abroad. Crowds are toppling statues honoring colonizers, slaveholders, and Confederate heroes. The controversial figures have become a cultural flashpoint.
Social justice advocates have contested these iconic sculptures for decades. Let’s look back to 2014, for one example, when artist william cordova and his collaborators staged an unannounced public declaration of liberty and justice. They chose to make their statement at the site of a towering statue of confederate leader Robert E. Lee in New Orleans.
Born in Lima, Peru, and based in Miami, New York and Lima, cordova is known as a cultural practitioner. We call him to hear the story behind this prescient intervention.
Sound Editor: Anamnesis Audio | Special Audio: silent parade, 2014 | Photography and sound courtesy william cordova, Monique Moss, Monique Walton, Michiko Kurisu, Ronny Quevedo, and Argenis Apolinario
Related episodes: Black in America, Modern Black Portrait of Florida, Amy Sherald on New Racial Narratives, Sanford Biggers on Time and the Human Condition, Fahamu Pecou on Art x Hip-Hop, Theaster Gates on Meaning, Making and Reconciliation, Jefferson Pinder on Symbols of Power and Struggle
Related links: silent parade, The Soul Rebels, william cordova, now’s the time:narratives of southern alchemy, Perez Art Museum, Miami, 2018, Prospect New Orleans, Headlands Center for the Arts, Black Lives Matter
In 1884, after the end of Reconstruction following the U.S. Civil War, the seventeen-foot statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee was mounted sixty feet above sea level at a traffic circle on St. Charles Avenue. The statue was erected in the center of town at the juncture of Uptown and downtown.
In 2014, 130 years later, artist William cordova and his collaborators filmed the silent parade or Soul Rebels vs. Robert E. Lee on the roof of the Louisiana ArtWorks building, directly facing the historic statue.
In 2017, the City of New Orleans workers removed the Robert E. Lee statue, the last of four confederate memorials to be taken down.
Acknowledgements: silent parade documentary
The documentary was dedicated to the Angola III, members of the Black Panther Party who, at the time of the Soul Rebels in 2014, had been incarcerated for more than 40 years in Angola prison, Louisiana. All three members were eventually released.
The artist and collaborators also dedicated their efforts to the late artist and friend, Terry Adkins, who passed while they were making the performance. This is why they titled the piece “silent parade” after one of Adkin’s works. He titled the piece after the 1917 silent anti-lynching protest parade led by 10,000 Black Americans in New York City.
Credits: The Soul Rebels, william cordova, Monique Moss, Monique Walton, Michiko Kurisu, Ronny Quevedo, and Argenis Apolinario. Special thanks to Ylva Rouse and Franklin Sirmans, Prospect.3 New Orleans
From now’s the time catalogue essay by Jeff Chang
Now’s the time: narratives of southern alchemy opens not only amid a global pullback into brutal regional populism against national minorities, stateless migrants, queers, and women, but also amid a reassessment of the Confederate monuments that mark this nation’s inability to forthrightly address its history of slavery, racist violence, and genocide. For five years, cordova worked with the New Orleans brass band the Soul Rebels to plan the performance silent parade or the Soul Rebels vs. Robert E. Lee (2014). In the form of a video screened in specific spaces and notably not released on the Internet, the performance itself could become a monument, peripatetic but not immediately appropriable, meant to activate thought and action in time and place.
Inspired by Jean-Luc Godard and D. A. Pennebaker’s film One P.M. (1972) of a Jefferson Airplane concert on a Manhattan rooftop, the Last Poets’ film Right On! (1970), and the Beatles’ film Let It Be (1970), cordova and the band broke into the then-empty Louisiana ArtWorks building and climbed up to the roof to face a seventeen-foot statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee mounted sixty feet above sea level at a traffic circle on St. Charles Avenue. The statue had been erected in the center of town at the juncture of Uptown and downtown in 1884, after the end of Reconstruction, as anti-Black violence intensified across the country, one of the first of what would total more than seven hundred monuments nationwide. At the time the statue was dedicated, the pro-segregationist Daily Picayune opined, “By every appliance of literature and art, we must show to all coming ages that with us, at least, there dwells no sense of guilt.”10
Notably, the statue had been erected during Carnival season. We can only imagine what a somber Mardi Gras that must have been, in a city where the postbellum North American culture wars were forged in the constant struggle between Black and Creole expression and white supremacist repression. By then, African-descended slave and former slave communities across the New World had created the street musical forms for festival parades that would evolve and recombine into American popular music. New Orleans, the most fertile cultural ground in North America, had birthed, among many other innovations, a uniquely Africanized brass band tradition.
And so, 130 years later, in silent parade, the Soul Rebels align their instruments and themselves on the rooftop of the building to face down the Lee monument. As if in ritual, they begin their version of the parade song “Olympia Special,” a tribute to the influential brass band founded in the late 19th century. As the music speeds up and then explodes into a glorious polyphonous roar, the Lee statue, arms crossed, can only stare back mutely.
On a Friday in May 2017, workers lifted the statue off its pedestal, the last of four Confederate monuments in the city to be taken down. A gathering of people below cheered. Change sometimes seems sudden, but it’s always the slow time before it that makes it possible.