FD’s father, who he idolized, died from cancer. Joe simply rejected his abusive father, who he loathed. The common denominator is that both their dads were irrevocably gone. In retrospect, it’s plain how this theme found its way into my story, because I haven’t talked to my own father since before Trump’s inauguration.
Last week I was interviewed on Takoma Radio WOWD-LP as part of the “Walking on the Moon” show hosted by Dr. Danny Griffin—a clinical psychologist—who asked me about the impetus for writing Freedom City. Talk veered to my upbringing in New Orleans, and Danny asked some probing questions, which unearthed memories I had long ago buried.
It was only after I read the following passage from Freedom City, and after Danny asked about my personal relationship with Confederate statues and whether compromise between those who revere and those who detest them is possible, that a troubling memory returned to me:
On the day his father’s eyes closed for the last time, FD spent the night clandestinely painting a mural beneath the John Philip Sousa Bridge. It was a portrait of his father as FD remembered him in the days before his death, before his raspy breathing stopped and the machine keeping him alive began its wailing, futile alarm.
When a cop on the bridge yelled and shone a light down on him, he dove into the Anacostia River. Submerged in the currents that whisked him away, he screamed beneath the water in the agony of sorrow—and continued screaming, barely attempting to swim, until the river dumped him, like a corpse, at Anacostia Park. There, he pulled himself onto the grass, stared up at the sky, and tried to imagine what life would be like without his father. It was unfathomable.
Two years later, it was still unfathomable.
The following day, FD skipped school. He continued skipping for two weeks. His professors called him. He had been on the dean’s list, on his way to becoming a brilliant engineer. Encouraged by his father, FD had once yearned to build something important and beautiful. He ignored his professors’ calls. With his father gone he couldn’t imagine anything more important and beautiful than a simple mural honoring his memory. And he didn’t need to go to school for that.
Now, clad in a white Tyvek suit that covered him from head to toe, he admired his first engineering marvel. Was it beautiful? It was certainly not art, even in a loose sense, but there was beauty in its purpose. Was it important? Well, that depended on whether it worked or not. He was about to find out, for Stanley Congdon’s confirmation hearing was scheduled to start in ten minutes.
Also in a Tyvek suit, mopping perspiration from his forehead with a rag, Beach read off an inventory of their captured Confederate heads. “Four Robert E. Lees, a Jefferson Davis, a John S. Mosby, two Stonewall Jacksons, a JEB Stuart, and a Nathan Bedford Forrest—”
“The Klan’s first goddamned Grand Wizard,” Clare said from atop the wooden ladder, which reached all the way to what had once been the attic.
“Right.” Beach rolled over one of the Robert E. Lees with his Tyvek-shod toe.
“Don’t forget the six anonymous soldiers’ heads,” FD said.
For the past week, Joe had meticulously hollowed out the inside of the heads with a Dremel tool, so each would weigh exactly twenty pounds. This decreased the counterweight they needed. It was Clare who realized, once she climbed the ladder, that from the roof they could see the tip of the slave-built “Statue of Freedom” standing atop the Capitol dome. Using a laser distance finder and a surveyor’s theodolite, they aligned their trebuchet perfectly with the crest of feathers on the statue’s helmet and knew the distance down to a few feet.
“Jack, you copy?” Clare said into the radio.
“Copy,” Joe’s voice replied into their earpieces. “I’m in position. Just give me a heads up—harhar—and fire away.”
FD took another moment to admire his masterpiece. As a counterweight they had used nearly fifty flat, iron plates strapped into a metal harness he had welded together himself. The plates were the kind commonly found in gyms, each weighing forty-five pounds. Altogether their counterweight was over two thousand pounds, which (he thought) was heavy enough to propel the bronze heads into the Capitol dome. The harness was designed so they could take out or add weight, as necessary, to make their missiles fall farther or shorter.
They couldn’t, however, change the trajectory, since the trebuchet was built into the shell of the house. In order to align their payload beam—a repurposed, thirty-foot light pole—with the dome, they had had to build it slightly off kilter from the frame of the house. If any part of his calculations were wrong, they would miss the dome every time, and there was nothing they could do about it.
