This is a response to an article published in The Bagpipe on October 5 titled, “Confederate Statues: Heritage or Hate?” The article comments on the recent removal of certain Confederate statues and the controversy surrounding those removals, specifically the neo-Nazi protest in Charlottesville which resulted in one death and 19 injuries to counter protesters. The article’s thesis, to quote from the text itself, suggests that since “the Civil War was a complex conflict in a deeply divided nation,” that statutes “like those of men like Robert E. Lee, should remain” because they represent men who “fought out of a sense of love for their state.”
However, there are a couple deeply troubling misunderstandings of art history here. First, it is important to note that whether or not they admit it, the author of this article is under the influence of Lost Cause ideology. Lost-Cause ideology is a nostalgia for an idealized view of the antebellum South. Those who view the Civil War through the lens of Lost-Cause ideology argue that the South’s actions during the Civil War, their rebellion and their beliefs about states rights, were honorable.
In other words, the author argues that the reason statues of these men were made is not because of racist motives, but because of southerner’s honoring their past, their state, their “heritage” as they put it.
However, from an art-historical point of view, those statues were made for pathetic and intensely racist purposes. Confederate statues started popping up in the 1890s, during the beginning of the Jim Crow era, up until the 1950s when the Civil Rights movement began. However, after D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” (1915), a revolutionary Lost Cause propaganda film, resurrected the Ku Klux Klan, the South began to alter how they viewed the Civil War.
White people, afraid of the “other,” that is, afraid of African Americans, Jews, and a rich variety of other non-white people groups, began to make monuments to defend their whiteness under the guise of honor. The statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson that we find in Charlottesville, for instance, were made in 1917 and 1921, respectively. At this time, the Lost Cause mentality pervaded the South. These statues claim to represent noble men for the sake of their nobleness and bravery. However, they really are looking towards a white utopia, devoid of the “other.” We know they sought this utopia because this is the basis of the Lost Cause mentality. What was lost will be found. The South will rise, and whites will reign supreme, they’ll make it great again (though they never stopped to think maybe it was never great).
Also, I find it problematic that the author of the article, in an attempt to show that Lee and other southerners weren’t racist, quotes Lee saying, “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil in any country.” But later in the same document, a letter to his wife written in 1856, Lee says, “The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race” (italics mine).
Lee viewed slaves as a project. He believed he had the responsibility of discipling them, civilizing them, and making them more like white men. (an impossible task). Does that sound like someone with an “honorable” view? Hardly, especially considering that Lee owned slaves. Lee is also noted as being particularly cruel towards slave families, separating them from each other, an uncommon practice at the time. He could not have cared less about the lives, or even the humanity of African Americans. The myth of Robert E. Lee’s noble heart is a despicable cultural fable invented to give white southerners a sense of security in a man who did not exist.
To return to art, part of the reason Southerners view Lee as such an honorable man is because of how we have chosen to portray him. Take again the Charlottesville monument. Here Lee is an icon of the ideal Southerner: the rustic strong man, made of bronze, straight-backed on a horse, echoing leaders like Napoleon. Culturally, this is how white Southerners chose to make Robert E. Lee look: stoical and unmovable. It suggests that, despite the South’s defeat, the ideology of Lee will remain unmoved.
These statues assert white cultural dominance. And with a president who sees fault shared between neo-Nazis and counter-protestors, it appears these statues are achieving their goal. We must educate ourselves on the true history of these statues to prevent both conscious and unconscious racism. Statues are just one small but pervasive way racism weaves throughout American culture. Perhaps by starting the conversation here, we can move on to even more pressing examples of American racism in the future.