Gary Shapiro, THE STONE MAY 15, 2017, New York Times
Image from article, with caption: George Washington Curtis Lee, with
staff, reviewing the Confederate Reunion Parade in Richmond,
Va., in 1907. The monument to Jefferson Davis is behind them.
RICHMOND, Va. — The United States is beginning to realize that it suffers from
deferred maintenance of its own history. Here in Virginia, the city of Charlottesville
is preparing to remove and sell its statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
New Orleans is already removing its Confederate statues and “monuments”
honoring post-Civil War white supremacists.
Perhaps the most emblematic complex of structures honoring those who fought
for the Confederacy is here in Richmond, its former capital. In the decades following
“the night they drove old Dixie down” the city’s business and housing was rebuilt
step by step.
The early 20th century saw a broad row of grand patrician homes going up on
Monument Avenue. The avenue is punctuated by equestrian statues of Confederate
heroes — Lee, Jeb Stuart, Stonewall Jackson — and a semicircular shrine with an
outsize column glorifying the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, the seceding
states and the deceptive doctrine of “sovereign states” deployed to defend slavery.
They were erected 35 to 50 years after the war. Records show that they were meant
to legitimize and dignify the white supremacist regime that had taken hold in
The debate around these monuments — Should they be destroyed, maintained
or removed elsewhere? — has been heated and, I believe, misguided. We should be
asking other questions instead: Are these statues really “monuments” by our present
standards? Or are they rather “memorials”? Are we misled by the avenue’s name? Do
we need to rename the avenue itself as we attempt to remedy our deferred
maintenance of history?
Consider this distinction between monuments and memorials made by the
philosopher of art Arthur Danto. He produced a sensitive analysis of Washington’s
Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a work at first controversial but now generally
respected. The structure — a wall designed by Maya Lin, containing the names of
every service member known to be killed in the Vietnam War — is situated within an
extensive complex of monuments and memorials by which the United States
expresses the meaning of its history.
Why do we name some monuments (like the Washington Monument) and others
memorials? Danto’s answer is a model of clarity: “We erect monuments so that we
shall always remember, and build memorials so that we shall never forget.”
Monuments, Danto wrote, “commemorate the memorable and embody the myths of
beginnings. Memorials ritualize remembrance and mark the reality of ends.”
Monuments celebrate origins. They demonstrate a community’s symbolic
honoring of events and people for qualities it finds indispensable to its identity.
George Washington, whatever his flaws, is honored as father of this country.
Memorials, like the wall of veterans’ names in Washington are meant to ensure that
certain events and people will never be forgotten, even though, in many cases, we are
ambivalent about some aspects of the events. While we honor the Vietnam sacrifice
of the service members individually named, we are doubtful whether that war should
have been fought at all. We wonder if it was escalated deceptively, strategically
bungled and tainted by racism and imperialism. By its very form, descending into
the ground, it is memorial, not monumental.
What about those Monument Avenue statues? Records show that local leaders
— but not all citizens, many of whom were disenfranchised — thought they were
honoring heroes. The celebrants at the statues’ unveiling congratulated themselves
on resisting Reconstruction’s drive for equality, for enforcing school and
neighborhood segregation and denying votes and civil rights to African-Americans.
They erected monuments to Jim Crow rule, in addition to honoring past warriors. A
memorial park for the Confederate dead could not have anchored a turn of the
century real estate development, like Monument Avenue and its stately homes.
Today, defenders of the statues and shrine resist their removal, and even the
proposal to add onsite information or additional structures explaining the Civil War
and post-Reconstruction context. Suggestions that Lee’s image might face off against
those of antislavery fighters like Nat Turner or John Brown seem to arouse horror.
Yet the traditionalist defense is not couched in the language of monumental
achievement; it is rather called the preservation of “heritage.”
The contested works, originally built in a monumental spirit, are now defended
as memorials. [JB emphasis]The figures honored cannot be acknowledged as predecessors who
inspired Jim Crow, but as reminders of an old conflict, a fallen capital and hazily
articulated ideas about “states’ rights.” (It was the northern states that defended
their rights not to return fugitive slaves, but were overruled in the Dred Scott
decision.) The traditionalists want to have their cake and eat it too. They want the
monuments’ heroic aura but justify it with the memorials’ principles.
From this point of view, the iconoclasts who want to simply tear the things
down or transport them to a sculpture park (as Russia did with some Stalinist
emblems) have a more consistent position: slavery and secession were evil and
traitorous, Jim Crow a nasty continuation, the so-called monuments a disgrace to a
contemporary multiethnic American city.
While I find the iconoclasts’ logic refreshingly clear, I am drawn more to a
contextualist position (as I’ll call it) based not on heritage but on history. “Heritage”
invokes metaphors of family and genealogy. Not all current Richmonders are or feel
affiliated to what the traditionalists see as their heritage. On the other hand, the
statues are undeniable signs of Richmond’s history — of what has been done and
suffered here. Mere erasure would be a form of historical denial.
Destroying or removing the structures eliminates opportunities for productively
using our past. Critical contextualization is the better alternative. This would be a
complex process, drawing on the skills and judgment of historians, artists, urban
planners and a good cross-section of local residents. Much could be added: plaques
concerning the war itself, disputes over slavery, Richmond’s and Virginia’s roles in
the Confederacy, Reconstruction (and its abrupt termination following the 1876
election deal), African-American disenfranchisement, the blatant racism
surrounding the statues’ planning and dedication.
The wide green medians on the avenue provide open space for new sculptures of
those who resisted slavery, the Confederacy, the institution of Jim Crow.
Representative or anonymous victims of white supremacy could be remembered.
Perhaps America can begin to become great by acknowledging and confronting its
past with thoughtful monuments, memorials and critical interventions.
Gary Shapiro is a professor of philosophy at the University of Richmond and the author
of, most recently, “Nietzsche’s Earth: Great Events, Great Politics.”