Monuments, Looking, Lynching and Gender

In the past week,  the ubiquitous Confederate monuments have suddenly become visible as monuments to genocide and white supremacy. It’s important to continue to show their systemic role in making and sustaining white supremacy. In particular, the monuments form a network that connects seeing, unseeing, lynching and gender in ways that I for one had not previously understood. 

seeing and unseeing

The sheer numbers are astonishing. Over 13,000 Civil War memorials. 700 Confederate monuments on public land, including Arlington National Cemetery and the US Capitol. Statues of Robert E. Lee at universities like City College, New York, and Duke. That’s a system, an infrastructure of white supremacy that has been hiding in plain sight across the US. Now begins the process of learning to unsee the unseeing of them.

But the statues were always watching. In the Vice documentary on Charlottesville, one African American woman comments that the statue of Robert E. Lee seemed to watch her wherever she went. The monuments are racialized CCTV, placing those designated “not white” on notice that white supremacy is watching.  They materialize the mystical power of “oversight,” once embodied in the plantation overseer, and now part of segregated public space.

material mourning
Ad for the McNeel Marble Company in 1913, peak of the monument boom

The monuments convey that power not by artistic skill or visual creativity but by sheer mass. These were mass-produced objects, made by companies like McNeel Marble. They had massive height and weight. When Louisville, Kentucky, decided to take down its monument, nearby Brandenburg put it back up. It’s 70 feet tall, 100 tons of granite and now re-mounted on 80 tons of concrete. In and of itself, this materiality dominates. By its simple presence it makes a statement as to who “counts” in America, who is grievable, and who is not.

Via the monument, the materialized power of (over)sight forms specific sites within the matrix of white supremacy. Take the thirty-four foot high monument in Pensacola, Florida, paid for by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) in 1891.  At the time, the city was majority African American. It had been been captured from Native Americans and free Africans by Andrew Jackson in 1817.

Confederate Monument Pensacola, FL

The monument dominated the local landscape when first installed (as in the 1907 postcard above). A year later, Leander Shaw, an African American man accused of assaulting a white woman, was lynched nearby. Over 2000 bullets riddled his corpse, after he was hanged from an electric pole (yes, there’s a picture; no, I’m not posting it). When the local high school was “integrated” in 1975, a race riot ensued and attracted a major KKK rally to the monument.

In the past week, the mayor has called for it to come down, only to meet determined opposition from the local Republican congressman and a 5000-signature petition. Which in turn generated 2300 signatures supporting removal (possibly to a nearby cemetery). Now a weekend rally has been called in support of the monument.

Here, then, is a metonymy of what these monuments stand for: the conquest of Indigenous populations; the subjugation of African Americans; white supremacy and the myth of white womanhood; the former Republican “Southern strategy” of electoral domination; and now the metonymic conflict over the monument.

the site and sight of lynching

In other cases, as in Brooksville, Florida, and Hot Springs, Arkansas , lynchings actually took place at the site of the Confederate monument. Take the case of Caddo Parish, Louisiana. It was the second largest site of lynchings nationwide. In 1903, the UDC put up a Confederate monument. Six months later, three people were lynched at the site on November 30, 1903, from the tree visible in the photograph below.

Caddo Parish Confederate Monument. Three men were lynched here in 1903 from the tree.

A typical “Silent Sentinel” monument, the Caddo Parish example is thirty feet tall, dominating its locale. The woman in front represents Clio, the muse of history and the inscription reads “Lest We Forget.” The site could better serve as a memorial to Phil Davis, Walter Carter, and Clint Thomas, the lynched men.

In general, it’s noticeable that there is a rough correlation in the incidence of lynchings and the numbers of Confederate monuments.

Tuskegee Institute table of lynchings per year.
SPLC chart of Confederate monuments per year

Both “peak” in the decade after 1890, as Jim Crow became fully established in the South, with an upturn again in the 1920s with the revival of the KKK. I do not think that the monuments “caused” lynchings or vice-versa. Rather, both were interactive instruments of violence in instituting and sustaining white supremacy.

