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Theater of memory: Confronting Confederate memorials

Theater of memory: Confronting Confederate memorials
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Memorials are the provocateurs of the built environment. Those designed successfully capture our attention; through beauty, gesture, association and symbolism, they aspire to deliver meaning. They are civic actors as the most prominent expressions of a public’s declaration of values. Accordingly, memorials and monuments are, as cultural investments, intended to be “permanent” in order to pass heritage on to other generations.

George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis has provoked a visit to the pedestals of many memorials. These visits come in a range of forms, from peaceful protest to physical destruction, to governmental action. The physical destruction of memorials has not just been directed at the clearly objectionable Confederate variety; memorials for abolitionists, the president who ended slavery, past slave-owning presidents and churches have all been targeted. Why? Whatever the specific justifications may be, such actions reject the historical narrative or value system those memorials represent, reminiscent of recent destructions of a long list of world heritage sites in Iraq and Syria.

But let’s focus on Confederate memorials as the clearest misrepresentation of our nation’s intended values.

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These energies have brought us to a crossroads where judgments about the future of certain memorials — if not already made — are necessarily before us. This crossroads is really an intersection of three convictions. In one direction is the position of the offended, who see these markers as highly visible, physical manifestations of the most overt racism exacted by a particular culture in our country’s history. In another direction is a defensive posture of protecting the familial heritage of the Confederate South and its subversive mythologizing. Separate from both of these perspectives, but not mutually exclusive to them, is a third direction that comes from a position of defending the principles of cultural memory, heritage and civic art.

The first two directions appear diametrically, irreconcilably opposed. These two perspectives could be paired with particular methods of addressing painful memories evoked through memorials — eradication of all memorials vs. apathetic, unchallenged acquiescence. Real-life models of these approaches can be identified in post-World War II Germany, with its swift, comprehensive policy of purification, and the United States, with a more laissez-faire indifference until fairly recently.

Both ways present their own potential difficulties. Purging, through removal, eliminates the perceptive stain but may inhibit healing. It also may set bad precedents, allowing for a slippery slope of censorship for anything deemed offensive, thus sterilizing our culture and undermining our ability to maturely handle disagreeable things. The cautionary quote by George Santayana comes to mind: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” 

The difficulties of the status quo approach are more obvious: It visually perpetuates a one-sided account of our values. If someone from a far-off place, without a sense of U.S. history, visited a former Confederate town and read up on Confederate history, they might believe — falsely — that everyone agrees with the Confederacy’s values, based on physical evidence. In this way, the status quo is tone-deaf in not acknowledging its offense to members of the society it purports to serve.

While, in the end, the need to remove all Confederate monuments might be the answer, the violent, unsanctioned or unilateral removal comes at a cost and misses the opportunity for discernment, dialogue, potential civil protest in the form of positive action and true reconciliation. There is room for us to do better than either of these approaches and to promote constructive acts of repair, not destructive acts of amnesia.

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Consider ancient Christian persecution in the Roman Empire. Christians subsequently co-opted all things Roman in an act of cultural appropriation; they augmented the Colosseum, the site of Christian massacres, and they transformed the Pantheon, the most prominent of pagan temples, into Christian places of worship. This patient act of nonviolent radical defiance turned everything inside out, without destruction or dismissal. What is implicit here is a spirit of forgiveness without forgetting — standing in the face of your enemy, knowing they are flawed yet worthy of an opportunity for atonement.

Other strategies are being implemented today that are much less radical but come closer in spirit. Some of these include moving particularly offensive structures to museums, or by “contextualizing” them with on-site aids, such that the narrative isn’t exclusively driven by the memorial alone. There have been more substantive attempts to counter with “memorials in-kind.” Take Richmond’s Monument Avenue, where an Arthur Ashe memorial joined an explicitly Confederate line-up of memorial punctuation marks, from Stonewall Jackson to Jefferson Davis to Robert E. Lee. A contemporary anti-image of the Lee statue, entitled “Rumors of War,” also was recently introduced in downtown Richmond.

In the winning memorial competition entry for the city of Alexandria, Va., in 2008, I proposed a silent dialogue between a then-existing Confederate soldier — now removed — that stood in the middle of Washington Boulevard, heading south in defeat, and a new statuary of a U.S. Colored Troop soldier standing in victory, several blocks south. Though this element ultimately was eliminated from the final design of the now-built memorial for African American Contrabands and Freedmen, it would have presented an opportunity for the Confederate soldier to be reconsidered.

Adding other aspects of the Civil War and slavery helps to create a more complete picture. Not only does it bring the underrepresented into the fold, but it illuminates the “wrongs” by setting them beside the “wronged.” Context enables education — perhaps inspiration — even to the ignorant. It also has a potential for atonement that other options seem to lack, in as much as memorials can help with the healing process.

I can imagine a more radical, robust version being continued in a city like Richmond, where there are plans to remove Confederate statues. Virginia has some 227 Confederate memorials and, by my count, under 10 African American memorials of any kind. Making up for that disparity by adding many new African American memorials to Monument Avenue would be poetic — and would give an opportunity to those who wish to help repair past transgressions by offering financial contributions toward that end. The inclusion of new memorials would transform an otherwise static platform into a more dynamic scene, with memorials as theater actors in a civic confrontational drama.

The solution to a “contextualized” or “co-opted” scene on Monument Avenue need not be a one-size-fits-all response (i.e., remove all statues) but, instead, one using multiple “tools” — some permanent removals; some temporary removals, with possible reintroduction at a later time; some left intact or relocated but “contextualized,” with added memorials in close proximity; some modified, to reflect a different posture; some “co-opted,” to reflect new values or subjects. Imagine a contextualized scene at the current Robert E. Lee circle, with the original statue moved to the Northside perimeter while a new heroic counter-value equestrian statue is erected at the Southside, with additional actors around the perimeter and an American flag in the center where Lee's horse once stood.

As a person of color, I can appreciate the expediency of removing overt Confederate memorials and putting them in an existential “timeout” until a clearer resolution reveals itself. And yet, unlike the more visceral reaction I have to seeing a Confederate flag raised (and knowing it was done by a fellow American, alive today), I can appreciate the unique opportunity that comes with reconsidering these monuments of a past era.

I also can imagine being in a redesigned memorial landscape, as proposed above, and feeling much differently than I would today. I can see myself walking with my children, explaining our history — good and bad — and all that comes with gaining an understanding of who we are, where we come from, and where we want to go.

Owning our past doesn’t mean we endorse all of its sins — but it can be a great catalyst to becoming a better version of ourselves as individuals, families, communities and a country. These memorials can help us get there.

C.J. Howard is an assistant professor at The Catholic University of America with an expertise in traditional and heritage architecture. He recently won the 2019 Leicester B. Holland Prize Competition for the documentation of the historic Athenaeum building in Alexandria, Va., and won a design competition in 2008 for a Contrabands’ and Freedmen’s Cemetery Memorial also in Alexandria, which was completed and dedicated in 2014. He is a registered architect and has spent nearly two decades practicing in the Washington, D.C. region on a variety of ecclesiastical, residential and civic projects including several urban design efforts in collaboration with the District Department of Transportation. Follow him on Twitter @CJHowardArch