What do we do with Confederate statues?

This article first appeared in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

As monuments to supremacism come tumbling down around the world, there’s no clear plan yet for what to do with the ones here in the U.S.

There’s an understandable impulse to destroy these monuments, many of which are statues that range from slavers and Confederates like Robert E. Lee to expansionists and white supremacists like Theodore Roosevelt. Some, for now, have been placed out of sight, out of mind.

These monuments have the power to incite our emotions. They derive this power from their symbolism. Confederate monuments represent the Lost Cause — the ideology that says the cause of the Confederate states during the Civil War was a just and heroic one — and many people claim this is a substantial part of their personal family heritage. As such, they decry the crusade to remove these monuments because they feel this constitutes the erasure of American history.

There is a way we can strip these monuments of their power while we preserve their true history, ugly though that history may be. Their history is not only the Lost Cause, a belief based on lies instilled in these monuments by their makers. Their history is when and why these monuments were installed: between 1880 and 1930 monuments were erected across the South with the intention of “justifying segregation and relegating African Americans to second-class status,” according to Civil War historian Kevin Levin.

We need not look too far back in time to see a solution for our monuments problem: statue parks. Consider this passage from “The Unfinished Revolution: Making Sense of the Communist Past in Central-Eastern Europe”:

“Those groups who moulded the post-Communist memorial landscape were often concerned about Communism’s residual power: they were alarmed that the former regime’s supporters had survived the collapse of 1989 and feared their continued influence within the machinery of the state and ability to perpetuate a (now modified) form of leftist ideology. Moreover, since the post-Communist political system proved incapable of providing judicial compensation for the victims of Communism by prosecuting former perpetrators or excluding them from public office, many anti-Communists instead sought to target unresolved legacies of Communism in the cultural sphere.”

This passage smacks of today. Tweak it slightly and it all but captures the current moment; take this snippet, for example: 

“Moreover, since the Reconstruction political system proved incapable of providing judicial compensation for the victims of slavery by prosecuting former Confederates or excluding them from public office, many anti-racists instead seek to target unresolved legacies of white supremacy in the cultural sphere.” 

Statue parks sprang up across post-Communist Europe, but not without hesitation. Understandably, many were concerned that Communist symbols on public display could still inspire nostalgia for the authoritarian Communist regimes from whence they came.

Placing monuments in designated statue parks was intended to hollow out the meaning of the symbols, diminish their political relevance and sufficiently demonize communism. This kind of sociopolitical scrutiny would be impossible in a museum setting. As Timothy W. Luke, university distinguished professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Virginia Tech, wrote in his book “Museum Politics: Power Plays at the Exhibition,” “museums rarely are regarded as affording rich opportunities for political analysis, and those that do exist are, all too often, consigned by professional prejudice … ”

Statue parks emerged as a logical depository for monuments representing painful pasts. They were then built on “sites of terror” to allow for historically credible public denunciation of the monuments’ original symbolism.

Thus, not only would a statue park in the U.S. enable solemnity, and reflection and cultural condemnation of Lost Cause ideology, but the specific site of the statue park could help provide moral compensation for descendants of oppressed groups, most notably Black individuals.

Now the Black community has appropriated Confederate monuments in the U.S., and in doing so have deadened their political significance; the towering statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, has become a canvas for street art and a screen upon which to project images of abolitionists Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman, and the late George Floyd.

Our nation’s racial scars have never healed and so a statue park may seem too much, too soon for the moment. But a statue park could finally serve as the venue for a much-needed public cultural trial and conviction of these sites for all time.

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