Ten Blocks from Lee
I haven’t had a lot to deliver re: Charlottesville. I’m happy to say I am finding my friends more and more outspoken themselves, and it’s heartening to read their perspectives. I’m sad to say it’s because it’s been hard for me to process that some people I love are still not quite there.
Although I have a thousand words to give regarding the violence that happened Saturday, they’re still really angry. I’d like to talk about the object in the center instead, where things are starting to solidify for me.
I was born in Landsthul and later returned to come of age in Heidelberg, Germany. I have spent the last eleven years of my life living within a three block radius in Richmond, Virginia, ten blocks from the Robert E. Lee monument at the Allen roundabout. I work from home and I don’t take that route often, but I probably drive past it a few times a week.
The first time anyone gave me directions on how to leave the Fan, the first week I lived in Richmond, they used Lee as a marker.
Over the past year I’ve been a pretty vocal opponent of these monuments, and as such opposition’s become more and more prevalent, the arguments I’ve heard for keeping them in place can be easily distilled into two parts: the first about the preservation of history, and the second, regarding the financial aspect of moving the monuments.
To address the first – you don’t need statues of people to remember things. I reposted an excellent NPR piece earlier today, but I’ll link to it here as well: The View of Charlottesville From Berlin. This isn’t made up – I lived there and this IS the way the German people have ensured they remember their history. We could do the same. For those of you so concerned that we’ll forget the Civil War, please seriously ask yourselves which part of the war it is that you want so badly to remember. If it’s the sheer concept of rebellion against the government that’s such an attractive reminder of the American spirit, then perhaps we could replace these monuments with ones that commemorate the truly brave folks of the Underground Railroad instead. They were the real rebels — and they won.
There’s also a very useful infographic circulating that highlights when the bulk of these monuments were built. It’s worth calling out that the building of these monuments spiked three decades after the war’s end, spiking during Jim Crow shortly after the passing of the Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” verdict in Plessy v. Ferguson, and again during the Civil Rights movement shortly after Brown v. Board of Education reversed that same ruling. Please ask yourselves why we wanted to erect reminders of the Confederacy in those moments in America. Do you earnestly think that as the recently freed men and women of this country were challenging the chains of the new forms of slavery built for them when chattel slavery was no longer legal, we wanted to memorialize these Confederate leaders for any other reason than as a tool of oppression and intimidation? Think critically about why they were built within the context of when they were built.
The compromise offered up to ease the outcry against demolishing the monuments lest we forget history is to place them in a museum. We bend to this: you don’t have to destroy them (although I wouldn’t be upset if you did), but we shouldn’t have to look at them. I don’t think they earned the right to be present in the lives of every American who happens to live ten blocks from the Allen roundabout (or several others on Monument Ave, for that matter). Although I’d still ask you to think critically about why you romanticize these generals and presidents of the Confederacy, I concede your wish not to destroy this “art”, but place it indoors where those who wish to see it can choose to visit. There are no Third Reich statues. There are no Hitler statues. Auschwitz stands – but you can choose to go there or not. Give the statues a home in a museum with honest context about the reasons for the war, who won, and the wars we are still fighting for equality today and trust people to visit – or abstain. It’s their right.
It’s inevitable that when I get to this point, someone brings up cost. “I don’t want to spend my tax money moving monuments to museums.” It’s useless to discuss that public infrastructure is the responsibility of the public. It’s probably silly to bring up that public spaces also belong to the public, and if the majority of people are inconvenienced by a pothole, everyone in the area pays for it. Silly to then draw the line that if the majority of people dislike a statue that champions men who fought to retain the right to own other people, everyone in the area should pay for that.
Everyone wants so much for those of us disgusted with our representation to trust them to represent their electorate and sit down and shut up while they vote away our health care, our children’s education, and our air on the Senate and House floor. Here in the South, I repeatedly heard folks robustly decry the popular vote after the recent Presidential election with statements like “I don’t want New York and California picking our President!” But if you’re so confident that our elected officials know what’s best, why the outcry when our Mayors put the location of these monuments up for discussion? Either you didn’t vote in the Mayoral election, you don’t live in our cities, or you weren’t actually in the majority. If you don’t live in my city, then you don’t get to say what I have to look at and your money wouldn’t go to removing and relocating the statues anyway (isn’t that the small government/states rights model that you love?). If you didn’t vote, then next time perhaps you will. And if I’m wrong, then I offer this: we’ll pay for it ourselves.
If you don’t want to spend your cash doing the right thing, that’s on you. But I’ll spend mine. We have no savings account and every time a little money piles up something in our hundred year old house breaks, but I don’t think I’m alone in my willingness to throw some of the little cash I have at this. I have a feeling that if our local government set up a voluntary municipal fund, there would be plenty of people like me who would contribute $5 to the cause. I think those $5 increments would add up pretty quickly. I pledge $5 for each member of my family – that’s $20 total. Let all of us who don’t want them standing publicly toss our $5 down the well, and when it doesn’t get us far enough, you can laugh away.
I want to close with this. It’s not really a part of anything, but it is a powerful image, and to me, a beautiful one. This is what my friend Jennie, who lives in Baltimore, captured this morning in Wyman park where the Lee/Jackson memorial stood until the middle of the night last night. It gives me hope that we can move forward together. This park belongs to all of the people of Baltimore. Not just the white ones. This isn’t intended to gloss over the vast inequality that still exists, whether the monument stands or not — but it sure looks better than it did yesterday, and we can keep fighting for things to *be* better tomorrow.