Friday, June 26, 2015

Changing the heads on the statues

David Brooks wrote his NY Times column about the "Robert E. Lee Problem."  I rush to add that for me, there has never been a Robert E. Lee problem.  Asked to write a precis of a poem about Lee when I was in high school, I refused.  The teacher wanted me to say that he was a great man, but I refused to do that either.  What is about being a "courtly" person that excuses leading the fight to preserve slavery?  I really appreciated David Brooks' point that Lee's father-in-law left his wife 196 slaves to be emancipated on his death but Lee did not emancipate them.  That's two strikes against Lee -- he ignored last wishes and he kept people in slavery -- and there's a third -- he was an officer trained at West Point but took up arms against his country, otherwise known as treason.  So I do not have a Robert E. Lee problem, but David Brooks is right to point out that "we" have a Robert Lee problem in that some people, this includes my English teacher, think Lee was a really nice guy.  Brooks proposes a kind of compromise -- keep some, get rid of others -- arguing, "This is not about rewriting history. It’s about shaping the culture going forward."

It has certainly occurred before, that statues once venerated have been toppled.  It doesn't ensure that the problem symbolized by the stature is actually addressed.  In essence, the map is not the territory.  This is a key issue for Main Street because the street is such an important site of symbolic conversation.  Recently in Orange, a new building owner decided that the historic gargoyles were causing her bad luck so she had them chopped off, much to my dismay.  I don't know how her luck has fared but I know that the symbolic conversation on the street is different.  Similarly, somebody decided to put up a mural of black woman jogging.  She is heroic in proportions -- is she meant to balance the great white soldiers that stand guard up and down the street? Is she running towards them or away from them or just for her health?  If it's just for her health, why does she have that scary look on her face?
Running Jane on the YWCA, Main Street, Orange NJ

This is just to say that Running Jane changes the symbolic conversation -- but how?  Have we simply added another heroic character without changing the lives of the vulnerable?  Have we possibly made it worse by signaling it's safe to jog and therefore safe to gentrify????

It's not the flags or heads on the statues that are the problem -- it's the nitty gritty stuff, like paying a decent hourly wage and investing in all neighborhoods and making sure all schools prepare children for the world of work in the 21st century.  

The real "Robert E. Lee Problem" is that he wanted to be able to own people and not pay them for their labor.  People can't be owned -- ok, that's taken care of -- but they also can't be deprived of good pay for good work.  We have a lot of work to do on the substantive issues.  

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