Monday, October 15, 2018

Truth and Context

On May 29, 1890, the unveiling of the equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee began Monument Avenue's telling of a story. According to published reports, the ceremony drew over 100,000 spectators.

Over the next 39 years four additional memorials honoring heroes of the Confederate States of America were added along Richmond's most celebrated thoroughfare. Since those five monuments were installed their shadows have slyly promoted what has come to be known as the Lost Cause version of history. In our time they also serve the cause of white supremacists.

On June 22, 2017, Richmond's mayor, Levar Stoney, called a press conference to announce the establishment of a new commission to study Monument Avenue's history and make constructive recommendations to deal with the longstanding problems its Confederate memorials have posed and the relatively new ones they invite.

At that presser Stoney stopped short of calling for the consideration of monument-removal. But 51 days later came the shocking riot in Charlottesville, which prompted Stoney to instruct the Monument Avenue Commission to include examining the possibility removing statues. Obviously, after that riot the worries for City Hall had escalated beyond just removing graffiti and coping with occasional noisy but peaceful demonstrations.

Following roughly a year of work, on July, 2, 2018, the MAC issued its 117-page report. Highlights of the report's recommendations included adding contextual signage adjacent to the statues' pedestals. Such displays would offer a viewer an accurate picture of who those men were and how they came to be memorialized. However, the MAC's most attention-getting recommendation called for removing the Jefferson Davis Monument.
Naturally, that suggestion made the headlines. Yet, it must be noted that until some legal hurdles are cleared, actually removing the Davis Monument from its current site remains unlikely, because laws passed by the General Assembly to protect war memorials, statewide, forbid it.

It should also be noted that of the 168 war memorials in Virginia, 136 of them are associated with the Confederacy. So, it's not hard to see what's being protected today by the Republican majority in the General Assembly – a majority that may soon, itself, be history.

Meanwhile, given the news-making recommendations in the MAC report, together with the legal barriers in place, what can we look forward to in the next chapter of the Monument Avenue story?

Here's Mayor Stoney's response to that question: “We know that the Confederate monuments are more than physically symbolic; they represent the manifestation of racism and Jim Crow within almost every aspect of our society. They do not reflect the values of diversity, inclusion, and equity that we are diligently working toward in today’s Richmond. The immediate goal is progress toward an accurate and holistic reinterpretation of the existing monuments. We must continue to move forward, and we will.”

The MAC formally presented its report to City Council on October 1, 2018. Although the Planning Commission still needs to weigh in, it appears contextual signage is probably on the way, unless, of course, politicians would find it safer to just do nothing. Therefore, it's important that Stoney shows the political will to keep the process moving.

Meanwhile, Stoney's mention of "reinterpretation" will surely not please two camps. On one side will be those who will go on insisting that all five of the monuments must be pulled down tomorrow. On the other side will be those who will go on proclaiming that any changes whatsoever to do with Monument Avenue will amount to trampling on sacred turf.

Moreover, those predictable reactions will be consistent with politics, in general, these days. Today so much of the political energy is concentrated in the extremes that instead of the consensus-building politics of the melting pot we have politics of the centrifuge. Ironically, the current political landscape bears some resemblance to the atmosphere leading up to the Civil War, when moderation and compromise were seen as passionless and useless.

By the way, the MAC's information gathering process found that among its participants who responded to poll questions, most want change in some form. Now it will be up to Richmond's elected lawmakers to decide how to answer that call.

Yes, adding the contextual signage recommended by the MAC will be called “incrementalism,” or worse, by some folks clinging to an all-or-nothing approach. Nonetheless, at this desk it's hoped that most Richmonders will see that adding historically accurate contextual signage will be a sensible first step toward real progress.

Maybe best of all, it will be a step out of the shadows cast by untruths. It will be a step toward recognizing that context is integral to the appreciation of the difference between the truth of the whole story and stale propaganda.

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