Thursday, July 28, 2016

Richmond, Virginia and the evolving iconography of the Civil War

Visited Richmond Virginia on a hot humid day. It was a major slave market and the capital for the breakaway Confederacy. The city has a pronounced Civil War iconography. Along Monument Avenue there are imposing statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson. It is all honor and romanticized resistance; no sense of slavery. But at the far end of the Avenue, looking away from Davis, there is a more recent monument to the African American tennis star Arthur Ashe.

The dissonance continues in the Virginia Historical Society. After passing through huge paintings depicting Lee and his officers as bearded heroes looking resolutely onto a battle scene, the contemporary exhibition on Virginia's history takes an unflinching look at the race, class and gendered nature of the state’s evolution. While some rooms celebrate the white romanticized South, others deconstruct its racial, class and gender bias.

Richmond's urban landscape and institutional memory embodies the history of the South but also the complex and evolving and conflicting ways of understanding and dealing with this past.

Monument to Jefferson Davis (©John Rennie Short)