Robert E. Lee Gets a Makeover by Esther Nelson

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
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
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
Back of Robert E. Lee statue showing placement of a couple of memorials to the many Black people killed by police.


Picture of parents with sign, stating My son will not be your victim
My son will not be your victim!!

Young African-American toddler running around statue
The hope is that this son will not grow up being a target, nor a victim, of systemic violence.

Picture of One of the 34 memorials I counted surrounding the base of the Robert E. Lee statue
One of the 34 memorials I counted surrounding the base of the Robert E. Lee statue.

Picture of monument featuring "say their names" sign
Remembrance is a holy act.

Two children playing on Robert E. Lee’s statue
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
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
Woman reading from a Bible at the base of Robert E. Lee’s statue.  Her mask is printed with the American flag.


Picture of man is armed to the hilt wearing a hat saying, “I Can’t Breathe.”
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.

Categories: Activism, General, In the News, Violence, Women's Voices

Tags: , ,

16 replies

  1. I hope all will pardon my ignorance, I genuinely want to learn: Some non-mask-wearing (anti-science?) gun-worshippers are compassionate anti-racists?


  2. Every time I see one of these statues I want to throw up… the statements they make are all about power and conquest and white supremacy… ALL NON WHITE PEOPLE AND NON HUMAN SPECIES ARE BEING VISUALLY ASSAULTED BY THESE OBSCENITIES.

    Even in a small town like the one I live in peaceful demonstrators were met by armed idiots protecting their stupid statues – thankfully i wasn’t there –

    I could never had kept my mouth shut.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That statue is so much worse than I could have imagined. Old RELee is up in the sky with the angels and God the Father dominating over everyone and every thing.


  4. Esther, thank you for your sensitive and insightful witness in words and image!


  5. The 18th century had a Great Chain of Being with the patriarchal Abrahamic god at the very top. Right under him, angels, then men, then lions and eagles and other creatures that kings and warriors used to decorate their shields and castles. Down at the very bottom–women and mud. Everybody in every illustration that I can remember was, of course, white. I don’t think I ever saw an illustration with a black face–the slaves–in it. Yes, England, where this Great Chain of Being was created, had slaves, too.

    I agree that it’s long overdue that statues of Confederate generals and other slave owners be torn down. Also one of Trump’s favorite statues: Andrew Jackson. Does anyone else remember the Trail of Tears? That’s the route along which the Cherokee were driven during Jackson’s administration when they were chased out of their ancestral home in Georgia and sent to Oklahoma. Thousands of people died. (I went to college in Cape Girardeau, MO, a station on the Trail of Tears.) Yes, let’s pull down all those statues.

    Many thanks for your words and the photos. I keep hoping we’ll all wake up to the crimes committed against peoples of color. Brightest blessings to you for your post and to all the people in the photos. And everyone else. Except the gun-carrying people who would still own slaves if they could.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Barbara. The city of Richmond (right now) is working on removing those statues. (See my comment to Sara above.) At this point, am not sure how far they’ll get with it all. Some people are suing to keep the Lee statue in place.


  6. I find it funny how any other time, most white folks don’t think about the statues at all. I’ve been to plenty of parks and I like to observe and because I HAVE to read everything, I’ll read plaques and the like, figure out what’s what if I see a statue. Most of the time they don’t even rate a glance from anyone because they’re just part of the white noise of a park, the landscape. Maybe an obstacle for kids to use when playing tag or hide and seek. What will go there when the statues are removed? A few trees, a garden, some big boulders, grass… something will be there, something probably far nicer anyway.


  7. Good question: “What will go there when the statues are removed?” I’m staying tuned in! ;-)


  8. Thank you, Esther, for this piece. The photos were really powerful and tell the story in ways that words can’t. In Madison — the capital city in Wisconsin, where I live — two statues were also pulled down: 1) a female statue representing “Forward,” the state’s motto, that has also come to represent women’s rights, and 2) a statue of Col. Hans Christian Heg, an immigrant Union Civil War colonel who died fighting to end slavery. I’m having some difficulty with this event. On the one hand, I understand and support the rage of disempowered African-Americans who are calling attention to their situation by pulling these statues down. What we need are statues that represent African-Americans we want to remember. On the other hand, the particular targets of this anger didn’t deserve to be pulled down. One of them is important to me as a feminist and the other one should be important to African-Americans as well me, since he was an abolitionist who gave his life for African-American freedom. Now there are calls to take down the statue of Abraham Lincoln at the top of a hill on the University. Lincoln was not perfect when it comes to the history of African-Americans. But, please, knocking down the statue of the President who freed the slaves?!


  9. Thanks for reading and responding, Nancy. What’s happening in Wisconsin sounds odd to me with the removal of the statues you write about. I can tell you that here in Richmond, Va., voices and movements to take down statues of Confederate generals has had a long history. I’ve lived in Richmond and its environs for 40 years. This latest round of protests and demonstrations has effected the most change–taking down of three statues so far. Bottom line: More and more people do not want to see effigies of “leaders” who had no concern about people they oppressed. Monument Avenue in Richmond is a beautiful space with its trees and verdant lawn. But then, one needs to look at those many men on horseback as one travels along the beautiful road and see men who found “glory” in battle. Am sensing that we are more and more over that. Hoping so.


  10. I am deeply struck by the photos. And the symbolism of pulling down the statues is unmistakeable. These are desperate, amazing, strange and chaotic times. Thanks for this, Elizabeth Nelson.


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