This interaction can be called the “sight of lynching.” As in the case of Leander Shaw, many lynchings resulted from the testimony of white women, often without other evidence. In the common instance of “reckless eyeballing,” (which I’ve written about here) the accusation was that an African American person had looked at a white woman with sexual intent, as in the case of Emmett Till.

There is, then,  a relay to be explored between the oversight materialized in the Confederate monument; and lynchings based on embodied perceptions of being looked at. The white gaze was at once surrogated through the monument and expressed as the power to remain unseen (in the case of the monument) and unseeable (in that of white women).

What was both seen and unseen was the spectacular and appalling violence of lynching. In 2018, the Equal Justice Initiative will open the Memorial to Peace and Justice, the first prominent memorial to the 4000 victims of lynching. Yet as many exhibitions and publications have shown since the groundbreaking Without Sanctuary exhibit (2001) [caution: very distressing images], lynching itself was intensely mediated. There were postcards, photographs, newspaper stories and public events. Nonetheless, only one white man was convicted of lynching in its eighty-year heyday.

white mythology

Further, the Confederate monuments were, as has been widely noted, often paid for by the UDC or other Confederate women’s organizations. Fundraising for the Pensacola monument was failing until the UDC became involved. Perhaps unexpectedly, white women’s activism made the network of monuments possible. Women are even active in today’s white supremacy movement, despite its visible misogyny.

In her 1952 memoir, UDC leader, Dolly Blount Lamar claimed that the monuments expressed:

in permanent physical form the historical truth and spiritual and political ideals that we would perpetuate.

This “truth” was very specific. When a historian at the University of Florida expressed the view in 1911 that

the North was relatively in the right, while the South was relatively in the wrong

members of the UDC drove him out of his job. When we hear the call to respect “history” on all sides, it is such falsified and white supremacist history that is at stake.

segregation forever

These monuments remain active today. One instance of the work they do for white supremacy is to act as “border” markers in segregated cities. It’s not just in the former Confederacy that this happens. The statue of the appalling J. Marion Sims, who performed medical experiments on enslaved African women without anesthetic, does this work in New York City today.

Statue of Marion Sims, 103rd St NYC

To the North of Sims is so-called “Spanish” Harlem, a diverse area of Black and brown people, dotted with housing projects and schools offering free meals to anyone under 18. South is Central Park and Museum Mile, where white people play whiffle ball and look at the monuments of white “civilization.”


I have not been to the mountain top. I do not know what comes after white supremacy. I continue to be engaged in the work of anti-antiblackness which means negating the regime of white supremacy by making the monuments and the work that they do visible: and thereby removable.

All The Monuments Must Fall #Charlottesville

In the aftermath of the white supremacist terrorism at Charlottesville, all the monuments must fall. The murder of Heather Heyer was prompted by the proposed removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. These statues are material nodes in the network of white supremacy.  They  are the visible form of the established order of racial hierarchy. No longer “unseen,” they are active and violent in and of themselves. The work of decolonizing has been by-passed and now it has returned with a vengeance. Taking our cue from South Africa, they must now fall. When I first wrote this post on Sunday August 13, it was in hope. That Monday, August 14, people in Durham, North Carolina, came to the same conclusions (entirely separately, as far as I know) and pulled down the Confederate memorial in their town. It’s on.

Durham NC August 8, 2017. Photo: Derrick Lewis
seeing the unseen monument

The Charlottesville statue in question is a 1924 equestrian monument to Robert E. Lee designed by Henry Merwin Shrady and finished by Leo Lentelli. Shrady, a New Yorker, had designed the Washington DC memorial for Ulysses Grant. His statue of George Washington is in Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn. In the 1996 application to place the statue on the National Register of Historic Places, no historical claim relating to the Civil War was made. Rather, the work was held to be an

important art object that exhibits the figurative style of outdoor sculpture produced by members of the National Sculpture Society

Which is to say, it’s not that important, really, as a sculpture. It has no historical value because it was not made in the period in which its subject was alive and the artists had never met Lee. As a work of art, it is derivative, and in poor condition. Other, better works by Shrady remain in place.

