On the Removal of the Confederate Statues by Stephanie Arel

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).

16 thoughts on “On the Removal of the Confederate Statues by Stephanie Arel”

  1. Thanks for sharing your insights and thinking processes.

    I too read this week that Confederate or other statues should be placed in museums. Your post got me to thinking about the effect of museums. On the one hand, they are not as public as parks and many other public spaces, so they are not as in-your-face. On the other hand, we come to museums with the implicit understanding that what we are about to view are “great works of art.” We don’t generally come with the idea that we are asking what defines greatness and who defined it. Instead we generally assume that things are in museums because they are great and that what these works are celebrating is greatness.

    Much of what is in museums celebrates domination and violence, kings, rulers, and warriors, conquest, and the rape of women. Museums can be another way of celebrating dominant views that are or have been harmful to many. Sigggghhhh

    In this regard the penchant for celebrating war and warriors in our public spaces might also be questioned, but this is the moment to question monuments that celebrate white supremacy, and we must say in no uncertain terms that they must be taken down. And I do hope that few of them will be placed in museums where it is likely that they will continue to do their “dirty work.”


    1. I feel in this post my own sort of jerk and pull on this topic – I posted a piece which I put in my response to Elizabeth below that draws me to examine my own position. But I am committed to continue to do that. What I do think a museum offers is a platform for discussion. Many museums and the people dedicated to their missions want to reveal truth and not simply uphold dominant narratives…in these kind of spaces shifts can happen maybe not more or less than in public spaces but in a different way…


  2. …and while they are “toppling” statues perhaps we Americans should seriously consider taking down all statutes and shrines to the most notorious of them all

    Margaret Sanger

    Who “created” Planned Parenthood to genocide the black race

    Ms. Sanger considered black people “weeds” and wanted to “exterminate” them

    And spoke on stage at many KKK rallies

    Perhaps Margaret Sanger’s Planned Parenthood facilities should all be shut down due to her racism!

    Confederacy the Democrats

    KKK the Democrats

    As well as

    Jim Crow

    All Democrat doings…

    And politicians such as

    Senator Robert Byrd (KKK member and Hillary Clinton mentor)

    Lyndon Johnson

    Woodrow Wilson

    To name just a few {racist} Democrats

    Heck…even Bill Clinton used the Confederate Flag on his Presidential campaign buttons


    It’s not just “white culture” that needs to be examined for hatred and racism but rather the culture of the

    DemoKKKrat Party


    1. From Wikepedia, Margaret Sanger
      Work with the African-American community

      Sanger worked with eminent African American leaders and professionals who saw a need for birth control in their communities. In 1929, James H. Hubert, a black social worker and the leader of New York’s Urban League, asked Sanger to open a clinic in Harlem.[75] Sanger secured funding from the Julius Rosenwald Fund and opened the clinic, staffed with black doctors, in 1930. The clinic was directed by a 15-member advisory board consisting of black doctors, nurses, clergy, journalists, and social workers. The clinic was publicized in the African-American press as well as in black churches, and it received the approval of W. E. B. Du Bois, the co-founder of the NAACP and the editor of its magazine, The Crisis.[76][77][78][79] Sanger did not tolerate bigotry among her staff, nor would she tolerate any refusal to work within interracial projects.[80] Sanger’s work with minorities earned praise from Martin Luther King, Jr., in his 1966 acceptance speech for the Margaret Sanger award.[81]

      From 1939 to 1942 Sanger was an honorary delegate of the Birth Control Federation of America, which included a supervisory role—alongside Mary Lasker and Clarence Gamble—in the Negro Project, an effort to deliver birth control to poor black people.[82] Sanger, over the objections of other supervisors, wanted the Negro Project to hire black ministers in leadership roles. To emphasize the benefits of hiring black community leaders to act as spokesmen, she wrote to Gamble, “We should hire three or four colored ministers, preferably with social-service backgrounds, and with engaging personalities. The most successful educational approach to the Negro is through a religious appeal. We don’t want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.” New York University’s Margaret Sanger Papers Project says that though the letter would have been meant to avoid the mistaken notion that the Negro Project was a racist campaign, conspiracy theorists have fraudulently attempted to exploit the quotation “as evidence she led a calculated effort to reduce the black population against their will”.[83][84][85]

      Liked by 6 people

  3. Thank you, Stephanie, for writing about such a timely and important subject. Charlottesville is only an hour or so west of Richmond where I live. A couple of years ago there were rumblings in Richmond about taking down the Confederate statutes that decorate Monument Avenue, a lovely promenade in the city. Since the events in Charlottesville, that talk has escalated. The mayor, Levar Stoney, has recently come down on the side of removing them. It’s always been interesting to me to watch how history unfolds–the forces that are present that steer society.



  4. “…as Ayers remarks, they stand to mean exactly what Mayor Landrieu called them: “symbols of white supremacy and white power.”

