The protests in Charlottesville, VA in August 2017 were all about Confederate statues, and they were never about monuments all at the same time. This video from HBO’s Vice news has some f-bombs, but frankly, that isn’t the most disturbing content of this unflinching look into the Alt-Right/White nationalist protests and the subsequent counter-protests. Despite the graphic display of violence, overt racism, and coarse language, I find the video incredibly illuminating and insightful. It is hard to sanitize and sugar-coat the facts and still give an accurate portrayal of these events.
As I said, it’s about the statues, but not truly. At stake is the control over public space and the normative messages within the cultural landscape. Who decides what history gets etched into our public squares? Who’s heritage? What are the meanings within this landscape? Even 20 years ago, the thought of marshaling political power in Southern cities and states to remove Confederate statues was unthinkable what these symbols meant is different then what they were mean today. Modern southern politicians are seeing that supporting them vigorously is the new lost cause. Could we have a cultural landscape that has no public memorials to the Confederacy in 25 years? The call for the removal of all Confederate monuments is in full swing. What would that say about the society that restructured the landscape? The cultural landscape isn’t just a reflection of society; it also shows political, ethnic, cultural and economic struggles to as “who we are” and what our communal values are continually get remade.
The symbols of the Confederacy have long been venerated by some as symbols of southern heritage, but implicitly a white heritage. Today, many are seeking to create public spaces that foster an sense of inclusion of African Americans into that definition of “who we are” in the public places. In May 2017, New Orleans removed some of their Confederate statues, and Mayor Mitch Landrieu gave a powerful speech that contextualizes (one perspective on the) historical meanings embedded in these statues. I find his perspective to be the most appropriate for a South that respects all of its citizens and honors its past.
FURTHER READING: Geographer Jonathan Leib gives a fantastic analysis of the competing politics of the juxtaposition of Confederate statues and Arthur Ashe in Richmond, VA. Some geographers (Derek Alderman and Joshua Inwood) in an op-ed argue that this is the time for the Trump administration to explicitly repudiate white nationalism.
I added some links to this old article to include a fifth example, that of Charlottesville, VA.