The zeal of the iconoclastic subjects of Byzantine Emperor Leo III seems to have reawakened two years ago in the United States. The Greek origins of “iconoclasm” means “the physical breaking of idols.” In the United States, it means removal of Confederate symbols from public spaces all over the country, triggered by the spread of critical race theory and protests against police brutality. Richmond, Virginia, was the capital of the secessionist Confederate States of America during the Civil War (1861-1865). In mid-December, after being displayed for 130 years, Richmond removed the statue of General A. P. Hill, the last Confederate monument in the city. Since the remains of the Confederate general were buried beneath the statue, it was painstaking work. For the third time since his death in the final days of the Civil War, General Hill needs to be reburied.
The removal of Hill’s bronze statue is the final task of a two-year effort to erase all traces of the Confederacy from its former capital. Pressured by some Virginians who protested the destruction of history, local officials resisted removing all Confederate iconography in the city. But the woke tsunami and its doctrine of socially ostracizing cancellation was too much to overcome. The culture wars waged by two halves of an increasingly polarized country were on full display when workers began removing Hill’s statue on December 13. On one side were those who proudly wore Confederate symbols, and on the other were those that cheered the felling of the statue. When the conflict escalated to the point of violence, police were forced to intervene. Television cameras captured a scuffle between Devin Curtis and an unnamed Confederate supporter. “What does this statue represent to you?” Curtis asked his opponent. “Because it represents a lot of hate, brutality and pain to my people.” When tensions did not subside, the intersection where the statue once stood was closed to traffic for several days.
The clash over the Hill statue is more evidence that structural racism remains one of the most sensitive issues in the US today, especially when some persist in shouting supremacist slogans. The open wound that continues to fester in the country is especially raw in Richmond, as the statute incident demonstrated. Most city-owned Confederate monuments were taken down in the summer of 2020 in the wake of widespread protests over police brutality sparked by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The removal of Hill’s statue was delayed because his remains were buried underneath. A local funeral home has assumed responsibility for the remains until they can be reburied in a Culpeper (Virginia) cemetery, their third interment since 1891.
As the statue was coming down, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said: “Today marks the last day of the Lost Cause…” in reference to the American pseudohistorical negationist mythology that claims the cause of the Confederate States during the American Civil War was not centered on slavery. Stoney went on to say that he’s glad the city can completely turn over a new leaf. Descendants of A.P. Hill have sued to claim ownership of the statue that the Richmond city council wants to relocate to a museum with other uprooted statues, including one of General Robert E. Lee. Hill’s descendants want it placed at the cemetery where their ancestor will be reburied, claiming that the statue has served as the general’s tombstone for more than a century. In the meantime, the statue will gather dust in a warehouse.
The controversy over the last Confederate statue in Richmond is evidence of a persistent attempt to rewrite history that is further dividing the nation. Revisionist history in the US is nothing new, and started almost as soon as the Civil War ended. Many Confederate statues were erected in Virginia during the Jim Crow-era decades after the war. The Jim Crow laws were state and local laws enforcing racial segregation in the Southern United States. At the same time, the Lost Cause movement sprang up, claiming that the cause of the Confederacy was a just and heroic defense of states’ rights, and not driven by a desire to perpetuate slavery.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) believes white supremacists to be one of the country’s most serious terrorist threats, as demonstrated in May by a racist’s massacre of mostly Black shoppers in a Buffalo (New York) grocery store. Former president Trump’s recent contacts with white supremacists like Nick Fuentes may be an indication that they are gaining ground on the fringes of the Republican Party. Perhaps those that want Confederate statues removed just want to publicly demonstrate that their city has atoned for its racist sins and will no longer harbor symbols of slave oppression.
The iconoclastic battles in the US, Europe and Latin America are closely correlated with the growing efforts to repatriate works of art to plundered countries, mostly former colonies, and debates about cultural appropriation. These are all manifestations of culture wars that are little more than attempts to reinterpret the history of the victor in favor of the vanquished. Although some people equate attempts to erase history with the annihilation of the collective memory, more than a few are applauding Richmond’s latest step forward.
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