Not even past: Race and commemoration in a southern city
This work focuses on four racially-charged controversies over commemoration in Richmond, Virginia: battles over a statue of Arthur Ashe, a 30-foot banner of Robert E. Lee, and two holidays: Lee-Jackson-King Day and Confederate History Month. I argue that the cultural forms that comprise commemoration can either exacerbate or reconcile existing racial divisions. It is not just the content of the past, but also the techniques through which it is represented in the present, that explain the success or failure of commemorative activity.
After tracing the evolution of causal narratives about the Civil War, I analyze how political elites use historical narratives to shape collective identity, using Confederate History Month as an example. Addressed to specific audiences, official commemorative proclamations create boundaries and function to include and exclude groups from the larger collectivity.
I next explore the concept of failed commemoration. While the literature on collective memory generally avoids labeling commemorations as failures, preferring labels such as “multivocal” or “fragmented,” sometimes memorials divide rather than unite, silence audiences instead of creating dialogue, and eventually vanish from the commemorative landscape. I create an understanding of what makes memorials “work” (genre, narrative, grammar and form) and then use this conceptualization to specify conditions under which failure is probable. For example, although at times combatants in Richmond categorized their objections to memorials as resting on aesthetic grounds rather than racial divisions, they nonetheless relied on established and racially exclusive conceptions of art to frame their arguments.
The struggle to integrate the commemorative pantheon is also linked to the concurrent struggle for inclusion in the economic and political life of the community; commemoration is inextricably tied to business development, money, opportunity and tourism.
While commemoration is supposed to create and/or reflect a collectivity (or at the minimum, give the illusion of one), it can reveal and intensify existing tensions. The struggle to maintain the commemorative status quo, on one side, and to revise it, on the other, is therefore not just a struggle over powerless symbols—it is a conflict about the racialized ideological, political, and economic structure on which modern commemoration sometimes founders.