Commentary: Monumental Changes
Is the movement to topple America’s Confederate statues a path to justice or an act of catharsis?
Days after George Floyd’s gruesome death on May 25, 2020, monuments across the nation came under fresh scrutiny and then under attack. But calls to remove statues of Confederate leaders or slave owners aren’t new. They have percolated since the 1960s, with removals spiking after the 2015 church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, and the 2017 protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. Still, more than 770 Confederate monuments remain. Floyd’s death marked a significant boiling point, which spilled over into a global outcry. On August 15, the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., was vandalized with spray-painted expletives. Earlier, on June 5, Robert E. Lee’s equestrian statue on Richmond, Virginia’s affluent Monument Avenue had been covered in graffiti reading “Stop white supremacy” and “End police brutality,” with the square around it commandeered by protesters as a meeting site. But while it awaits a court-ordered removal (that is temporarily blocked by a Richmond Circuit Court judge at press time), the statue has become an outlet for an artful reimagining: Photos have emerged showing it transformed by graffiti and projected images of Floyd’s face along with the Black Lives Matter logo, turning it into a new symbol—one in service to the message of parties who want it gone.
These images of white male oppression in bronze, stone, and marble being vandalized and torn down by outraged citizens have galvanized people to keep protesting even amid a pandemic. But the specific debate about the memorials at the center of these public performances has remained largely binary in nature: Leave them up or tear them down. What has happened to the will to interrogate which statues should take up space in the public realm and whether justice is served by simply removing them? One under-explored answer: Preserve them, not to advance a false narrative, but because they tell a part of history that should not be forgotten but aggressively confronted, as has happened with the Lee statue.
While it is disturbing that preserving such statues seems to assert a revisionist history, it’s also troubling to see the limited scope of discourse presented by those who support tearing them down. Instead of being performative, what if protesters used the complicated history of these monuments to new ends?
In recent years a new perspective has emerged, which urges us to understand the mechanics of how memorials function and then deconstruct not only the built environment but also our framing of history and collective memory. Consider the fact that memorials are vehicles of certain messages, and their designs give those messages an authoritative tone. The Lincoln Memorial’s stone steps and fluted Doric columns, for example, form the backdrop of countless movies like a silent character radiating allegiance to an unwavering American democracy. This figure of the 16th president is perpetuated as a totem of righteousness and fairness, even though his authorization of the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) only nominally freed enslaved people. The 99-foot monument’s scale, permanence, and surrounding context have allowed an imaginative good to dominate public opinion about Lincoln with little criticism. It’s a type of folklore, attracting more than 7.8 million tourists in 2019.
The narrative’s pull is evident in iconic footage of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 on its steps, and in President Donald Trump’s Fox News interview in May. At a moment of civic unrest it became one of the symbols people vandalized—because it was allowed to loom, unquestioned, and is seen to have borne false evidence to a revisionist narrative. Its defacement made it possible to explore the fact that Lincoln was both technically opposed to slavery and a racist who did not believe Blacks should have the same rights as whites. This is a nuanced consideration that Americans could address by engaging with the structure and critiquing it.
That’s important, because viewed collectively, these physical structures are propaganda. According to a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the construction of Confederate memorials coincided with the Jim Crow era (1870s–1960s). Though it’s not surprising that thousands of memorials were built during this time, it is worth noting that a majority were built on government property. More interestingly, there were two surges: one in the first two decades of the 20th century as the Ku Klux Klan became more active, and another in the 1960s at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
Scholars like archaeologist Andrew Tharler suggest that we investigate these statues from a material culture perspective and look closely at how their design elements can guide us to a more productive interpretation of them. In a piece published on Medium.com, Tharler writes about his research on one Confederate soldiers’ memorial dedicated in 1924 in Durham, North Carolina. He found that Black community members who were disenfranchised at all levels of government paid a tax that funded this memorial, which was then placed at a courthouse less than a block away from Durham’s Black Wall Street area. The article examines the statue’s cheap materiality, especially in the context of how lucrative its production was for its fabricator. The Georgia-based company, McNeel Marble, was also a supplier of monuments all over the South, capitalizing on the City Beautiful Movement, which spread through major urban areas in the early 20th century. Tharler rebuilds a design narrative to expose the systemic links that strengthened the South’s “Lost Cause” mythology. Records of those connections have survived and give us a present-day context that “makes us ground our arguments in specific observations, instead of just spouting preconceived notions about the historical or cultural significance of monuments,” Tharler asserts.
Others look to reclaim the process of making memorials. The Paper Monuments project, led by Colloqate Design codirectors Sue Mobley and Bryan C. Lee Jr., for example, has developed a rich engagement process focused on giving the people of New Orleans a say in what should replace Confederate memorials in public spaces. The project has created opportunities for a boundless exploration of contesting and correcting incomplete historical narratives, claiming public spaces, and evaluating proposals in a considered and analytical manner.
Monument Lab, a public art and history studio based in Philadelphia, creates public-engagement processes to prompt critical discourse about memorial spaces or what it defines as “statements of power and presence in public.” Founded in 2012, the lab has expanded to a national stage with more than 20 public-engagement initiatives in St. Louis, Washington, D.C., and Memphis. “We start with a process of active listening,” says Yannick Trapman-O’Brien, Monument Lab’s studio manager and engagement specialist. “Active participation is the work, so that community members are able to process their own connections to existing memorials.” The lab’s process-driven approach enables real conversations through tools such as Field Trip, a hands-on workbook about local monuments that users of all ages complete themselves during self-guided tours. Some of the lab’s collaborations involve altering statues to reflect a more inclusive sentiment. For example, artist Karyn Olivier’s temporary installation The Battle Is Joined (2017) in Philadelphia’s Vernon Park clad a war memorial in highly reflective acrylic, completely obscuring the mass and reflecting the surrounding park and visitors. Located in the predominantly Black neighborhood of Germantown, the statue was built in 1903 to remember George Washington’s troops killed by the British in the American Revolution and has been a reenactment site for more than 80 years.
If Olivier’s installation added onto a traditional monument to express a more productive narrative, Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War, a new statue in front of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, commandeers the form for its own purpose: The rider is a Black man with dreadlocks and Nike sneakers, frozen in a heroic stance as a physical rebuttal to recently removed Confederate memorials—the type that President Trump issued an executive order to protect to the full extent of the law on June 26, 2020. While the idea of thoughtfully deconstructing existing monument types in this way might seem like acquiescing to pressure, it actually leads to a deeper understanding of what one is fighting against. Understanding and using the tools of memorialization to provoke a harder conversation about history—that is key to achieving sustainable and impactful justice.
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