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Cape Town, South Africa
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  • Ellen Bassett

Monuments and White Supremacy

While Covid19 has dominated our lives in 2020, the convergence of the pandemic with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) resurgence following the murder of George Floyd has been alternatively inspiring, exhilarating and, from time to time, terrifying. (See blog post on Portland 2020.)

In Charlottesville, the city in which I live for the majority of the year, BLM has been quite closely connected to the issue of Confederate monuments. I grew up in Ohio and Michigan—and I have occasionally joked that living in Virginia has been the second most foreign place I’ve lived after East Africa.

While I am not inured to racism and certainly know its corrosive effects (I grew up in metro Detroit after all), the symbolism of white supremacy and its intent to intimidate is relatively new to me. Charlottesville has a number of “Lost Cause” statues in the city (and the state of Virginia, apparently, has the largest number of any Southern state.) These statues of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, J.E.B. Stuart, etc.—and a vote by our city council to remove them (in our case just Lee and Stonewall)—was, of course, the proximate cause of the infamous “Unite the Right Rally” which resulted in the tragic death of Heather Heyer and the injury of many.

For me, perhaps not surprisingly, the statues that most irritated me personally were the statues of western conquest. I have not had the experience of being a black person in America, but have read a lot about northwestern (as in Northwest Ordinance) and western history.

At a very prominent intersection, Charlottesville has a statue of Lewis and Clark—hence linking my two “homes’ of Virginia and Oregon—which highlights heroic white men (Lewis and Clark, of course) and a shirking Sacajawea. (See image below from a great, soon to be mentioned, UVA Today story.) Now anyone who has read anything about Corps of Discovery (alas, Stephen Ambrose did apparently plagiarize) knows that she was hardly hiding behind white dudes. In fact, she is a big part of why they survived and made it to the end of the Columbia River, only to endure what must have been a really miserable, rainy winter in Fort Clatsop. I’ve lived in Portland and winter can be rough—I can’t imagine surviving Astoria.

The second statue that also garnered my initial attention is located (at least for now) on UVA’s own grounds—the statue to George Rogers Clark. (Yep, a relation). This shows GRC on triumphal horseback menacing Native Americans. Even way back when I was a kid, we were given a lot of background on Michigan’s indigenous populations, particularly the Ojibwa, and this depiction just struck me as an extraordinarily inaccurate portrayal. (We, of course, all read “The Song of Hiawatha” in junior high/middle school.)

But my negative reaction to these statues is, of course, nothing compared to how our African American community members feel when confronted by the statues of those who labored to keep people enslaved, namely Lee and Stonewall.

What I have learned over the years in Charlottesville is these “Lost Cause” statues installed in the 1910s and 1920s are mere physical manifestations of systems of oppression and intimidation that operated for decades (really a century) after the end of the Civil War. A colleague at UVA, Christian McMillan, has written a really terrific essay examining the Native American statues and weaving them to a larger story of oppression. Read it here at:

What is fun to see is how the fight to remove statues has unfolded. The change in Monument Avenue in Richmond is something I would not have predicted a decade ago. And it is catching on: Cecil Rhodes, the ultimate racist colonialist, was decapitated in Cape Town in mid-July. See below!

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