    Indeed they do.

    The US has sanitized it’s history to the point of absurdity. If we were the kind of people we say we are, we would not have a president in the white house who is a white supremacist. Period. Who we are is determined by the choices we make.

    Excellent, thoughtful essay, one that I hope will stimulate more of this kind of thinking.

    I can recall so vividly my first visit to Iquitos, Peru in the 90’s where I would be taking a boat up the Amazon to work with indigenous healers. I was struck immediately by the huge statues of Spanish men on powerful horses that were stuck all over the city. An indigenous city. A poverty stricken city, full of Indian peoples. Where were images of the Native peoples I wondered.

    It’s the same story everywhere. We see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear and no more.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for this thoughtful post. The idea of viewing the statues in historic context is interesting. My daughter is finishing a degree in museum studies at L’Universite de Montreal. She did an internship at the Museum of the Holocaust in Montreal and wrote her thesis about the politics of museums, what is displayed, how and why. Museums can serve or challenge the status quo, just as any educational institution can. There are not many jobs in her field, but when she finds one, you can be sure my daughter’s contribution will be radical, challenging and liberating.

    While I read your post, I saw a vivid image. What if the statues to confederate leaders were not removed but monuments that tell the other side of the story were erected alongside them? Monuments to those who suffered the middle passage, who lived and died as slaves, who were terrorized under Jim Crow and its modern, ongoing equivalent everywhere. What if our whole denied and suppressed history was on display in the public square, the genocide of native peoples as well as slavery? Michael Moore’s recent film documents Germany’s commitment to teaching and making visible the history of the Holocaust. We could do the same. It is time for this nation’s history to come out from under the rug where it’s been swept from the beginning.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Elizabeth. I really appreciate this response. It’s concurs with some of the themes that come up in this piece from yesterday: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/i-detest-our-confederate-monuments-but-they-should-remain/2017/08/18/13d25fe8-843c-11e7-902a-2a9f2d808496_story.html?utm_term=.74528a3e2e41&wpisrc=nl_opinionsA&wpmm=1

      I think my core point and value – despite what the actual action amounts to – is a commitment to challenge and change the dominant narrative.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I myself have no real feelings regarding these statues, but then again, I’ve never really been forced to consider them. They’re just there, public furniture that pigeons poop on and maybe mean something to a family somewhere. But when they are being used as a convenient political prop, or an intended “eternal” reminder that certain people in certain areas will never be good enough, then I have a problem.

    I do think it’s strange that there are Confederate heroes statues all around the South. I mean, it was a war and you had the Union and the Confederacy. The Union won. The Confederacy was null and void. I mean, if you go to Euorpe you don’t see Hitler statues and Nazi monuments everywhere–those things got destroyed by the Allies and even many Germans who finally could tear them down. Colonists before and during the American Revolution ripped down statues to King George III–they didn’t keep them up to remember him by. If these statues were put up because Confederate soldiers were dying, why? What was so necessary to remember? That’s the question I really want to answer.

    Something is odd to me about this clinging to southern culture thing, around things that stemmed from an overtly racist, slave time. I never felt comfortable about that, and never could understand it. But part of me–when it comes to these statues–wonders if we’re missing out on a teachable moment by tearing them down. I’m a history major and most people I know couldn’t even name what states were part of the Confederacy. Give it another generation or two and they’re going to confuse it with the American Revolution en masse (plenty of kiddos do because nobody talks about it). The statues being up are a moment, a doorway.

    But I wouldn’t mind an alternative I’ve heard before–take the statues down (and if there’s an inscription on the base, explaining who or what it is, leave it there). Then, put a marker up near it a few feet away explaining why the statue is gone…I think that would be a powerful moment, too, and it’s been done in a few places. I don’t think constantly “whitewashing” or “PC’ing” history is the best answer. We need to understand why things happen or happened, not just say that they did and move on. Stuff like that is probably why this is biting us in the butt right now.


  7. Thanks for writing this post.

    Do y’all know about the “sundown laws” of some Southern and border states? Black people had to be out of town by sundown, or else they’d probably be lynched. I taught in a high school in one of these towns in southeast Missouri in the 1960s. I can’t remember for sure, but I don’t think I ever saw an African American person in that town, day or night. The statues there were Catholic saints and (I think) Martin Luther. Now I sit here hoping the town displays no more hate.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks for this very thought-provoking essay, Stephanie. I do, however, lean more toward the type of action that Elizabeth Cunningham describes above: “What if the statues to confederate leaders were not removed but monuments that tell the other side of the story were erected alongside them? … What if our whole denied and suppressed history was on display in the public square, the genocide of native peoples as well as slavery?” I do not think that simply removing the statues is going to solve anything at all.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Darla. I think I wrote this in one of my replies…but I really liked this suggestion as an option as well. It opens up many avenues of discussion and experience, an alternative to the risk of compartmentalization of the statues’ removal.


Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: