“The Daily Progress is the sole daily newspaper in the vicinity of Charlottesville, Va.” This opinion/letter is provided by Max Weiner of Middletown, Ct. Do you agree with his opinion?
In the years since I left Charlottesville for the Northeast, the question “Where are you from?” has become far more difficult to answer. The rather exculpatory response I used to give went something like this: “Charlottesville. It’s in Virginia, but not the backwards and racist ‘real Virginia’ you’re assuming. It’s very progressive and accepting.”
But when your friends then Google Charlottesville, and the images that appear are of torch-burning white supremacists rallying around a Confederate monument, this answer no longer seems truthful.
By now, rather than continuing to whitewash my depiction of Charlottesville, I have taken to offering a more nuanced view. It is, I say, a town with a top-ranked university, delicious restaurants, an exceptional music scene, and a historical patriarch who wrote the Declaration of Independence.
But it is also a place that deifies a racist who grew rich on the labor of his slaves, wealth then used to found the cherished university. It is a place that sought to continue this system during the Civil War, and later erected monuments to the men who fought and died in the pursuit of enslaving others. And it is a place that participated in the institutionalized racisms of schools, laws, and economy that have permeated America, and particularly the South, during the last 150 years.
So, let us concede to the alt-right, and leave standing the statue of Robert E. Lee in downtown Charlottesville, but let us do so in a way that is conscious of the flexibility of symbols. As with any work of art, the meaning of a monument is not fixed by its creator’s intentions. It changes with the shifting values of society over time, and by the setting within which it is contextualized, as argued by Sanford Levinson in “Written in Stone.”
Instead of living in an imagined utopia sanitized of its past, Charlottesville should put a large plaque on the statue bluntly explaining how Lee fought to enslave African-Americans and was not a hero, but a villain. An entirely new statue commemorating slaves from the city’s past (Sally Hemings seems an obvious choice) could even be erected across from Lee, or the statue itself added on to, in the subversive nature of “Fearless Girl” on Wall Street. But the statue of Lee should remain standing, not as a celebration of racism, but as a reminder of the shame that birthed a town.