Saturday, April 13, 2019
April 13-14, 2019: StatueStudying: Charlottesville Statues and Memorials
[On April 9th, 2003 a group of both Iraqi civilians and U.S. military forces together toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, a hugely symbolic moment that highlights the role statues can play in our communal spaces and identities. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied that moment and four other statues, leading up to this weekend post on my own continuing thoughts on Confederate statues like those in my hometown.]
On two distinct spaces where Charlottesville seeks to remember, and one hope moving forward.
Nearly two years after the chaotic and violent rally in (if not to my mind truly focused on) Cville’s Lee Park, the statue of Robert E. Lee (and a neighboring one of Stonewall Jackson near the town courthouse) remains where it has stood for about a century. The city has changed the park’s name to Emancipation Park, a largely symbolic (and perhaps relatively unknown, at least outside of Cville itself) gesture but certainly a change nonetheless. For a time, the Lee and Jackson statues were covered by tarps; protesters kept removing the tarps under cover of darkness, however, and eventually a judge ruled that the tarps could not stay on indefinitely (since their stated purpose was “mourning,” which he ruled has an expiration date) and so they have been taken away. Now the statues are surrounded by metal fences that both keep visitors or vandals from getting too close and change the view from simply that of a marble memorial to a Confederate officer to something more overtly fraught and contested. In all those and other ways, Lee Park’s construction of public memory has continued to evolve over the last couple years, although I don’t know whether the park, Charlottesville, or we all are any closer to a truly meaningful reckoning with the questions and histories at play there.
On the other side of Charlottesville’s historic Downtown Mall is a very different and much more inspiring public memorial. In the worst moment of the August 12 violence, 32 year old paralegal and social justice activist Heather Heyer was killed when white supremacist James Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd of protesters (at least 19 others were injured by this act of domestic terrorism). Just over four months later, the city renamed the portion of 4th Street where Heyer was killed Heather Heyer Way, and in the months since the space has become an impromptu but very moving memorial to Heyer. The brick walls on both side of the street are covered with chalk messages, many paying direct tribute to Heyer (or expressing condolences to her family) but many others advancing broader thoughts and ideas that echo and extend the ideals for which Heyer fought and was still fighting when she was killed. I don’t doubt that the site has seen incidents of vandalism or hate speech, but on the two separate occasions when I visited (in May and August of 2018, respectively) I’ve encountered only those more commemorative and celebratory kinds of statements. While of course the very existence of the Heather Heyer memorial reflects fraught, tragic, and horrific histories and realities, the space itself offers some of the best of what both public memory and collective voices can offer.
So where does Cville go from here? It’s far too simple to say that we can or should just follow the lead of or focus solely on the Heather Heyer memorial, for many reasons including the fact that Lee Park (whatever we now call it) continues to exist and demands our engagement as well. No amount of chalk messages, however thoughtful, can suffice for that historical, cultural, and contemporary dialogue. But at the same time, I’d say that the Heyer memorial is a pretty compelling example of critical patriotism and critical optimism—building off of a dark history, demanding that we remember it, but also using that place of public memory as a space to argue for the best of what we’ve been and are and can be. I’m not going to pretend that there’s any use of Lee Park that would satisfy the types who came to Cville in August 2017 to spread their hate and violence, nor for that matter do I have any interest in appeasing (or even talking with) that group of white supremacist neo-nazi assholes. But for the more thoughtful and sane of us (a group that the critical optimist in me still believes outnumbers the assholes, although I have my moments these days…), I can see great value in using such historical spaces in precisely that way—commenting on the prior histories, to make sure we acknowledge and engage with their presence and effects; but adding layers of collective voice and inspiration, to make sure we recognize that we are not bound by the worst of our past. If that can be one legacy of August 12th, it would be a potent and crucial one.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. Thoughts on these statues, or other statues you’d highlight and analyze?