Easter on Parade, Monument Avenue, 2014 (photo by Amie Oliver)
On Easter Sunday 2014, beneath an exquisite sky, a unique and great Richmond moment occurred.
The energetic Samson Trinh and members of the Upper East Side Big Band played the B-side of the Beatles' Abbey Road next to the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The magnificent and spirited rendition got me right there, and for reasons other than how few of those Fab Four lads remain among us, and how long and short the time passed, more than that, how the music seemed tailored to the day and circumstances.
I thought then, well, yes, we're going to carry that weight, carry that weight for a long time —the weight of slavery, of wrong-headedness, of fatal stubbornness So many died then, and more died since, and yes, we are under a burden. But at least, if we must bear it, then let's dance.
Lately, on social media and in coffee shops, a tone of indignation and righteousness (a terrible combination) is directed toward the statues of Monument Avenue. The drift goes that the bearded and booted Confederate chieftains should go.
Richmond gets occasional spasms when somebody on City Council or in the public demands their removal or the withholding of funds and allowing their gradual reclamation by the elements.
They have in the past (and again this week) been tagged with spay-painted epithets. In a beautiful demonstration some years ago, a group of VCU dance students, dressed as sculpture, arrayed themselves in balletic tableaux on the Lee statute. It was the most original use of the piece I’ve ever seen, and beats the successor cornhole competitions. On occasion, Matthew Fontaine Maury has been made to wear a Christmas hat with a dangling fuzzy ball.
But the Lee statue is owned and maintained by the Commonwealth of Virginia. It is unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon.
And since when did tearing down a statue ever solve a problem or eradicate a memory? When the Taliban deface Buddhist sculptures or ISIL destroys historic sites in Iraq and Syria, there is worldwide Internet revulsion. No, Monument Avenue is not a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yet. But, it is representative of our – all of our – past. Yes, past, and because we are talking about them now, our present and future. Erasing unpleasant objects doesn’t make the reasons for their construction go away.
But, the argument goes that I've seen: the Nazis.
Slavery existed from 1619 in British North America until 1865. The Southern Confederacy formed, it is true, in 1861 in part out of the reaction of the white aristocracy to defending a lifestyle supported by forced labor.
The Nazis got 12 years to do their grisly business. And in fact, if people knew the backstories, the nationalism and fear of "The Other" in Europe was endemic. World War II was the second installment of general war on the Continent, and we might as well call them both and the time between “The 31-Years War.” Europe had long stretches of conflict with lulls. To make more soldiers.
The Confederates weren’t responsible for industrial mass execution to include gypsies and gays. When people start the "like Nazis" comparison, I wonder about them. As a paradigm of evil, it’s getting a little long in the tooth. I guess flinging charges of Pol Pot-ism or Emperor Bokassa-esque behavior doesn’t zing like Nazi does. You don’t have to explain the term. Plus they had the Hugo Boss manufactured uniforms.
It’s an easy default that gets a reaction, but doesn’t convey anything worthwhile. It demeans the importance of the Nazi atrocities and makes a confused relationship between 19th-century slaveholders and 20th-century death camps. Andersonville, Belle Isle and Elmira were horrendous, but none of them included gas chambers.
And let us recognize, too, that throughout Europe and even this country, there is art commissioned by and in commemoration of disgusting, awful people; venal politicians, corrupt clergymen, mercenary generals, robber barons. In many cases, visitors line up to get their pictures taken beside them. Especially if there is a fountain involved.
Once, I spent 24 hours (well, shy by about three hours) sitting alongside Gen. Lee and speaking with all kinds of people who came by. None of them recommended his removal. When I see inter-gender sunbathing occurring on the steps or the grassy medallion surrounding Lee, I chuckle: History has a sense of humor. Fact is, people stop by the statues, all the way up to Ashe, and get their pictures taken, and videos, and no, I cannot determine their political affiliation. I just know that for whatever reason, these sculptures mean something to the person posing alongside them.
Yes, the generals ordered men into battle to kill other men. This is what generals do and that it came to that and eradicated 600,000 lives is terrible. Chief Justice John Marshall, in his old age, saw it coming, and you get the impression the vision was clear in his mind where the country was headed and the seeming inevitability depressed the hell out of him.