Clare came down the ladder. “Are you guys sure these things aren’t going to hit someone?”
FD loaded one of Robert E. Lee heads into the trebuchet’s sling. “I’m not sure of nothing, but the dome’s made of cast iron and we’re a long way away.”
“If we kill anyone it will be God’s fault,” Beach said.
“You don’t believe in God.”
“All the same.”
Clare shrugged and walked to the backdoor. Unlike FD and Beach, she was wearing workout clothes. “I’ll take my place now.” She disappeared behind the plywood.
As Clare got settled into her lookout spot down the block, FD and Beach turned the trebuchet’s wench. The arms of the wench were six-feet, steel stop-sign tubes, providing the leverage to lift the great weight. With one person using his bodyweight to pull downward, and the other pushing upward on the other side with all his strength, they painstakingly lifted the counterweight until it was at a forty-five-degree angle from the payload beam. Once there, FD placed a hook onto the end of the beam, which spanned the length of the house.
“Queen in position,” came Clare over the radio. “All clear.”
“Copy that,” Joe said.
FD held the sledgehammer out to Beach. “This was your idea, so you should take the first swing.”
Beach waved his hand. “Please, this is your creation. You go first.”
FD hefted the hammer over his shoulder, preparing to swing and knock the hook loose from the beam. At that, the counterweight would drop, the payload beam would shoot through the roof, and the sling would release the head, which would then soar nearly eight hundred feet—hopefully straight through the Capitol dome…
Danny’s question about compromise over Confederate statues vis-à-vis my family triggered a memory of my grandmother, who died some years ago. When I was around nine years old, she spoke to me with great adoration for the once-prominent statue of Robert E. Lee in downtown New Orleans. The fact that it faced north, she claimed, was controversial, since it appeared Lee was “turning his back” on the South. However, she disagreed with this viewpoint, because to her he appeared to be standing up to (fight) the North. Besides, if they’d constructed it the other way, it would look like he was running away.
If you’re perplexed about how something so ridiculous could be more of a controversy than the fact that Lee fought an armed rebellion against the United States over the right to own human beings, I’m totally with you. The point is that this statue obviously meant a lot to my grandmother and the rest of my family, some of who still jerk off about the Civil War.
Before this statue was ultimately removed last year, after being declared a “public nuisance,” I’d passed by it a thousand times. I took it for granted, never connecting it to my grandmother’s lesson or caring which way it faced. To me it was simply a hunk of metal I passed on the streetcar that signified just a few more blocks to the French Quarter. It was there long before I was nine, and I assumed it would remain there forever.
I don’t want to pick on my grandmother, who was otherwise a warm and amazing woman, but when I think back on that interaction now, as a (somewhat) rational adult, it enrages me that this fake history, unbeknownst to me, occupied real estate in my brain for so long. How many similar statues—and streets, and schools, and other monuments to the Confederacy—do we pass every day, believing that they’re imputable, just part of the landscape? How many other children were indoctrinated to believe that the only controversy is which way the inanimate object faces, and not that it’s an overtly racist symbol?
At Danny’s highly perceptive question, I faltered. It was a lot to process on live radio. As someone partially raised (raised partially?) in the South, I recognize that the topic obviously has deep roots. Thinking about it after the show, however, I regret not simply echoing the sentiments expressed by the courageous characters in Freedom City. No, I don’t think compromise is possible, because white Southerners have had their heads up their asses on this topic since at least 1865. And by “white Southerners,” I’m including my grandparents, just about every member of my father’s family—even me. Fuck those statues. Tear them down.
There’s no reason to equivocate.
The next time I’m asked about Confederate monuments, I’ll paraphrase the words of Beach Sands, notorious King of the Fearless Vampire Killers.
Beach stood clear and held the radio’s button down: “One head of Robert E. Lee, traitor, notorious human trafficker, failed general—we reject thee, fake history. Return to sender!”