Desecration as an argument for preservation
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.
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.