Shrady & Lentelli, “Robert E. Lee” (1924)

The statue was dedicated in 1924 after three years of organizing by the KKK in the area. The ceremony was organized by “the Confederate Veterans, Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy.” Lee’s great-granddaughter pulled away a Confederate flag to reveal the sculpture. And then the sculpture began its work as part of the unseen operations of enforcing consent, what Frantz Fanon called “the aesthetics of respect for the established order.” Military ceremony is key to these aesthetics, as are these usually “unseen” monuments, testifying here to the naturalizing of white supremacy.

the whiteness of statues

Consider the statue in itself. Formally, the sculpture evokes that of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations were one of the books Lee took with him to war. The 1895 US edition was dedicated to Lee by the English translator. Trump’s defense secretary Mattis also carries the book with him. White nationalism sees itself as embodying the legacy of Rome. The violent polemicist Richard Spencer has even imagined Trump’s regime as a new Roman Empire.

Statue of Marcus Aurelius

As so often, there is also a racist dog-whistle here, made visible in the film Django Unchained–the purported unlikeliness of an African American riding a horse.  The statue is intended as a portrait of Lee’s horse Traveler. It marks the dominion of whiteness over both inferior races and non-human “brutes.”

Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained

Other than Lee’s name, the statue has no contextualizing or historical information. The content of the statue as an art work is thereby expressed through its form. It is, to use the American semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce, only loosely indexical because it was made from illustrations and photographs. While Lee may be a key figure in the Confederate imaginary, the sculpture is not iconic in the strict sense that it shares qualities with Lee. It is strongly symbolic, not of Lee as a person, but of white supremacy.

That whiteness is both overwhelmingly visible and not present. Statues have been used in polygenic natural history for two centuries. In this now-discredited view, there are multiple species of humans, who exist alongside each other in a ranked hierarchy. At the top, as illustrated Julien-Joseph Virey’s Natural History of Man (1801) were Greek sculptures, representing whiteness.

Virey, Types of the Human, 1801.

This idea was widely circulated in the United States and was used extensively in pro-slavery positions.

In the past, I’ve made fun of this, pointing out that no actually existing whiteness can be found, only statues. But now I see it differently. Classically-influenced statues can be found across the Atlantic world. They form a material network of whiteness, one of its fundamental infrastructures. Whiteness does not adhere to any particular aspect of these sculptures but rather to the entire monument.

In the case of Lee, there was a debate as to whether the base of the sculpture was sufficiently large. At the unveiling, a speaker agreed but said:

Let it stay that way. The planet as a pedestal would be too small for Robert Edward Lee.

“Whiteness,” said Du Bois two years later in 1926, “is ownership of the earth for ever and ever, amen.”


It was only after the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012 that local people began to ask questions, leading to the base of the statue being tagged “Black Lives Matter” in 2015 (still visible in the photo). Earlier this year,  young African American Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy led a movement to remove the statue, despite a persistent campaign of harassment led by Justin Kessler, who also organized Unite The Right.

The resistance has been persistent, first legal and now violent. For the statue is doing new work.  The Trump administration is dominated by white nationalists (Bannon, Miller, Sessions) and generals (Kelly, Mattis, McMaster). Monuments like Lee’s naturalize the connection between the extreme right between white supremacy and war.  This articulation has reached a new degree of tension in the unlikely conjuncture of North Korea and the murder of Heather Heyer. At all costs, it must not become naturalized.

Replace us

So far more is at stake here than the classification of a second-rate sculpture.

