Some see vandalism and desecration, others see art. The dramatic tagging of the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue might be giving some people distress, but it is giving me joy in the finest traditions of graffiti art.
Art that easily is accessible to the public, placed there outside the boundaries of the law, and ephemeral. It is an expression and celebration of people, making Lee Circle a more egalitarian shrine than an oligarchic one.
From the ancient graffito at Kom Ombo Temple in Egypt to the Banksy in the London Underground, like all graffiti art, the Lee monument tagging is screaming out, “I exist.” And for so long the Black people of Richmond were denied making this declaration.
If art’s job is to invoke emotion, the street art on the Lee monument does it with gusto. The powers-that-be refused to provide context for monuments commemorating generals and politicians of a repressive regime, so the people took the initiative and did it themselves.
Lee Circle has been transformed into an exciting place of change. Monument Avenue came alive this summer. It now is a place to assemble, reflect, mourn and rejoice. A place of young passions and old spirits. And the people have come.
In the past, unless there was an organized event, you seldom would see many pedestrians on Monument Avenue, and the crowd never would have been this diverse. Monument Avenue now is the property of the people who took it back. This public space now is for everyone.
The moving makeshift memorials to Black people who have been killed by the police and neighborhood watchmen that have sprung up around the base of the Lee Monument, I found as sobering and somber as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.
It was laying the dead at Lee’s feet as a legacy of slavery. This action was in the same vein as Union Quartermaster Montgomery Meigs in 1864 during the American Civil War when he picked Lee’s front lawn at his Arlington home, which became Arlington National Cemetery, to bury Union soldiers after the cemeteries of Washington and Alexandria had filled up.
These are a fitting tributes to Lee who, after all, it easily could be argued was responsible for more Civil War deaths than anyone else, since he resigned his commission with the U.S. Army to join the Confederates. With Lee’s military talents and leadership on the side of the Confederacy, he was able to prolong the war and thus accelerate the death toll on both sides.
Lee now is the lone Confederate on Monument Avenue, with his days possibly numbered and plans to saw up the oversized statue into three pieces so it could be moved and reassembled in another setting. The statue’s fate is pending in court.
After years of rumblings to take down the Confederate statues in Richmond, it was the George Floyd murder providing the catalyst to end the 130-year reign of these statues.
But in the end, it was just a hard sell to Richmond, a modern, cosmopolitan city, that statues of defenders of slavery needed to stay up. Time took the old capital of the Confederacy onward, whether it wanted to go or not.
For Richmond, the possible last days of the Lee statue on Monument Avenue should be seen as a defining moment for the city as much as the American Civil War. It should be seen as a great awakening, a moment of exploding artistic and creative expression that should be honored and celebrated. Like a Christo and Jeanne-Claude installation it won’t last forever, but should be savored and cherished.
Penn Miller of Ashland is the author of the novel “Confederate Gold: A Modern-day Romp through the Civil War History of Richmond, Virginia.” Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org