Monument Avenue is beautiful in every season, perpetually the pride of Richmond. It is, however, a pride in need of examination, one unfulfilled and one that does not justly or appropriately honor our past.
The greatest irony of living in the South has been the relationship between a vocal minority of Southerners and the Confederacy; they praise the Confederacy and ominously say “the South will rise again,” but won’t tolerate criticism of the United States as a nation. It is a great irony that living people, self-professed Christians, praise dead soldiers while ignoring the plight and reality of the living.
It is a great irony, one immortalized by publicly funded statues, monuments and street names that honor Confederate leaders through both Richmond (the former capital of the Confederacy) and all of the southern United States.
The culture of reverence for and toward the Confederate States of America has been and continues to be one of intellectual dishonesty, violence and hypocrisy. Southerners have an unhealthy obsession with defending the failed nation, which explicitly wanted to preserve the institution of slavery (Article I, Section 9(4) of the Confederate constitution), and that reverence manifests itself in hate groups and general bigotry. It’s a culture cemented into our daily lives by the normalcy of having memorials dedicated to Confederate leaders.
There are six statues on Monument Avenue: Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, Matthew Maury and Arthur Ashe. Five of those men were Confederate leaders. The last, Ashe, was an African-American tennis player. His statue also happens to be the farthest away and faces away from the city’s center.
While I am by no means a seasoned sculptor or art critic, I do understand the importance of manifested art and I do see the value of having these monuments. White Southerners at the time of their construction were indoctrinated and thought those people were heroes. Some still do think so, and to say the truth, that those men were villains, would be sin.
But it’s the 21st century now and we should examine the word ‘value’ in relation to these statues: What values are we upholding and representing through them? Loyalty to the state above personal positions? Loyalty to a government that supports the enslavement and dehumanization of a people? More of the same, until we happen upon Ashe’s statue, where we immortalize the value of hard work, diligence and resilience in the face of adversity?
I despise the Confederacy, its leaders, its flag and the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia. I would support any move to tear down the statue of any Confederate.
The better solution, however, would be to truly honor the city’s ancestors and the true heroes and heroines of our shared history: the indigenous people who resided here before their land was stolen and then subjected to genocide by British colonists and early Americans, the slaves who built this city and this nation, and the men and women of color who were patriotic Americans despite being disenfranchised, lynched, beaten and unjustly jailed by law enforcement officials and their own government.
It is intellectually dishonest and the sentiment of white supremacy to simultaneously and exclusively uphold Confederates as heroes while shunning via silence and inaction the most worthy, patriotic and principled Americans, the authentic forefathers and foremothers of our city and our nation. We shouldn’t be proud of Confederate statues, monuments and the Confederate flag; we should be reflective. It’s part of a history that prided itself on white supremacy and defended the genocide of black people. It’s not representative of who we are as a people and we shouldn’t want to adorn ourselves with the values espoused by the Confederacy.
What people should do is remember the Confederacy for what it was, what it represented, valued and fought for, and who upheld that representation. What people should do is remember how wrong Confederates were and how wrong they still are. What we should remember and immortalize through public art are the courageous, nameless black slaves that were kidnapped, divided, commodified and forced to build this city, this state and this nation. In addition to the beautiful, masterful abstract murals that Richmond has become world-renowned for, we can become a shining example of progressive democracy, apologizing for a disastrous past and working together toward an inclusive future.
Until we all divorce ourselves from the chains of white supremacy, recognize that the diversity of humanity is a thing to be celebrated and embody a public love for our neighbors, be they of a different race, religion or socioeconomic status, we cannot profess ourselves to be good Americans. Once we begin to uphold the oppressed over the oppressors, this nation can begin to heal. Until then the wound of racial division and white supremacy that opened at the birth of the United States will not and cannot be healed.