Revisionist symbols

To the Editor:

One can wonder if in the United States, the rapport to the statuary is of a particular intensity and whether the Charlottesville events participate in a specific memorial history. Public statuary is abundant and is a living art in America today as it was yesterday, as well as all visual, artistic and monumental elements of the “civil religion.” On Mount Rushmore are sculpted in granite the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. It took 14 years, from 1927 to 1941, and hundreds of workers for sculptor Gutzon Borglum to complete those 60-foot-tall heads. Everywhere and every day in the country, new statues and objects with commemorative, honorific and even protesting functions are created using various media, formats and style, from the statues of Washington Square in New York City to those in Washington commemorating the dead of Iwo Jima and the War of the Pacific or the Vietnam War.

Presence, ergo destruction: one crucial moment of the independence was the demolition of George III’s statue at Bowling Green, in the south of Manhattan, on July 9, 1776, a sacrilege commemorated in numerous images and paintings.

But Charlottesville’s case is more complex. The equestrian statue was conceived in 1924 by New York artist Henry Shrady, 54 years after Lee’s death. It was unveiled on the occasion of the congress of a group called “The Sons of the Confederate Veterans,” created in 1896 in Richmond, Va., the Confederates’ capital during the Civil War. Its erection thus takes on the rewriting of history by the nostalgics of the era of plantations, and therefore, of slavery.

The mere presence of these statues in public space imposes a singular version of history, that of the movement of the “Lost Cause,” a revisionist justification formulated by Southerners after the Civil War – especially between 1880 and 1920 – to idealize the Confederates’ lost-in-advance fight (according to these theses) against the insurmountable industrial forces of the North. By glorifying this lost cause, the statues of Confederates express the view of the vanquished, silence the origin of a war and exalt chivalrous and patriotic virtues. Those statues constitute an imaginary compensation for the defeat and the brutal reconstruction, founded within a cult of aristocratic virtues of the old South, in particular its agrarian and noncapitalistic model.

The Charlottesville protesters did not take on a banal equestrian statue but a revisionist symbol. In that perspective, one can understand the confrontation between supremacist and antiracist organizations, first and foremost Black Lives Matter, born in 2012 after the deaths of many black men by white policemen whose lives were not threatened.

In 2015, white supremacist Dylan Roof murdered nine people during a service in a Methodist church in Charleston, S.C. From that moment on, actions were multiplied against statues of generals (Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston at the University of Texas, P.G.T. Beauregard in New Orleans, Nathan Bedford Forrest in Memphis, etc.), a monument honoring Confederate veterans in Albemarle or in the Maplewood cemetery in Durham, and many others.

The statues were tagged: “Tear it down,” “End racism,” “KKK,” “This is racist,” etc. What was written is what those monuments were trying to avoid: questions of slavery, of race, of inferiority, of rejection, of exclusion. Antiracist actions first started a conversation: suppressing, moving or keeping on location with historical explanations. That was before Aug. 12. After Charlottesville, the time for compromises seems to have passed. Four days later, Baltimore got rid of four statues, including ones of Robert Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson, another Confederate general.

This dismantling of statues and plaques will of course not suffice to put an end to racism. But at least its history will no longer be conveniently ignored.

Alain Falasse

Mount Desert


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