Why the statues matter so much

I’m sorry I haven’t blogged for a while. I’m all torn up. Maybe you are, too.

I live in Richmond, Virginia. My quiet city is now completely upside-down. The issues here are quite complicated.

We aren’t just a charming old city in the South. Don’t get me wrong, Richmond is a beautiful place, a historical and picturesque city with cobblestone streets and a Jefferson-designed capitol. Beautiful brick houses. Battlefields and museums and outside eating. And some statues that matter to a lot of people.

Those dang statues really matter a lot, for a lot of different reasons.

These days, I’m seeing a less-lovely side of Richmond. It’s always been here. I just didn’t want to see it.

I’m a Northern transplant who lives in a Mid-Atlantic state (technically, a commonwealth). I’ve always liked this area because Richmond is not too cold or rushed, yet it’s not too Southern and slow. And it’s full of history, which I love.

I always thought the Confederate-mentality here in Virginia was quaint and colloquial, albeit overkill. (I mean, the Civil War was 160 years ago, and the Confederacy lost. So what’s with all the statues and flags and Daughters of the Confederacy stuff?) I should’ve realized that Southern perspective is about more than sweet tea and drawl.

The side that I thought was quaint and colloquial has a lot of white privilege masked as something more palatable, like loyalty or national pride. Except that the South is not a nation. This is an observation, not a censure. That’s why we love driving by the brick Gerogian mansions and having tea at the Jefferson Hotel. Southern charm is irresistible. I absolutely love Virginia and Richmond. But I understand that people are flawed and hurting, no matter what their color; and real history doesn’t lie.

I’m also white, and I live in the suburbs where there are a lot of grocery stores and big trees. And in my basement is a rough camp-style bathroom stall that was built in the 1950’s for the hired Black maid. I didn’t realize what this extra bathroom actually was until a real Southerner pointed it out to me. I’m still not sure what to do with it. I feel a kind of grief whenever I use it. I have a piece of our sordid history standing right here in my own house.

The current debate over our monuments of Confederate generals and president has been going hot for more than a century. (You can read about it here.) Can I just say–these guys weren’t American folk heroes. They started a war to preserve the enslavement of an entire race of people (an anti-American idea). To preserve their wealth (a very American idea). That’s why there’s so much anger. The protests on both sides are not about the statues themselves, but about what they represent–freedom to pursue life, liberty, and happiness for white people.

Our monuments of Confederate heroes were put into place to remind everyone in Richmond who and what should be revered. The statues were raised successively, in direct reaction to various civil liberties for Black Americans. They are reflections of a post-war revolution, an insidious method to remind people of color. Of the Southern pecking order.

The statues on the monuments celebrate the leaders of a revolution against the United States of America–a crime of treason for which these men were not prosecuted. Even the case of the Confederate president Jefferson Davis never went to trial. These leaders were educated gentlemen, who had prospered from a free slave labor force.

And for all of us who say, “But America revolted against Great Britain, and we celebrate that!” Yes, we did. We revolted from tyranny across an ocean, against a government that refused to recognize us as equals or give us a vote in Parliament. We didn’t kill our cousins and brothers who lived across the Potomac and the Ohio Rivers. Also, our founding fathers were prepared to hang for treason if they were caught or if they lost. So the situations are not exactly the same.

Richmond has a complicated history of race and slavery, as the second-largest slave trade city in America. Yet nothing in this Confederate capitol shows any remorse or regret for our racial problems or for these heroes who plunged our country into a war that cost more lives than all other American wars combined—over 620,000 deaths. There’s no admission of guilt here. No responsibility. No cautionary tale besides a few slave markers. Instead, several monuments stand proudly—even arrogantly—as if these men were victors of a noble and spiritual endeavor from which everyone has benefitted.

The statues matter because we haven’t learned from our history, which in my opinion is the point of monuments. They are supposed to honor true heroes or warn us of our misdeeds. So many of Richmond’s monuments do the opposite.

Over the two decades that we’ve lived here, I’ve shown our statues to nearly everyone who’s come to visit us in Richmond.

“Let’s drive down Monument Avenue and see the statues,” I’d say. “It’s beautiful. And it’s as Richmond as you can get.”

Yes, it is. And maybe that’s part of our problem.