Public art and monuments can influence the collective narrative. They can provoke new possibilities or perpetuate old systems. They can impact identity and self-perception. Today I am reflecting on the public art of the When Women Disrupt tour and on Confederate monuments, including Asheville’s own Vance monument.
When Women Disrupt was “a tour of street art and activism through the southwest region of the United States from artists and activists Tatyana Fazlalizadeh and Jessica Sabogal, along with filmmaker Melinda James.” From May 23 – June 5, the artists traveled from California, through Arizona and New Mexico “to install small and large outdoor pieces that challenge racism, sexism and xenophobia.” I found this tour immensely inspiring. These women boldly used public art to inspire pride and to push back against the forces of oppression. I would love to see something similar happen in Asheville. Click here to see a series of photos and videos from their tour.
As we consider what we see around our cities, we must address the issue of Confederate monuments. As you probably heard, New Orleans has removed four such monuments. Mayor Mitch Landrieu gave a moving address at the dismantling of the fourth, the Robert E. Lee memorial. Click here to read a transcript of the address, or click here or below to watch a video o f it.
Excerpt: “These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.
After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city.”
Chiming in on the debate that is now raging about the removal of monuments, writer Clint Smith tweeted, “The idea that removing a monument is a ‘denial of history’ fails to consider how the monument itself was built to *be* revisionist history” and “Taking down a Jefferson Davis statue isn’t going to erase Jefferson Davis. But keeping it up in reverence erases what he actually stood for.”
For me, the most powerful part of Landrieu’s remarks was, “Another friend asked me to consider these four monuments from the perspective of an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city. Can you do it?
Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too?”
Locally, the Asheville Citizen-Times recently published an editorial by Mark Essig entitled, “The Advance Monument: A proposal for Asheville’s Vance problem.” In it he shares some of Vance’s history, quotes Mayor Landrieu’s speech, and proposes a name change for the most visible of the five Confederate monuments downtown.
Related, there has been movement locally advocating for the creation of a monument in the center of town celebrating the contributions of African Americans in Asheville. In addition, there is work being done in historically African American neighborhoods throughout the city to create historical markers in those areas. As Landrieu said, “And unlike when these Confederate monuments were first erected as symbols of white supremacy, we now have a chance to create not only new symbols, but to do it together, as one people.”
I must note that Essig is white, and that I saw comments online from African Americans in our community (including City Council candidate Dee Williams) stating that the focus needs to be on undoing the disparities that exist in our community, and that the discussion about the Vance monument is a distraction from the crisis at hand. For it is a crisis.
Ideally, we would dismantle systemic oppression and rectify the damage it does in all areas with all of the resources at our disposal immediately. Our public art and monuments are part of the system. I do believe that the current monuments in the center of our city, and who is and is not honored by them, send a message that the powers that be are content with the status quo. The status quo we must disrupt.
To be continued.
Also of note:
Marisol Jimenez is going to be on the panel for WLOS TV’s “# Town Hall: The Immigration Impact” next Wednesday, June 14 at 7:30 pm in the Virginia Boone Building at the WNC Ag Center. To request tickets to this free event, email email@example.com. This is sure to be a contentious conversation, I plan to be there in support of immigrant rights.
Racial Purity and Dangerous Bodies
Warren Wilson College professor has just released her book, Racial Purity and Dangerous Bodies. “At the center of contemporary struggles over aggressive policing practices is an assumed association in U.S. culture of blackness with criminality. [The author] examines the religious and philosophical constructs of the black body in U.S. society, examining racialized ideas about purity and pollution as they have developed historically and as they are institutionalized today in racially disproportionate policing and mass incarceration.” She also “shows how the anti-Stop and Frisk and the Black Lives Matter movements have confronted these systems by exposing unquestioned assumptions about blackness and criminality.” Click here to order the book.
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