I live in Washington, DC, but Richmond is my home. I don’t get there often, but I was there a week or so ago and drove down Monument Avenue for the first time since the removal of the statues of Confederate icons and soldiers. It was a sultry Sunday afternoon in July. Summertime in Richmond. Few cars. Few people.
I stopped at the pedestal that once held the statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. It surprised me. I felt nothing. When a Richmond friend texted me early in July that the Stonewall Jackson statue was coming down—now, right then—I immediately started surfing the channels. For hours, I streamed reports from a Richmond TV station, watching transfixed as something I couldn’t imagine ever happening, happened. So, when I stopped at that pedestal, I expected to feel some emotion—joy, relief, happiness — something. But I stood in front of it and felt nothing.
I drove on to the statue of Robert E. Lee. It was always the centerpiece that loomed over Monument Avenue. And there it was. Still standing, but oh so different. Instead of the cold solemnity and haughty arrogance I remembered, there was a vibrancy, an energy I could feel even before I got out of my car. There were a few vendors at a respectful distance, and some people walked around the monument, with reverence, for what had become a memorial for lives lost to police brutality. I felt the power of the entire tableau.
The Robert E. Lee statue was still there, but no longer proud and majestic. The dignity of that plaza now rested solely in the messages written vibrantly and boldly across the pedestal—a rainbow of reds, blues, yellows, greens. Before my eyes could read any words, my spirit took in the colors, so alive, blending from one into another. Then, as I focused, the first word that registered was “TAMIR” in huge block letters, honoring 12-year-old Tamir Rice. Slowly, I circled the statue. Some messages were profane—F_ _ _ the police—but most were profound, with BLM or Black Lives Matter appearing multiple times as I rounded the pedestal.
History is written upon that statue now—a far more complete history than it ever offered before. Huey Newton’s name is there. Marcus David Peters is memorialized there along with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Philando Castille, and so many more. The words “2nd place” appear several times, possibly noting that this general was not the winner of that war. There’s also: “No justice, no peace.” When I look back on pictures of this statue from just a few weeks ago, I see the messages have multiplied. The anger—bottled up for decades, centuries—has spilled out in many of the words and phrases and organic thoughts reflecting what the community feels must be said: “Black Transwomen,” and “Whose schools?” and “Whose streets?” Statements, more than questions.
Yes, Robert E. Lee is still there, but what made his society then and what makes ours today is now clear. Written in the bursts of words and names and painted with the stark explosion of colors.
Lee doesn’t only represent the Confederacy. He represents white supremacy, not just a hundred and fifty years ago but in the predominance of white leaders in statehouses, in media, in businesses today. He represents a narrative that was seeded, nurtured, and has blossomed in America for 400 years. And this is not just about individuals who shout hateful words and wave the flag of those defeated in a long-ago war. It is about a culture and a way of life that has only recently started to become acknowledged: a way of life that advantages white people and disadvantages Black people and other people of color.
I am glad that the effigies to the Confederacy on Monument Avenue are being removed. Maybe that is why I was surprised by the unexpected profundity of seeing Lee at Marcus David Peters/BLM plaza. Raw and confrontational. Keeping the statue there—with its modern-day messages—provokes different thinking. It juxtaposes a white historical marker against today’s racial reality. Maybe we learn more by seeing what’s been changed but is still there—that collocation of past and present—than simply the vacancy of something that had been.
Context is important. Just a thought.