Over the years I’ve heard from many people who were upset that Confederate monuments still had a place of honor on courthouse greens and college campuses. Honestly, I never thought I would see the day when the idea of removing any of them would be taken seriously.  Now that day has arrived, because of Charleston, and Ferguson, and other tragedies that have begun to force us, as a nation, to connect the dots.

A colleague in New Orleans who works with public sculpture and monuments asked me to share my thoughts about the current debate there over four Confederate monuments in the city.  She asked, “Do you think they should be moved?  Who do you think should decide?”  Here is my response, which I am posting essentially verbatim in the hope that it might prove useful or thought-provoking to others who are struggling with the same or similar issues:

There are certainly many precedents for moving or destroying monuments, nationally and internationally.  Revolutionaries destroyed the equestrian monument of George III in 1776 in New York; a few fragments still exist.  The U.S. army destroyed the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, cheered on by most Americans.  Many of the same arguments used to defend Confederate monuments (“it’s our history”) would apply equally to Saddam in Iraq or George III in New York. Post-Soviet countries have done many different things to statues of Lenin, including moving them to statue parks or graveyards.  These are all examples of regime change where the usual arguments for preservation are suddenly thrown out the window.

Sometimes monuments are moved just because they have gone out of fashion stylistically.  Greenough’s statue of Washington in the national capital is a good example.  It stood outside the Capitol building on axis with the entrance for almost 70 years before being moved inside to the Smithsonian, not because of any problem with George Washington but because the statue had long been a laughing stock.

Some more direct precedents for the current discussion would be the two sculptural groups that framed the entrance to the Capitol building, both with demeaning representations of Indians, which were removed to storage in 1958 and have not been seen since.  Then there is Louisiana’s own “Good Darky,” which was erected in Natchitoches in the 1920s, removed in the late 1960s, and then resurrected on the grounds of the Rural Life Museum in Baton Rouge.

In general I lean toward preservation and reinterpretation, but I don’t feel dogmatic about it.  The Good Darky had to go for sure, and the Capitol groups as well. Probably Saddam too for that matter, though the way it was orchestrated top-down by the U.S. still offends me.

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for Confederate monuments, especially since the arguments to spare them almost always minimize in some way the enormity of the crime of slavery, and the lingering impacts of white supremacy on black lives.  If we could use these monuments to confront the issue of white supremacy head on, unflinchingly, then I would be in favor of keeping them for that purpose.  The problem with simply taking them away and putting them in storage is that solution doesn’t answer the purpose either.  However, at the very least, removing them sends a message that they are no longer honored, that their defense of the crime of slavery will no longer be misrepresented as valor.

Thinking about Lee Circle specifically, I might consider a compromise where his statue is removed and put in a museum (who really sees it all the way up there anyway?) but the empty column remains as a reminder, and as a focal point for creative temporary installations, dialogues, and reinterpretations.  I would get art schools and local museums and an array of community organizations involved to program the site. It might be redubbed “First Amendment Circle.”  But all that would take money and/or passion and a lot of thought and planning, which doesn’t usually happen in these cases because people are scared of possible conflict, or just unwilling to do the work.

The “who should decide” question is a tough one, because for me the who question can’t be separated from the how question, how should we decide?  The process of going to a city council is certainly democratic but also polarizing, not conducive to true listening and dialogue.  I’d much prefer setting in motion a bottom-up process of discussion, and seeing where it leads.  Ultimately this kind of discussion, if it had legs, would create the energy and thought necessary to do genuine reinterpretation, counter-installations, and other ongoing programming — to make the site meaningful once again, but in a radically new way.