In an 1826 letter to Massachusetts friend Thomas Pickering, Marshall observed that "nothing portends more calamity and mischief to the southern states than their slave population; yet they cherish the evil & to view with immovable predjudice & dislike every thing which may tend to diminish it. I do not wonder that they should resist any attempt ... to interfere with the rights of property, but they have a feverish jealousy of measures which may do good without the hazard of harm that is, I think, very unwise."
He sure called that one.
Yes, the Confederates fought the federal government. We can debate (but not in this post) the validity of the nation-state in the era of technological globalization and the right of a free people to rise up — except up to and during the time of The Problem, 1861-1865, the enslaved weren’t polled as to their thoughts on these matters. They were beaten. Difference.
Also, as calls mount for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from all but sanctioned under-glass-case observation and the attention goes to larger and obvious targets, we get much more distant in purpose from addressing the act of terror committed in Charleston, South Carolina. The reactions are emotional — and understandable given the circumstances. The caveat is, however, that emotionalism put men in the fields of 1861 and, in essence, has powered every instance of mass murder whether organized and called "war "or labeled crime and "killing spree." Emotionalism gets us only so far.
It’s easy to attack symbols and tough to deal with actual complicated issues. Sure, schools and roads named for Confederate generals are something to consider. But, too, remember – really try to remember — the general dislike of changing the name of the Mosque Auditorium to what is now the Altria Theater – and that’s just one example. Back in 2000, over a dispute about historical banners to hang on the ugly but mostly functional Floodwall, persons unknown set the Robert E. Lee banner on fire. Meanwhile, the banner of William Byrd II, slaver and owner, drug trafficker (tobacco) and grudging founder of Richmond remained unmolested – unlike some of Byrd’s friends' wives and his servants. He stands there still, faded by the years, a slight smile on his lips because, yet again, fortune has favored him. Lee is obvious and recognizable. Byrd is viewed as some harmless dude in a wig and stockings. You fill in the blanks about whom to blame.
The combination of elements that prod a person to go into a church and kill people remain in the miasma of the national consciousness. No flag burning and no tearing down of a statue, or defacing thereof, will accomplish anything but annoy people who might've been on your side and appease those who carp the loudest and who are seldom satisfied no matter the extremes taken.
As to Monument Avenue, yes, it speaks to a disproportionate emphasis as history has moved on. The Confederates get big monuments while the Burial Ground for Negroes is forever hidden under asphalt and fill dirt and the Lumpkin's Jail site, the holding pen and torture chamber for slaves, only recently has been given attention. We are late, but there is effort, as evidenced in plain sight by the great Civil Rights Memorial on Capitol Square and the lonely Reconciliation Statue in Shockoe, placed near the heart of the old slave business district.
Yes, the Charleston killer apparently stewed in the toxic tradition of white supremacy. He may also have had some mental health issues, which speaks to a broader spectrum of challenges faced in the country today. And he had ready access to a deadly weapon. As a country, we've proven ourselves unable and unwilling to address that third rail of American politics except to hear from official quarters, with a shrug, "Oh, it’s a violent country. Whaddaya gonna do?" Or, "If members of the congregation had had a gun," which is the same excuse given to the slaughter of schoolchildren and movie goers. But I digress.
The Monument Avenue statutes should have signage and interpretive plaques, just as are there scattered throughout the state, and others, for Civil War Trails. They constitute public art, and as such are open for discussion about what they mean to us now, juxtaposed against what they meant when first installed. During the mid-1960s, there came a planning concept born of irrational street planning logic that disregarded any aesthetic, first, to shove the statues to one side and turn the avenue into a four lane highway. A counter movement sought to add six more statues including, briefly, a monument to Southern women to be designed by Salvador Dalí. That sadly didn't happen. The lost tourist dollar amount is incalculable.
To this day, the only women on Monument Avenue are those drenched shipwreck survivors emerging from the surf on the Maury statue. (This image shows the side facing the Atlantic Ocean, the other one has several women) And then there's Vindicatrix, the allegorical figure on 60-foot column at the Jefferson Davis statue, her finger raised in mid-scold against disbelievers in the Lost Cause. (This morning, my wife and I almost collided with rubberneckers gathering to gawk at the statue, which had been spray-painted with the slogan "Black Lives Matter." Absolutely. So do everyone else's.)
And, besides, Richmond — the statues are removed and then what? We get to endure years-long and loud arguments of who or what or if anybody or anything should replace them.
You think the stadium debate has been vociferous and overlong? Start talking about remodeling Monument Avenue and see where that goes. Hoo-boy.
So I think this is where we came in.