Des­e­cra­tion as an ar­gu­ment for preser­va­tion

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - OPINIONS - Jeff E. Schapiro jschapiro@Times­Dis­patch.com Con­tact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814 or jschapiro@ times­dis­patch.com. Lis­ten to his pod­cast, Capi­tol Chat, on Rich­mond.com. Fol­low him on Face­book and on Twit­ter, @ RTDSchapir­o. Lis­ten to his anal­y­sis 8:

An­gela Howard, a hair­dresser in her na­tive Hen­rico County, care­fully clam­bered over the mas­sive base of the tow­er­ing like­ness of Robert E. Lee on Mon­u­ment Av­enue, paus­ing to read the dense quilt of spray-painted graf­fiti that had ap­peared on the Con­fed­er­ate statute and three oth­ers in the tense days im­me­di­ately fol­low­ing Ge­orge Floyd’s death in Min­neapo­lis.

“I can ap­pre­ci­ate his­tory,” said Howard, who is African Amer­i­can and of a mixed mind about re­mov­ing the stat­ues, an op­tion for lo­cal gov­ern­ment un­der a new Virginia law that takes ef­fect July 1 and does not ap­ply to sta­te­owned Lee. “It’s not all pretty.”

The hand­i­work of pro­test­ers, the graf­fiti in­cluded four-let­ter ep­i­thets, many a re­sponse to po­lice vi­o­lence. From statue to statue, there was a same­ness to the graf­fiti: “Amer­iKKKa,” “Civil Rights 4 All,” “Lynch Trump,” “Free­dom,” “Black Power” and “Kill Racism.”

This ur­gent prose, in over­lap­ping col­ors, is cre­at­ing a pow­er­ful new nar­ra­tive about the stat­ues, im­me­di­ately transformi­ng them from sym­bols of white supremacy to scars of racial in­equity.

And it is pro­vid­ing a com­pelling ar­gu­ment not only to pre­serve these stat­ues where they stand, but the graf­fiti that de­clares in no un­cer­tain terms what this 19th­cen­tury and early 20th­cen­tury iconog­ra­phy was al­ways in­tended to con­vey and that Rich­mond must never for­get:

That hos­til­ity for peo­ple of color, their sup­posed lib­er­a­tion af­ter four years of civil war not­with­stand­ing, would be given new le­git­i­macy by repack­ag­ing the South’s de­feat as a prin­ci­pled set­back — the so-called Lost Cause — for a high-minded white oli­garchy that, in ef­fect, would re-en­slave blacks through seg­re­ga­tion and its many forms.

Such spin would be car­ried out over decades by or­ga­ni­za­tions such as the United Daugh­ters of the Con­fed­er­acy, whose mar­ble-skinned head­quar­ters on Arthur Ashe Boule­vard — re­named a year ago for the black ten­nis great who quit the city, fu­ri­ous over its racism — was tagged with graf­fiti and set on fire by pro­test­ers.

“The graf­fiti is an im­plicit ac­knowl­edge­ment that there is some­thing wrong with the Lost Cause,” said Ju­lian Hayter, a civil rights his­to­rian at the Univer­sity of Rich­mond and mem­ber of the may­oral com­mis­sion that — post-Char­lottesvill­e, but pre-Ge­orge Floyd — rec­om­mended keep­ing most of the Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments while pair­ing them with sig­nage that gives their warts-and-all story.

In a word oft used in 21st-cen­tury ap­praisals of the past: that Lee, J.E.B. Stu­art, Jef­fer­son Davis, whose like­ness the com­mis­sion said should be re­moved, Stonewall Jack­son and Matthew Fon­taine Maury should be con­tex­tu­al­ized.

And they were by graf­fiti artists whose raw craft is a re­minder that over thou­sands of years etch­ings, draw­ings, carv­ings and notes — in caves, on the walls of an­cient cities, the fa­cades of churches, and dis­tant bat­tle­ments — were a form of protest by those ig­nored, op­pressed and de­meaned.

“My wife woke up this morn­ing and said, ‘These stat­ues have been re­con­tex­tu­al­ized’,” said Hayter, who as a his­to­rian be­lieves the mon­u­ments should re­main where they are, but as an African Amer­i­can is pained by what they sym­bol­ize.

Trou­bling em­blems — and the lessons they carry — rely on pub­lic mem­ory. In some in­stances, that re­quires the preser­va­tion of such em­blems, help­ing nur­ture what Hayter de­scribes as a “counter-nar­ra­tive.”

That Auschwitz, the sprawl­ing Nazi death camp in Poland, still stands is in­tended as a con­stant re­minder of an un­matched man­i­fes­ta­tion of anti-Semitism. Vi­enna, in Aus­tria, and Prague, cap­i­tal of the Czech Repub­lic, pre­serve Soviet stat­u­ary as tes­ti­mony to Moscow’s cruel so­cial­ist hand in shap­ing these cities in the wake of World War II.

Rich­mond’s Con­fed­er­ate statutes, re­told through mass-scale van­dal­ism, could serve the same role, per­haps spurring the city’s lead­er­ship to re­con­sider plans to re­move the graf­fiti, as it has re­flex­ively done for years af­ter oc­ca­sional, here­and-there dam­age.

But it is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine that events of the past week will not in­ten­sify de­mands to re­move the stat­ues once and for all, never mind that Rich­mond has qui­etly en­tered a pe­riod of what might be de­scribed as mon­u­men­tal par­ity.

Bill Martin, direc­tor of The Valen­tine, a mu­seum that fo­cuses en­tirely on Rich­mond’s his­tory, said that roughly a dozen stat­ues have been erected over the past two decades, nearly all of them trib­utes to the long-over­looked: mi­nori­ties and women. That’s al­most equal to the num­ber of mon­u­ments that went up dur­ing the Jim Crow era in homage to the deities of the Old South.

Martin, who would like to see the soiled stat­ues scrubbed clean, said a vis­ual record of the graf­fiti is es­sen­tial. And, re­fer­ring to a re­cent ex­hibit at The Valen­tine on the mon­u­ments, he says that they will be rein­ter­preted by fu­ture gen­er­a­tions, much as they were over sev­eral days of ag­i­tated protest.

“Are we see­ing the emer­gence of that nar­ra­tive in Rich­mond this past week­end, the emer­gence of a nar­ra­tive that has been try­ing to es­tab­lish it­self for­ever?” said Martin.

It’s as plain as the paint on the Lee mon­u­ment.

BOB BROWN/TIMES-DIS­PATCH

On­look­ers sur­veyed the grafitti-cov­ered base of the Robert E. Lee statue on Mon­u­ment Av­enue on Sun­day. Pro­test­ers de­faced it and other Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments the pre­vi­ous night.

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