Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

It was a summer of outrage and pain. The weeks after the murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin and the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many other Black men and women, was a moment in the United States when veil that hung over the racism and white supremacy was ripped open and all the grief and anger tumbled out into the streets in mass protest. A history of oppression and a present heavy with generational burdens of inequity was laid bare. For Black and Indigenous, Latinx and Asian Americans, this is lived experience. For many white Americans, it was mirror held up to a country that is a democracy only to some.

The United States was founded on twin acts of colonization and slavery. The cost of liberty was violently displacing people from their native lands and building a country fueled by the economic engine of bondage. The architectures of settlement, expansion and extraction most visibly take the shape of governmental buildings with pedimented facades, plaques celebrating founding fathers, and bronze monuments set on stone pedestals. More insidious spatial markers are sprawling suburban developments that excluded anyone who wasn’t the most purist definition of white European, such as Blacks and Jews. Or the freeways erected as tributes to America’s postwar prowess for which poor neighborhoods were demolished in the name of urban renewal.

The Black Lives Matters marches across the country in the summer of 2020 and the ensuing national reckoning with race highlighted the dominating role monuments play in civic space. Demonstrators zeroed in on statues representing legacies of white supremacy and called for their removal: bronzes of Christopher Columbus, sculptures of Spanish Missionaries, and tributes to Confederate “heroes”. In early June, multiple statues in Richmond, Virginia, were toppled by protesters, including one of Confederacy President Jefferson Davis. Another Richmond monument celebrating General Robert E. Lee, who commanded Confederate forces in the Civil War, was covered in spray paint. The words End Racism, Defund the Police, AmeriKKKa, and Love layering over each other until the stone was hardly visible. Within days, Democratic Virginia Governor Ralph S. Northam issued orders for the 21-foot tall-sculpture on top of a 40-foot-tall base to be removed—an act of solidarity with demonstrators. Over the following months, more than 100 other Confederate monuments in the U.S. were removed or plans were made for future disassembly.

These actions inflamed President Trump and his supporters, who saw and continue to see the removal of monuments as an affront their privileged vision of America. “You don’t want to take away our heritage and history and the beauty, in many cases, the beauty, the artistic beauty,” the president told Fox News, extolling the artistry of the sculptures.

Contrary to what supporters extoll, Confederate monuments are not neutral keepers of history. They are symbols erected by small groups of people, most often white southern men and women, with the intent to exert power.

“History doesn’t fit inside a monument—we accept that as shorthand,” says Paul Farber of the Philadelphia-based organization, Monument Lab. “Monuments have participated in the construction of urban space. In the construction of cities, but also in displacement.”

The majority of statues were erected not directly after the Civil War in 1865 but following Reconstruction. This post-slavery period in the late 1870s through the early 20th century is marked by the proliferation of Jim Crow laws, which at state and local levels legalized segregation. This same time also saw the rise of urbanization, sparking mobility and agency amongst Black Americans. Given these opposing conditions, statuary of Civil War generals or soldiers was not solely commemorative, they were designed to reinforce racist beliefs and oppressive conduct in civic space. The Robert E. Lee monument in Virginia, for example, was erected in a former tobacco field in 1890, following a failed movement that brought Black and white workers together, further quashing efforts at solidarity.

Confederate monuments were also used to convey a Civil War fiction—that the fight was a heroic defense of states’ rights and not over the bondage of a people. “Confederate monuments offered a reading of the war that disguised but did not deny its origins in slavery,” writes architectural historian Dell Upton in his 2017 essay, Confederate Monuments and Civic Values in the Wake of Charlottesville. “They depicted the war as a tie, one in which whites on both sides emerged with honor and with principles intact, while slavery and African Americans were ignored.”

In our present moment, efforts to remove Confederate statues are combined with ways to reimagine commemorative markers, expanding who and what is celebrated and widening the definition, such as The Memorial to Enslaved African American Laborers at the University of Virginia, completed in 2020. Developed and designed by Höweler + Yoon Architecture with a team of collaborators including historian and designer Mabel O Wilson and artist Eto Otitigbe, the project acknowledges that the university founded by Thomas Jefferson, a slave holder, was a site of enslavement. Its circle of walls is engraved with the names of some 4,000 people who built and worked on the university campus.

The future of monuments, however, is not constrained to formal stone arrangements. The installation Reclamation: Space-Times by Philadelphia artists Camae Ayewa and Rasheedah Phillips of Black Quantum Futurism takes the form of an oversized Black grandmother clock. The project is on view this summer in The Village of Arts and Humanities’ park setting in Philadelphia as part of an exhibition developed by Monument Lab. Vistors are invited to add their own oral histories to the piece and describe past experiences of housing and public space, and envision new futures. It’s a monument that is neither permanent nor fixed in time, but rather evolving with each interaction.

“When you look out across the city, you don’t just think about the bronze and marble on high, you also think about houses, murals, projections, poetry, protests,” says Farber, citing Monument Lab’s ongoing work in neighborhoods and communities. “History lives among people.”