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What It Means When the Statues Come Crashing Down

The statues being torn down or vandalized by protestors are not immortal, just like the figures they enshrine. They’re monuments forged from political whims in one century and are subject to political whims in the next.

Ringer illustration

Two weeks ago, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, pledged to remove the 130-year-old statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee that overlooks Monument Avenue in Richmond.

The City Council unanimously supported removing the statue from the former Confederate capital, citing Lee’s treacherous role in the South’s pro-slavery crusade. “It’s time to replace the racist symbols of oppression and inequality,” Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney says. Northam echoes Stoney’s objections to the statue’s connotations, heightened by its prominence in the middle of the city—a predominantly black city, no less. “When it’s the biggest thing around, it sends a clear message: This is what we value the most,” Northam says. “That’s not true anymore.” Still, Northam must overcome the classic objections and legal challenges from conservatives who wish to preserve Confederate tributes throughout the South. Three years ago, local efforts to relocate a statue of Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, culminated in violent right-wing protests. Three years later, Lee remains in Charlottesville’s Market Street Park. Stonewall Jackson rides through Richmond and Charlottesville, too.

Southerners have argued about Confederate monuments since the “Lost Cause” sympathizers began to commission them in the late 1800s. For the past several years, Black Lives Matter activists and allies have accelerated the political reckoning over such tributes. The Charleston church massacre in June 2015 sparked the efforts to remove the Lee statue from Charlottesville, and George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis has reinvigorated the efforts to remove the Lee statue from Richmond, as well as other statues around the country. Northam intends to enforce its removal from Monument Avenue by executive order. Last week, BLM protesters removed the decommissioned statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, which stood four blocks west of the Lee monument, by hand.

Last week, The New York Times interviewed art historian Erin L. Thompson about the polarization that haunts these monuments. “We have as humans been making monuments to glorify people and ideas since we started making art, and since we started making statues, other people have started tearing them down,” Thompson says. “It’s a very satisfying way of attacking an idea—not just by rejecting but humiliating it.” Thompson underscores the major theme in the removal campaigns: humiliation. The New York Times also interviewed black veterans who served in U.S. military settings such as Fort Bragg, the U.S. Army base named to honor the Confederate general Braxton Bragg: “It is really kind of a slap in the face to those African American soldiers who are on bases named after generals who fought for their cause,” one retired officer, Jerry Green, told The Times. “That cause was slavery.” The black critics of Confederate symbols learn to live with these humiliations. In September 2019, the artist Kehinde Wiley—who painted Barack Obama’s portrait for the Smithsonian—unveiled an equestrian sculpture titled Rumours of War, depicting a black man wearing a hood on horseback, inspired by the statue of the Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart on Monument Avenue. Christened in New York City’s Times Square, Rumours of War now resides in Richmond as a permanent installation at the entrance to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The sculpture overlooks Arthur Ashe Boulevard, which crosses Monument Avenue, one mile west of the Lee and Stuart monuments. “I’m a black man walking those streets,” the Los Angeles native Wiley says about his visits to Richmond. “I’m looking up at those things that give me a sense of dread and fear.”

But Black Lives Matter and other activists have expanded their objections beyond monuments commemorating the “Lost Cause.” In Richmond; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Boston, protesters have defaced statues of Christopher Columbus, citing his subjugation of indigenous people in the New World. In London, protesters tagged the Winston Churchill statue in Parliament Square with a strikethrough of his surname followed by “was a racist,” a reference to Churchill’s contempt for the native populations that white people (“a stronger race, a higher-grade race,” Churchill said in one parliamentary discussion) dominated beyond Europe. Activists encourage common resentment for these historically scattered figures—Christopher Columbus from the 16th century, Robert E. Lee from the 19th century, Winston Churchill from the 20th century—among progressives participating in the ongoing demonstrations against police brutality. But moderates and conservatives tend to resist these critiques once they extend past a national traitor who failed in his mission, such as Lee, to a national hero who helped win the pivotal war, such as Churchill. Writing for The Telegraph, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who published a brief and effusive book about Churchill, his conservative hero, six years ago, wondered, “Would it not be better and more honest to ask our children to understand the context, to explain the mixture of good and bad in the career of Churchill and everyone else?” On Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron addressed the disillusionment surrounding French colonial figures such as Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who authored France’s slave code in the 17th century, in a televised speech. “The Republic won’t erase any name from its history. It will forget none of its artworks. It won’t take down statues,” Macron promised. “We should look at all of our history together with lucidity.” Macron speaks about “lucidity,” and yet he can only offer such broad, indeterminate promises to reevaluate the mission civilisatrice in some other forum.

Thompson regards statues as a subject’s “bid for immortality,” yet the statues being torn down or vandalized by protestors were forged from political whims in one century and subject to political whims in the next. These monuments will prove no more or less destructible than other contested tributes, such as highway names, in the grand scheme. Rather than bids for immortality, the protesters seem to regard these statues as bids for simplicity: They’re political objects that resist political scrutiny and offer no further comment about the subjects that they enshrine. General Lee sits pretty on Monument Avenue, and his physical prominence speaks for itself. Likewise, Churchill’s statues can’t rationalize Churchill’s legacy for a skeptical visitor so much as Churchill’s statues can simply rub Churchill in the visitor’s face. These statues, these monuments are big, simplistic objects doing little justice to their subjects and, in most cases, with little political sophistication in their design. There’s nothing so honest or “lucid” about them. There’s more profound insight about the subject in learning how some monuments were built, especially in the most illuminating cases, given the initial objections to their construction; this is true whether the monument honors Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue or Arthur Ashe on the Boulevard.

Two days before The New York Times published its report about Black veterans, The Atlantic published an essay by retired U.S. Army general David Petraeus that argued for Congress and the Army to rename Fort Bragg and other bases named to honor Confederate officers. “When I was a cadet at West Point in the early 1970s, enthusiasm for generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson was widespread. We were not encouraged to think deeply about the cause for which they had fought, at least not in our military-history classes,” Petraeus wrote. “And throughout my Army career, I likewise encountered enthusiastic adherents of various Confederate commanders, and a special veneration for Lee.” Petraeus goes on to eviscerate Lee, Jackson, and Bragg for several consecutive paragraphs, revealing the “lucidity” that the statues and namesakes have otherwise withheld. “A long-standing maxim for those in uniform is that one should never begin a war without also knowing how to end it. And this is a kind of war—a war of memory,” Petraeus writes. Though hardly immortal, these statues outlast their living subjects. So, too, does the war, which was always more complicated than the monuments suggest.