In the wake of Charlottesville, and following Xochitl Alvizo’s recent post on the topic, I review the May 2017 speech from New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu who made a compelling case for the removal of confederate statues from public view in his southern city. In his argument, he poses a simple question related to how an African American mother or father explains to their 5th grade daughter the reason why a statue of Robert E. Lee holds a prominent visual position on the New Orleans landscape. He asks, pointing to the audience, “Can you do it? Can you do it? Can you look into her eyes and tell her why Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her?” The implication of course is, “No,” because Robert E. Lee is not placed upon high in this stronghold of southern history to inspire her.
Landrieu asserts in the speech that the wounds of slavery remain raw because they are wounds that have not only gone unrecognized but they are wounds that have never been allowed to heal. Instead, he says, American cities have committed “lies by omission” failing to honor memory through the confederate emblems, instead erecting statues to pay reverence to men and only parts of their legacies. If this were not the case, if the whole story were told, then memorials at lynching sites and monuments of slave ships would be present in the United States, but they are not.
The statues celebrate, he asserts a “fictional sanitized confederacy ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for” erected to send a message about who was still “in charge.”
In another platform regarding the statues, Edward Ayers of the University of Richmond, a historian speaking to PBS, asserts that historically most of the confederate statues were erected between 1890 and the beginning of WWI in a widespread effort to honor the memory of the confederates who were dying. Campaigns by the Daughters of the Confederacy were critical in raising the funds to erect the statues. Ayers recognizes that slavery has been written out of the story of the confederate (national) memory saying, “People remember what they want to remember, and they see what they want to see.” His solution? Learning and discussion, as he identifies potential for reconciling the debate and conflict around the statues through rational means. He thinks that if rationality played a part perhaps there would be more understanding and acceptance of the statues.
I have to confess, until really exploring the issue, Ayers’s logic made sense to me. How I managed to assert this position in light of my primary research interests – trauma, affect, and shame – tells you a little bit about my own racism, and my own effort to – in the face of pain – be “reasonable,” that is to deny pain, pain that I incur or experience, because ignoring pain, terror, and shame is often easier than actually facing these. Further, the argument in support of reason fails to hold because reasoning through the statue’s public presence fails to allow a rewriting or a change. Keeping the statues in place supports rather than dissembles the power structure(s) the statues represent.
Denying the truth of these statues as emblematic of a complicated, problematic, and terror filled history is a denying the truth of slavery and denying the experience of those who feel pain at their presence. Furthermore, if we take seriously the “idea that images have persuasive power to influence human behavior” (an understanding exemplified by anyone on social media and a key strategy in advertisement underlying the pernicious and persuasive nature of the symbols used by extremists), then we have to take seriously the affective impact of confederate visual artifacts – statues, flags, and the like. They inspire fear and shame conveying a sense of national identity that intends to marginalize anyone outside of a white community.
These visuals have the capacity to be active, passive, and seductive – for their proponents and for their targets. They have as, media theorist Marshall McLuhan asserts an effect, not simply a singular meaning. What are the effects of these confederate statues? Removed from their origin of honoring the memory of the dying confederates, as Ayers remarks, they stand to mean exactly what Mayor Landrieu called them: “symbols of white supremacy and white power.” After writing this, and examining the statues myself, I think their appearance – dissociated from any history – stimulates something closer to an affect of fear than one of joy. Furthermore, such images viewed by audiences in the public domain intensifies affect; the power and influence of the images increases even if doing so at an unconscious level.
The statues belong in a museum, a move that takes Ayers’ point to a more constructive end, making a statement that – as a nation – we have changed our stance on what confederacy means or meant. Moreover, a museum is a place where we preserve and trace our histories, where data can be appropriately curated. Containing the statues within a museum environment, as opposed to letting them stand as they originally were constructed, can foster a rational approach (even if still affective) undermining their effects of conveying power and control.
In the wake of Charlottesville, some significant shifts have started to occur. One that struck me was the rewriting of the description of “Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial,” even after Trump defended the prior mission of this memorial. You can see the difference in the rhetoric here where the memorial references “the most difficult aspects of American History.” Perhaps for the first time, American, white culture is beginning to examine what it means to come to terms with the past – slavery – in a self-reflexive move that acknowledges a history laden with terror and shame.
Stephanie N. Arel is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion (IBCSR) at Boston University working on the Sex Differences in Religion Project. Her teaching and research interests focus on the intersection of theology, psychology, and philosophy. She is the author of Affect Theory, Shame and Christian Formation (Palgrave Macmillan 2016) and co-editor of Post-Traumatic Public Theology (Palgrave Macmillan 2016).