Dem Deutschen Volk. Photo: Wikimedia

On my first visit to Berlin some years ago, I went to the Reichstag. I’m of Jewish descent and so I was startled to see the racialized inscription Dem Deutschen Volke (The German Race) still in place. It gave me some sense of what a person of color might feel when confronted with a statue like that of Lee. At that time, I thought to myself: “We’re still here, you lost.” On Friday, white supremacists at the University of Virginia chanted, as if in response: “Jew Will Not Replace Us.”

The slogan was coined by the fascist website The Daily Stormer, which translates the title of the Nazi propaganda sheet Der Stürmer. In the chants, “you” and “Jew” were interchangeable, just as “us” also stands for US. The replacement of the statue by “you” (the racially inferior from African Americans to Jews and more) was understood as a challenge to be resisted by force.


What, though, if anti-fascists took “replace us” as a challenge? Not “replace white people,” because many of us are white. But the statues. It’s time to say “all the monuments must fall.” Because it’s the form that sustains white supremacy, not just the individual objects.

While some people are not able to engage in the street contestations, many academics, artists and activists–the kind of people I imagine might be reading this–know of such monuments in their cities and campuses. It’s time to take action against them not as individual “works” but as a class–these are violent and dangerous objects.

Putting them in museums is not in and of itself a solution. The Elgin Marbles are the epitome of classical whiteness and colonial power. No British government has imagined returning them to the empty museum that awaits them in Athens. To do so would be to finally end the colonial imaginary in the UK. Or at least admit that it was time to do so.

There would have to be a new way of displaying these immense objects in the circuits of power, knowledge and aesthetics that sustained the established order of white supremacy, without accidentally allowing the statues to continue to do that work.

In Germany, I do not remember seeing any statues of Nazi-era generals or politicians. There was a minor rehabilitation of the Nazi sculptor Arno Breker in the 2000s  and now US neo-Nazi websites have posted extensive galleries (caution: highly offensive website) of his work, including a portrait-bust of Hitler. In other words, these things are hard to contain.

Any such action would be an expansion and extension of the #Fall movement in South Africa that began with the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the University of Cape Town and expanded to defeat the government over proposed tuition increases in #FeesMustFall. Now the agenda is to decolonize the curriculum.

Still from Metalepsis in Black (2016)

In following the South African lead, those of us who are identified as white and/or as intellectuals need to heed a warning. At the end of the challenging 2016 film Metalepsis in Black about #FeesMustFall, a Black South African student speaker (above) castigates those academics and intellectuals who write about the movement but do not participate. She says:

It’s no longer good enough to write…It’s time to take bolder action…We do not need your sympathy, we need action, real action.

statues are falling

The Durham activists heeded that call. They did not hear it directly. When there are social movements, they create a counter-power that has its own “common sense.” In Durham, that lead to direct action. So far, no one locally appears inclined to criminalize it. In Lexington KY, the mayor has directed that Confederate memorials be moved to a site where they can be repurposed. Let there be diversity of tactics. But recognize that it was direct action that created the possibility of that diversity.

Fallen Statue. Photo: Amy Ruth Buchanan

The statue brought down in Durham was also dedicated in 1924, at a time of “unprecedented growth” for the Ku Klux Klan in the state. I suspect the national Klan resurgence in the 1920s sparked a wave of such memorials. Whereas the Charlottesville statue had some B-list claim to artistic merit, the Durham one is far more interesting fallen than it ever was on its pedestal.

Yet no sooner had the statue fallen, than certain elements on the white left began decrying the action. So once again: the Fall movement does not erase history, it reveals it. In this case, we are learning that Ku Klux Klan activism created and engaged with the 1920s Confederate memorials, which I at least did not know before. If these statues are not “just” in defense of white supremacy but in active support of the Klan, is there still a case that they should stand? Really?

The work ahead is not limited to the former Confederacy by any means.

Robert E. Lee memorial, Brooklyn, NY.

