Charlottesville, Va. has served as the epicenter of only the latest in a year’s long series of political tremors that have shaken the nation. The exact point which initiated the controversy was the statue of Robert E. Lee in Emancipation Park, formerly known as Lee Park. In April of 2016 Charlottesville’s City Council voted to create a commission of Race, Monuments and Public Spaces composed of nine members tasked with crafting recommendations for the City Council.
The commission recommended the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee, and the renaming of the park in which it sits from “Lee Park” to “Emancipation Park,” and the City Council approved both recommendations. Then, in May, Judge Richard Moore issued a temporary stay on the removal for six months as a lawsuit regarding the statue went through the courts. That month it became the flashpoint for neo-confederate, fascist and alt-right riots and torch marches. Counter- protesters came almost as quickly as their counterparts, and clashes ensued.
Opponents of removing the statues cry iconoclasm and attempt to associate the anti-racism activists and the City Council with movements to destroy cultural heritage such as occurred in China during the Cultural Revolution. During that time period, Mao Zedong embraced totalistic iconoclasm. Like the original icon breakers of the Byzantine Empire, Mao believed that if tradition and heritage could not be rationally justified, it had no reason to be maintained.
This put the enormously culturally significant Confucian philosophy of governmental, educational and familial structures in direct conflict with Mao.
He denounced the four old things: old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas arguing that they be destroyed and be built in the ashes were the Four New Things: new customs, new culture, new habits and new ideas which would lead to xin Zhongguo or New China.
This attempt to remake the country, or revolution, often targeted Chinese cultural heritage. Graves and relics were desecrated. Statues were broken. Genealogical records were burnt. Ancient temples razed. While one can understand and sympathize with the goal to wipe out “feudal superstition” and the resentment the living must have felt in the compulsion to maintain the relics of dead oppressors. One must indeed “condemn in the strongest possible terms” (to use the President’s words) the wholesale destruction of invaluable physical heritage that was lost.
The parallel is unmistakable between the Chinese people destroying the works of their former bourgeois and feudal oppressors and Blacks destroying that of slave masters, but the removal of a statue and the burning of genealogical records are qualitatively different.
The statue, in the context of a park in the center of the city, claims and defines public space of the present; in contrast, library genealogical records define the history and culture of the past. To move the statue is not to “destroy” or “change” history, as some have it, but it is a powerful, democratic step to change the future.
This is what David Harvey is talking about when he says that “the right to the city…is not merely a right of access to what the property speculators and state planners define, but an active right to make the city different, to shape it more in accord with our heart’s desire, and to re-make ourselves thereby in a different image.”
It is precisely that last phrase that speaks to the power of the city of Charlottesville. We do not simply inhabit the built environment, it also makes us.
Harvey asks us, “Can I live in Los Angeles without becoming a frustrated motorist?” Can he? Can you live in Charlottesville and not be affected by the stories about the past, the present, the social order and your place in all of it being expressed every time you walk by the city’s main park?
Tanesha Hudson, an activist local to Charlottesville, thinks you cannot. In an interview with Vice reporter Elle Reeve, she said, “This is the face of supremacy. This is what we deal with every day being African-American, and this has always been the reality of Charlottesville. You can’t stand in one corner of this city and not look at the master sitting on top of Monticello. He looks down on us. He’s been looking down on us.”
That is what it means to be Black in a city with Confederate and slave-holding monuments. She still feels the power of centuries dead Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee relayed into the present day because the social structure of white supremacy, which supplied these people with the economic power to craft their glorious monuments and the social power to command public space over centuries, still gives structure to our world in America.
On Tuesday, Sept. 5, the Anthropology Club at West Chester University sponsored the “What to Do with Difficult Monuments” discussion featuring professors Teresita Majewski, Michael Di Giovine and Janneken Smucker in the Philips Autograph Library. In the discussion, Di Giovine cited Sue Alcott’s definition of a monument: “Objects that are deliberately constructed or designated after the fact to provoke memories.”
He then continued, “We have to think about this. These are symbols. Symbols are not created and then they just exist without change. Symbols, we fill them with meaning. We fill them with memories.”
So, these are symbols that provoke certain memories, and as [Smucker] said very well, they’re not just about memories of the Civil War, and they’re not just about the people in the [time they were built], but these memories change over time.”
It is precisely that ability of symbols and memories to change and to be constantly and consciously re-built that is the process of cultural change, and to engage fully and enthusiastically in shaping and creating culture is one of the most gratifying and satisfying processes the modern world had to offer.
As Smucker was eager to remind us, these confederate monuments are the physical fruits of racists in the 1920s and ‘60s engaging enthusiastically in that process. Now the worst, most savage faction of our modern political culture is claiming them and drawing power from the memories they provoke.
So, I ask you, why deny the citizens of Charlottesville their democratic right to make and re-make their city and themselves in an image of their choosing rather than an image that a sordid history of oppression and pain has bequeathed them?
Aaron Gallant is a third-year student majoring in urban and environmental planning with minors in anthropology and Spanish. He can be reached at AG85103@wcupa.edu.