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Monument, Myth and Meaning

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How can Americans reconcile with Confederate statues? Are these structures simply idealizations of white supremacy, or rather installations to be considered with artistic and historic integrity? In October, a diverse panel of scholars gathered in Lower Manhattan to tackle these complex ideas from unique perspectives at the Cooper Union talk “Monument, Myth and Meaning.”

Most panelists advocated for the relocation of Confederate statues, arguing that they represent and uphold racism. Dr. James Grossman, Executive Director of the American Historical Association, referenced Fallen Monument Park in Moscow, a public space used to examine Soviet Statues in a transformed light, adding that Confederates weren’t patriots, but treasoners. Julian LaVerdiere, co-creator of the Tribute in Light Memorial, further suggested that there is an art to destruction and how a community reframes its effigies, citing the sackings of Rome and the erasure of disgraced leaders. Moreover, Brian Palmer, a photojournalist from Richmond, explained that the United Daughters of the Confederacy regularly receives money from the state of Virginia to preserve Confederate graves while African American cemeteries remain neglected. Palmer noted that the UDC infamously rewrote history as they claimed that African Americans enjoyed slavery.

Controversy arose when Dr. Michele Bogart, an expert on Urban Design and Public Art, posited that Confederate statues have cultural dialogues that can only be understood in their original physical contexts. She also asserted that the statue in Charlottesville does not glorify Lee, and that we can choose how we experience these figures, even in ways that contribute to the city. I had the opportunity to voice a question, and I began by proposing that this perspective is a matter of accessibility. It is a privilege unattainable to many to see a Confederate soldier through any lens other than slavery. I asked Dr. Bogart how she saw this statue contributing to my hometown, as thus far, I’ve only seen it act as a catalyst of oppression that killed one woman and nearly killed me. She did not respond, but Dr. Mabel O. Wilson, an established architectural historian, addressed me directly, referencing her current project in Charlottesville: a memorial to the enslaved laborers who built the University of Virginia. “That project started because students got involved and made institutions accountable. You can be an incredibly powerful voice for change.”

Lee’s monument is not a relic of heritage—actually, it was commissioned 50 years after the Civil War—and removing it will not erase history. History will remember the Confederacy: a group that fought, and lost, a war for the right to own black humans as property. History will too remember Robert E. Lee: a man who defended slavery as “necessary discipline,” a traitor in direct opposition to American values. As a nation, we must confront our immoral and incorrect relationships with “heroes” if we are to salvage justice and foster growth. Lee has been placed on an unearned pedestal, and we should refuse to exalt him.

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Photo by Aaron Cohen

written by
Aaron Cohen
December 27, 2017