A Note on a Monumental Moment

The way history is represented and told is never neutral.
Leah Dickerman Jun 10, 2020

Last weekend in Richmond, Virginia—the former capital of the Confederacy, in what was the largest slave-holding state on the eve of the Civil War—crowds joined the mass protests that erupted across the country and beyond following the callous killings of George Floyd and others at the hands of police. Protesters focused attention on the Confederate statues lined up along Monument Avenue, covering them with graffiti, and projecting an image of Floyd’s face with the letters “BLM,” for Black Lives Matter, and the slogan “No Justice No Peace” over the monument of Robert E. Lee—the largest on the avenue, a six-story state-owned monument on a state-owned island of land—the first monument to be erected to the Confederate general in the nation, in 1890. Thousands of similar monuments went up in the years that followed. The projected image, created by Dustin Klein and carried widely over social media, brought me to tears.

The next day, Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia (who survived a scandal in which images of him and a friend dressed in blackface and Klan robes were unearthed in his yearbook) took the mic at a press conference to announce that it was time to “be honest about our history.” He spoke about how it took 10,000 men to transport the statue from the foundry to the place where it now stands; that it was no secret what the statue meant when it was erected, as it was celebrated with flag-waving Confederate convenings; and how, as the statue went up, so too did new laws that ushered in the modern Jim Crow regime—our nation’s own apartheid, though he didn’t use those words. Then Northam announced the decision that it was up to localities to decide what they wanted to do with Confederate commemorations within their boundary lines. And, finally, that the Lee monument would come down.

That protestors focused their attention on these inert statues as a response to flesh-and-blood outrage over Black lives lost and disregarded suggests the degree to which they—and we all—understand the political and ideological work that these monuments do. This is true, too, of the iconoclastic attention paid on Sunday afternoon in Bristol, England, to a statue erected in 1895 of Edward Colston, a 17th-century slave trader whose ships transported 100,000 Africans from their homes into captivity. Colston’s figure was toppled by protestors and thrown into the river Avon. Footage of its plunge into the watery depths has gone viral, and its location on Google maps was promptly updated. England’s Home Secretary, Priti Patel called the felling “a distraction from the cause in which people are protesting about.” Of course it is very much the point.

Northam’s announcement marks a turning point. At the moment, Virginia has the most Confederate commemorations of any state—2,000-something statues, and school, street, and park names. This number speaks to the repetition, the dunning incantation, of political values and pervasive territorial claims across the state, and the ongoing up-until-this-day resistance to dismantling the legacy and visual imaginary of white supremacy.

So the announcement, though long belated and far from everything that is needed, is big news. It feels different in its recognition that much of the work to be done is in dismantling the myths of white supremacy that undergird the structures of systemic racism. Bryan Stevenson, among others, has spoken on this many times, including in an interview in last week’s New Yorker: “The ideology of white supremacy was necessary to justify enslavement, and it is the legacy of slavery that we haven’t acknowledged.... For me, you can’t understand these present day issues without understanding the persistent refusal to view Black people as equals.” These myths justify anti-Black discrimination and deny the legacy of slavery, though they are masked as fact. But of course the parade of Confederate statuary on Richmond’s Monument Avenue does not represent a neutral history, as President Trump suggested when he tweeted that it is “foolish” to remove monuments because it is “[s]ad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart.” The way that history is represented and told is never neutral, and it is high time for the statues to go.

Dustin Klein. <em>Reclaiming the Monument</em>. 2020

Dustin Klein. Reclaiming the Monument. 2020

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