For the past four Sunday afternoons, I’ve walked along Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, to observe firsthand the changes happening to the statues of Confederate generals placed there a century or so ago. I focus here on the Robert E. Lee statue. Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) “…was an American Confederate general best known as a commander of the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War” (Wikipedia). These days, Lee’s statue seems to be home base for activists who are working diligently to keep protests and demonstrations ongoing, yet peaceful.
Most of what I see and hear from those visiting the statue reflects a longing for marginalized people—especially African-Americans—to be fully included in our country, much of which was built by means of their enslaved labor. Some people are angry about the destruction of property. “What good does that do?” Or, “This [graffiti] is ridiculous.” Once I heard, “I’m a fourth generation Richmonder and they have no right to do this to my city.”
Some white people seem to have no idea that the recent demonstrations did not come out of a vacuum. Black people have always been systematically shut out from full participation at every level of society in the U.S. Inferior neighborhood schools, gerrymandering, and redlining are but three of those ways.
Dr. Phil has often said when a “rebellious teenager” is invited to his show: “I don’t question WHY you do the things you do. I ask myself ‘Why not?'” So often these “rebellious teenagers” carry the burden (become the scapegoat) of their dysfunctional family. The same thing is happening on a societal level right now. What some people call “rebellious rabblerousing behavior” is but a symptom of the dysfunctional structure and nature of the country. I am not a Dr. Phil fan. I find him paternalistic and often condescending—especially to women. However, I think he does have a pithy wisdom at times. What he does best is to hold up a mirror to society, enabling us to see and reflect on what’s happening at various levels.
So, regarding all the protesting and demonstrating going on these days responding to the murder of George Floyd (and so many other Black people), I don’t ask, “Why,” I ask “Why not?” BLACK LIVES MATTER. Historically, Black lives have NOT mattered. How is it that so many Black people are murdered and the larger society takes little (or no) note? At the same time (and in another vein which is another essay perhaps), I see from my particular social space that some white people (especially “woke” men) understand the injustices Black people endure and often will work towards rectifying the situation, but put that “understanding” (and work) on hold when it comes to the space women inhabit in patriarchy. For starters, behold all the “domestic violence” deaths–women killed by their husbands, partners, and sometimes just random men.
What follows are some of the pictures I’ve taken on my pilgrimages to Monument Avenue. (I’ve also included two fotos taken by others.) It’s only a small sampling of scenes, but I hope it throws some light on, not just the changes happening in Richmond, Virginia, former capital of the Confederacy (1861-1865), but what has become a much-wider movement.
John Biggs, a drone photographer, took this foto of the Robert E Lee statue. The aerial view gives a unique perspective.
Photo of Robert E. Lee statue at ground level.
Back of Robert E. Lee statue showing placement of a couple of memorials to the many Black people killed by police.
My son will not be your victim!!
The hope is that this son will not grow up being a target, nor a victim, of systemic violence.
One of the 34 memorials I counted surrounding the base of the Robert E. Lee statue.
Remembrance is a holy act.
Two children playing on Robert E. Lee’s statue. Reminds of the lyrics in the musical “South Pacific.” “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made and people whose skin is a different shade. You’ve got to be carefully taught.”
Parents reading each of the 34 memorials and explaining them to their 4 children.
Woman reading from a Bible at the base of Robert E. Lee’s statue. Her mask is printed with the American flag.
This man is armed to the hilt wearing a hat saying, “I Can’t Breathe.” The woman reading a Bible at the base of Lee’s statue and her (presumed) husband approached this man, asking where he purchased his guns. The armed man was reluctant to talk to them until they told him they were considering buying guns to protect themselves. The armed man then dispensed a wealth of information—cost and firepower of his weapons. In a side note, it took me a while to realize those garter-like bands he’s wearing below his knees are gun holsters. Initially, I thought they were some kind of orthopedic device for pulled tendons or ligaments!
Daniel Sangjib Min, photographer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, took this picture—June 26. This is Harriet Tubman (d. 1913), abolitionist and political activist, projected onto the Robert E. Lee statue at night. She is one of the images put there as people envision justice making inroads into our country.
Dustin Klein and Alex Criqui have created a slideshow, also projecting images of George Floyd and 46 other people killed by the police in recent times.
Text on the inside of the barricade surrounding the Robert E. Lee statue. “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” James Baldwin (1924-1987), an American novelist, playwright, essayist, poet, and activist.
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.