Richmond, Virginia took down its famous statue of Robert E. Lee this week. The man led an army of rebels hell-bent on oppressing and enslaving Black people, and his statue was a monument to that oppression, a symbol of white supremacy.
Still, I had to admit that I felt a little uneasy. I wasn’t sure why I had qualms, but I’m old enough to know that when I have uncomfortable feelings, I should explore them and not ignore them. I expressed my uneasiness to my husband, Chuck Reece, and his response was unequivocal.
“Of course, they should take him down,” he said. “They should have taken him down a long time ago.” Mind you, he was standing in front of me wearing an “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More” T-shirt, so there you go.
I’ve been a lazy, small-c conservative for most of my life, which mostly amounted to wanting a government that curbed excessive spending, used reason and logic to make policy decisions and stayed out of my personal life. I adore tradition as long as it doesn’t interfere with what I want to do.
My feelings about the Old South are complex. I grew up in a family that celebrated our ancestors’ participation in the Confederacy. These are ancestors who owned other human beings and fought for the right to keep them. I’ve revered Greek Revival architecture since I was a girl and knew the difference between Ionic, Doric and Corinthian columns by the time I was in middle school. I venerated the traditions of grace and gentility of the Old South and mourned the loss of them in the modern day.
But I didn’t understand that the infrastructure to maintain this revered level of charm and hospitality required the oppression of every person with one drop of African blood. Now, as an adult, I can’t look at my beloved antebellum mansions without thinking about the subjugation of so many slaves attached to them.
Now that I and so many others have come to a better understanding of our whitewashed past, there is a justifiable movement to remove the statues that idolize the celebrities of the Civil War. As a child, I loved those kinds of statues for their masterful craftsmanship and how their presence seemed to enhance the public square. As these statues continue to come down, I feel a little sorry for the poor fellows. They were a product of their own day and didn’t know any better than I did growing up.
As a society, we have moved to a place of reckoning such that these statues no longer represent who we are a culture and a people. But I worry that by removing this art, we are robbing ourselves and future generations of the opportunity to make a choice for freedom and equality.
In 2013, the Republican governor of Georgia relocated a statue of a 20th century white supremacist, Tom Watson, from the grounds of the State Capitol. There was not much public debate and very little uproar because he was not “removed”; he was “moved for renovations” off the Capitol grounds and there was “no money” in the budget to reinstall him. It happened over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, and he still lives in a nearby park where people who think like him can go to salute him. I thought that move was rather slick, and I got a chuckle out of our governor’s masterful manipulation of public response, because Mr. Watson definitely needed to be put out to pasture.
Even though Mr. Watson was put out to pasture, I am glad that it was a public pasture. I believe the public square should have more art, not less. Furthermore, I wonder if we are missing an opportunity to juxtapose art that communicates the misery and horror of the Black experience in the South in the same setting as statues of the people who oppressed them. What if instead of taking down the statue of General Lee, we surrounded it with art that expressed 400 years of oppression? What if Mr. Watson was surrounded by figures of young Black children suffering under the tyranny of Jim Crow?
I think my thoughts are leaning in this direction because I am frightened about the rise of autocracy, not only in this country but around the world. After Nazi tyranny was vanquished in 1945, the world said, “Never again,” and they meant it. Now, as the last of the veterans of World War II are dying off and there’s no one left to remember its true horror, we see more and more public figures embracing autocracy under the guise of freedom and equality.
I think it is easy for people who love freedom and equality to envision a day when all this racial ugliness is behind us and we no longer have to fear it, like polio or smallpox. We pine for a day when we reach herd immunity, and everyone will just act right because they were raised right. I’m doubtful that day will ever come.
Autocracy and racial supremacy are very seductive because they offer a safety net for those on the dominant side of the power dynamic. It seduced the Germans to persecute the Jews and the British colonists to enslave the Africans. These iniquitous impulses of human nature will always find a footing in human civilization because they feel good and powerful to those who indulge in them. There is no Never Again. There is only Not Today. We maintain freedom and equality with the infinitesimal choices we make every day. Every single one of us is a standard bearer for tyranny or for justice, and every single one of us gets to choose every single day.
Art can uplift, inspire, comfort and educate. It can also challenge us. What if we surrounded the art dedicated to oppressors with art that evoked empathy for the oppressed? Every person who experienced that commingled art would have to make a choice about freedom and equality. They may not understand that they are making a choice, but deep down inside they would have to make a choice about whose side they were on: the oppressor or the oppressed?
Unless we have public art that forces viewers to take a side on that question, we are missing the opportunity to educate future generations about the choices they will have to make in their own day. They will have to choose which impulse to indulge.
They are going to need all the help they can get.