Controversial statues: Should they stay or should they go?

As a student at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, Arizona State University English Professor Natalie Diaz remembers seeing the Robert E. Lee monument every time her basketball team traveled to play the University of Richmond Spiders.

“I have a complex relationship with monuments,” said Diaz, now a world-renowned poet. “Most monuments I'm aware of attest to conquered people and lands, including my people.”

The Robert E. Lee monument, erected several decades after the Civil War to commemorate the Confederate general, was recently removed following more than a year of protests for racial justice. Also removed from the monument’s base was a 133-year-old copper time capsule containing artifacts and ephemera related to the Confederacy. Among the items included in a new time capsule that will take its place is a copy of Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Postcolonial Love Poem.”

“When my old basketball coach Wendy Larry texted me to tell me the Virginia governor's office was trying to reach me, I had no idea what they might want. When I found out they were taking the statue down, it was close to my birthday and felt like a lucky birthday present,” Diaz said. “It was a great energy to be a part of removing that statue and seeding something new in its place; a little piece of respect and love for the land, which is what I consider the poem to be.”

Debate around the removal of memorials and monuments that honor people and ideas whose messages and causes are considered offensive to certain marginalized groups has been a hot-button issue of late in the national conversation. ASU Associate Professor of English Kathleen Lamp, a historian who specializes in the rhetoric of public art, including memorials and monuments, said such controversy is as old as time.

“Iconoclasm is not new; it’s been going on for thousands of years in different circumstances,” Lamp said. “Basically any time a new government or regime or religion comes in, stuff gets torn down, temples get sacked. What that signals is a shift in power.”

In the modern-day case of the removal of U.S. monuments that many argue commend white supremacy and colonialism, the shift in power could be seen as from those who deny the racist overtones of such structures — or who maintain that some monuments have historical or aesthetic value worth preserving — to those who embrace a national culture of inclusion.

“I grew up seeing hundreds of small stone and bronze markers along our desert roads telling us about the great white Americans who passed through or ‘discovered’ the great West or our mighty Colorado River,” said Diaz, who was born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California. “And I also grew up hearing stories from my family or reading in archives the terrible things those men did to my people.”

ASU News sat down with Lamp, whose current scholarship focuses on the classical influence on U.S. public art, memorials and monuments, and how those sites guide understandings of citizenship and civic participation, to learn more about the issues at play in this ongoing dialogue.

Note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: Why do we have monuments and memorials? What purpose do they serve in society?

Answer: We have to distinguish what kind of monuments we’re talking about. Monuments of people – statuary – I think come out of a tradition of imitation. The idea is, this is a statue of a civil leader, and they are someone whose virtue or deeds we’re meant to emulate as citizens. We’re holding them up as a model of civic identity, of what the rest of us should be doing. It’s also important to distinguish statues from records of history, because that’s not what they’re about. They’re models of civic behavior that we should all strive to. We see this in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol. When it was founded, there was a lot of discussion about how it was important to have representations of leaders of civic virtue in the space where our current leaders are, so they have an example to strive for.

Q: What can you tell us about America’s history with monuments and memorials?

A: My first book (“A City of Marble”) was about the Roman emperor Augustus and how he used the built environment to shape civic identity at a time of great change for Rome. I got more interested in the U.S. history of monuments when I started to look around and wonder where all the neoclassical buildings came from. In particular, a lot of our civic buildings — our courthouses, our state capitals, even our public squares and parks — are in the neoclassical style.

The reason for that was a movement called City Beautiful. It started in the 1890s with the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The architect Daniel Burnham was a leader in the movement; he went on to do the McMillan Plan for the National Mall in D.C. But I think what’s so interesting about the City Beautiful movement is that it controlled public spaces in a very specific way, and it was ultimately a movement about assimilation, and a movement that came out of a real concern about immigration.

During this period, ethnicities we now consider to be white — Irish and Italian, for example — were not considered to be white. And there was a real concern about assimilating these immigrants into … you can call it Americanization, but what it really was was an assimilation into white, Protestant culture. There was the thought that these immigrants needed to be turned into productive workers, and that concern is where a lot of our public spaces come from.

Squares with statues of ostensibly virtuous civil leaders at the center often came out of the City Beautiful movement. This time also coincided with the creation of many Confederate monuments, though they were coming from a different set of concerns. Confederate monuments were put up in response to Blacks getting more rights, as a kind of a backlash. Starting with the Reconstruction, we see them being used as a way to control public spaces and maintain white supremacy alongside other things like lynching, controlling school curriculums, etc.

Q: Why is the removal of statues such a fraught topic?

A: What we choose to memorialize speaks to our values as a society, and often, certain populations are excluded entirely from that. I think in general in this country, statues have held up a very white, male virtue. They often depict political leaders, but more often military leaders. ... When we get into Confederate monuments specifically, again, they were purposely put up at times when Blacks were beginning to gain more rights as citizens, and very often, they were erected in public, civic spaces, often on courthouse lawns, specifically to let Black people know that even though, legally, they had more rights, those rights wouldn’t be upheld there. Following the murder of George Floyd, I think we started to see a broader recognition of how statues in civic spaces can exclude certain people.

Q: How do we decide what stays and what goes?

A: That’s such a complex issue. There’s one school of thought that says communities should be the ones to decide. That if monuments embody community values, then it should be a community decision. I think the problem with that is that the balance of power in communities can be really problematic. When we’re talking about the Lee statue, it’s a really good example of what can happen when there is disagreement in the community about what its values are. The Lee statue had been designated a historic monument, so people thought that would protect it from removal, but the governor of Virginia said, no, we’re taking it down.

What you got in the interim before that happened was a kind of a battle over community values. The statue was defaced, there was a lot of graffiti that dealt with defunding the police, and there are some incredibly powerful images that were taken during that time, some of which are going into the new time capsule. And that’s so important, because future generations will see those images of self-representation of groups that have traditionally been excluded from these monuments making a statement about how colonization has affected them, or how they have survived and are resilient.

Ultimately, as far as who gets to decide, I think activism is what gets it done. When activists deface statues, ultimately what they’re doing is forcing the city’s hand so that they either have to put money into restoration, which doubles down on whatever message that monument is sending, or they can just remove it. Activism forces a reckoning with what our values are.

Q: Are there any monuments that, even though they send a message most agree is now outdated or harmful, should still be kept as a kind of reminder of what not to do, or what we have overcome?

A: There’s certainly a school of thought that says so, that maybe they could be taken out of civic spaces and put into a museum where they can be recontextualized. But that’s incredibly problematic. Then you’re asking museums to do a lot of work they don’t want to do and maybe shouldn’t be doing. I also think it gives credence to the kind of exclusionary work that they already perform. Personally, I think there are other ways to remember our racist history as a society. I think what you see with the Lee monument and this new time capsule is a good example of how we can handle that. It’s a different use of the space, one that recognizes the damage done by colonialism and that values self-representation of people of color and Indigenous people that have previously been excluded from such spaces. So to me, if statues are performing this work of showing us what we most value as a society, once our values change, no, we shouldn’t keep them. I don’t think there’s any value there.

Top photo: The base of the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond, Virginia, after his statue was removed from atop it. Photo courtesy of Getty Images/iStockphoto

Emma Greguska
emma.greguska@asu.edu