Although this blog is usually only about my costuming adventures, I thought it was important to take a pause and acknowledge some thoughts that have been rolling around in my head during the past week. I live in the Washington, DC area, which means Charlottesville is just a short car trip away. I have visited there several times, including earlier this year, in order to see the wonderful museums and enjoy the small-town atmosphere. (Where else can you find multiple independent book stores on one street?) I have friends and colleagues that either went to or work at the University of Virginia. To me, Charlottesville is a place of learning. So to see what happened last Saturday left me both speechless and immensely saddened. It is only after several days of reflection that I can put in words a small part of what I am feeling.
Specifically, one thing I was struck by was the furor and emotion raised by the prospect of removing Confederate statues and monuments. The reaction that stood out the most to me was the idea that taking these statues down was “erasing history.” And that somehow there is a straight line between removing a statue of Robert E. Lee and one of George Washington.
Think back to the last time you saw a statue of a person in a public park or in front of a public building. Chances are, that statue had very little information about it presented with it. Maybe the person’s name was written on a stone base, or there was a small plaque nearby. Maybe there was nothing at all explaining what the statue was for or who it was of. When people erect monuments, it is not about teaching history, with all of its complications and context. Instead, it is about eliciting an immediate reaction from an observer, be it pride in a past victory or sadness at a past tragedy. A statue of a person cannot possibly provide the whole story of their life. Its purpose is rather to use that person’s image as a symbol. We interact with that symbol in much the same way we would with a logo or a mascot.
Given this, a statue’s meaning is what we, as the current observers of it, make of it. If today a historical figure is most identified with the Confederacy and slavery, that is what his statue will stand for, even if he also did many other things in his life. By the same token, if a person is most remembered for being a founding father of the United States, that is what his statue will stand for, even if he also owned slaves. Thus, that is why a statue of Robert E. Lee is different from one of George Washington. Removing one and leaving the other is not “erasing history,” but rather, aligning our public symbols with our current ideals.
A better way to explore the full story behind both men is in a museum or book, where context and detail can be provided far beyond what can be communicated in a statue. Indeed, focusing on a statue instead of visiting a museum strikes me as truly “erasing history.”