by Victoria Bourne
Contextualized. That’s how protesters describe the transformation of Richmond’s controversial Robert E. Lee monument. What was once a cliched nod to a complicated past is now a work of terrible beauty, raw and filled with emotion; a piece of public art renewed by the public’s own hand.
When the statue to the Confederate general was unveiled to a throng of admirers on May 29, 1890, it’s easy to imagine that thousands perceived it as a thing of beauty. Crafted by a French sculptor in bronze and set on a grand granite plinth, the colossal figure rises 61 feet from the ground. It is our state capital’s most recognizable piece of public art.
But that façade belies ugly origins, a giant vestige of an ignoble cause. And contrary to some arguments, tearing down monuments to such folly doesn’t erase the history. Our story, at least in this regard, is written in the scars scrawled across the backs of the enslaved people who built this country.
A Confederate monument could fall every day of the week and it won’t undue the legacy of brutality, disenfranchisement and racism that has permeated in one form or another in every corner of this country for centuries.
Statues do send messages, however, and in Richmond that message is changing. The monument to Lee, once so proud and tall, a beacon to a white community grappling to reassert itself 25 years after losing the Civil War, is now hemmed in by an advancing army of graffiti. Its surface is blanketed in tagged messages, spray painted in all the colors of the rainbow, conveying hope, frustration and yes, anger – explicit and pointed at institutions that resist change.
The grassy area around the towering statue has become the new town square, the steps of its foundation an open podium – a place of dance and music and spoken word, of solidarity in the face of a militarized police force, of relative closeness in the time of social distancing.
The statue has borne witness to the stench of tear gas lobbed at peaceful gatherings and absorbed the cacophony of unrest. Images of Black leaders have been projected onto it – Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass.
So, too, the face of George Floyd, a Black man from Minnesota whose dying words, “I can’t breathe,” have become the rallying cry of protests across the country against police brutality. It has seen a Black community reclaiming a space that wasn’t meant for them and people of all backgrounds united in support of Black voices.
The future of the state-owned monument is yet unknown amid an ongoing legal fight, but it seems inevitable that Lee will be vanquished once again, just as he was when he surrendered his beleaguered and starving army at Appomattox 155 years ago. His Monument Avenue compatriots have already been evicted from their stone pedestals by the city, and protesters toppled a paint-spattered statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, in June.
But if statues are indeed the message bearers, let Lee’s new visage live on elsewhere, pronouncing loudly and clearly that this, this was the moment of real and lasting change.