News & Features » Miscellany

The Lee imbroglio teaches us the power of images and the need to understand other people's point of view.

Myth and History

by

comment
In the wake of the floodwall controversy, the historian doesn't know whether to rejoice that some people still care passionately about history, or to weep over the way many of those people turn the past into comfortable myth.

I've read many authoritative-sounding pronouncements about Robert E. Lee in the last few weeks, but few that get even slightly beneath the patina of myth and stereotype. It's true that General Lee said he personally found slavery morally objectionable, but he also wrote that the institution should be allowed to dissolve in God's own time — perhaps in another thousand years. Some have noted, correctly, that had Lee's great skills won the Civil War for the Confederacy, slavery might have lasted for another generation.

Beyond that, Afro-Southerners might not have been granted citizenship in their own country to this day. That happened as a result of Lee's defeat, and even then was largely revoked by the white South once it got the chance.

And some people wonder why African-Americans can't "loosen up" when it comes to Confederate nostalgia!

Robert E. Lee did not hate or mistreat blacks, but he considered them intellectually inferior to whites and admitted before a Congressional committee after the war that he would be happy if Virginia's black population left the state and migrated to the Deep South. Robert E. Lee wasn't a Hitler; neither was he a racial egalitarian or an opponent of slavery in any active or practical sense. He represented some of the best qualities of his time and place, yet he was also enmeshed in the injustices of the society he lived in and actively defended.

Another fascinating bit of history that's being ignored in the current debate, by the way, is the very fact that the controversy over memorializing Lee has a long history. How many people know that John Mitchell, editor of the Richmond Planet — a newspaper serving the African American community — vociferously criticized the colossal inauguration of the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in 1890? It's far from unprecedented, then, for some citizens of Richmond to question the rites of Confederate remembrance.

In today's version of that old debate, one hears people asking whether hanging General Lee's portrait along the Canal Walk is "historically appropriate," or "offensive." The problem is that it's both.

Including the picture as one element in a historical display is justifiable. Whatever one's personal opinion of the man or his cause; he played an important role in the history of Richmond, of Virginia and of the United States. Nobody waxes nostalgic over the evacuation fire or the flood of 1969, but no one denies that those images are important enough to deserve a place in any display of the history of Richmond and its waterfront.

The real lessons we're learning here, though, are not about the history of the Civil War; rather, they're about the cultural history of the late 20th century.

The first lesson has to do with the power of images — and the continuing influence of newspapers, which some tend to write off as the news medium of the past. Robert E. Lee's portrait was only one of many pictures being hung on the floodwall. But it's the one the Richmond Times-Dispatch chose to run on its front page. And so that particular portrait instantly became not one small element in a grand design, but rather a — maybe the — leading image of the canal project in the minds of readers, including City Councilman Sa'ad El-Amin.

The second lesson of this affair concerns the lamentable lack of empathy many of us display toward the other fellow's concerns. It's a shame — though it's predictable — that many white citizens don't understand why some African Americans are uncomfortable with the image of Robert E. Lee. To those who grew up admiring Lee as a man and as a symbol, it appears that the Canal Walk protesters are begrudging them even this modest recognition of a past they revere.

But the black citizen — and the white Richmonder who cares to notice — sees a city already overflowing with monuments, institutions and artifacts that immortalize Lee. One of the most prominent of these — the new Lee Bridge, which could easily have been renamed upon its opening — was erected by a black-majority city government in what would appear to be a remarkably open-minded gesture. So that same African-American citizen may well wonder now how many more recognitions of Lee will be added to the lot, and why devotees of Lee believe they're being robbed of their heritage when the whole infrastructure of Confederate commemoration remains intact and prominently on display in Richmond.

As for Councilman El-Amin, mentioning Lee and Hitler in the same breath hardly encourages others to weigh one's point of view seriously or to reexamine their own assumptions.

Whether historians or the community should decide what to do at this point is a non-issue, because neither historians nor "the community" have any prospect of making such a decision.

The typical professional historian is a hard-boiled realist who doesn't expect most of the public to listen to him or her. Several fine, judicious historians both black and white were consulted as the floodwall murals were conceived — yet their approval and their reasons for it have had next to no influence on the debate that has followed. Instead, that debate has revolved around gut feelings on both sides, however understandable some of those feelings may be.

Indeed, both sides in the argument misinterpret or ignore the role of historians in this drama. Both seem to think that Lee's portrait was hung as a tribute to its subject. By contrast, historians themselves feel called to depict and interpret history to the public, not to propose saints for canonization or to submit implicit nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize.

"The community" will not decide this issue, either. Instead, those on every side who feel strongly enough to invest time and apply pressure will create political facts that will help push the final decision in one direction or another.

Avoiding controversy ranks high in the job description of professional civic boosters — such as those who oversee the Canal Walk. Sa'ad El-Amin understood that axiom perfectly and used it to get the result he wanted, at least in the short term. That's how politics works; that's what politics is. Councilman El-Amin was also smart enough not to overplay his hand. Last I heard, there were still at least four slaveholders' portraits hanging undisturbed on the floodwall, and the two boats named after slaveholders that are plying the canal itself continue to enjoy smooth sailing. The ultimate decision about the Canal Walk will be the one that promises to ruffle the fewest additional feathers. I'm betting on a compromise — maybe replacing some or all the portraits with depictions of scenes and events rather than of individuals.

The newly appointed peacemakers will seek a solution that's innocuous. The historian can only hope they manage to find one that's not also insipid. That historian — ever ready to grasp at straws — may also feel some relief that so many people clearly disagree with the Richmonder who told the daily newspaper, "It doesn't mean anything; it's just history."

Perhaps, too, this dispute can generate some real two-way dialogue and even encourage a few people to study seriously the history they argue about so vehemently. But that, I wouldn't bet on.



Melvin Patrick Ely, professor of history at the College of William and Mary, is a native Richmonder and the great-grandson of a Confederate veteran.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

Add a comment