Here’s a memorial to Lee on General Lee Avenue in Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn, NY. The Army has consistently refused to change the name, and did so as recently as last week. It might be time to ask again in whatever way necessary.

There will be retaliations, as there were in South Africa, by white nationalists, like the attack on Boston’s Holocaust memorial yesterday. Already we’re seeing the so-called “respectable” Republican right trying to cauterize its connection to white nationalism. Partly they want to isolate and undermine Trump and partly they know that being on the side of Nazis and Holocaust memorial vandals is not acceptable, even to whites that go along with dog-whistle anti-blackness. So this assault raises issues for those identified as white.

When statues fall, it opens the way to re-thinking the infrastructures of racial hierarchy, as we saw in South Africa. Rhodes Must Fall became Fees Must Fall became Decolonize. Here the intersectional issues of reparations, the abolition of mass incarceration, respecting the treaties with Indigenous nations are both clear and seemingly far from being attainable. When I look at the three young African Americans in Durham raising Black Power salutes next the fallen Confederate statue, they suddenly seem a little closer.



For The Abolition Image #GrenfellTower #PhilandoCastile

Here we go again. A killer cop acquitted. Migrants and people of color in London dead in a completely preventable inferno. And still they come–cops kill a Black woman with mental health issues in Seattle. A “white” English man drives his  van into a crowd of Ramadan worshippers. The images are terrible.

Again, we must learn. It’s not enough to “see” what happened or to call for “changes.” It is, as it has been for so long, time for abolition. Of the police and the “real” (meaning “royal”) estate they defend. The “people” are the necessary product of the sovereign image, its excluded other. Which has nothing to do with actual people.

Abolition images make subjects who are not subject to the rule of others but have subjectivity. And that subjectivity is rooted in their mutual knowledge of others, human and non-human. It creates power,  not to dominate but to enable. More exactly, these images convey and contain the potential for that movement to occur. They do not cause such kinetic happenings but can participate in them.

Not icons. Not history (paintings). Abolition.

abolition history

You will perhaps be skeptical, and rightly so, for have we not been here before? Many times, yes. Can we learn from this repetition compulsion? History says not. Sometimes there is a virtue to being ahistorical and trying to live in a present not wholly circumscribed by the nightmare. That present has many names, even recently: Tahrir Square. Black Lives Matter. And anywhere where abolition is the agenda.

But that history, though. Twenty years ago, another Kensington resident died and the people came out on the streets in their thousands for her. Nothing will ever be the same, it was said. Tony Blair said, “the people’s princess” and those who were called the people settled for that and got nothing more from the death of Diana.

It could have been the moment to carry out the task set for us by Foucault, “to cut  off the King’s head.” Not the head of the person called the king but the head of the King, Kingship, and Majesty. Subjection, in a word. Without that abolition–whether there is a person called the king or not–no liberation is possible.

The sovereign image is the icon, the image that is the very thing it depicts. So the icon of a Christian saint “is” the saint, because we have never ceased to believe in magic. Here’s the risk–it’s easy to make icons and the “people” like them. Diana the icon, England’s rose, queen of our hearts, delivered the country to Blair and the war in Iraq.

Abolish royal estate
Grenfell Tower before refurbishment

Grenfell Tower must not become an icon. Its power is stark and clear in each and every image I have seen. In a terrible irony, its Brutalist architecture now stands freely. What we saw previously was not what was designed by Clifford Wearden and Associates in the 1960s. Mrs Thatcher’s government had already set aside the 1961 standards proposed by Sir Parker Morris in favor of “densification.” Then new flats were added on the ground floor that had been open. The result was 120 families inside the Grenfell with only one stairway.

After the redesign in 2014

What burned was not the concrete structure but the neo-liberal “cladding,” designed by architects Studio E and contractor Rydon Construction. What should also burn is the shiny illusion it represents that there is opportunity for all, that wealth trickles down, that there’s no racism here.

What must not be allowed to happen is to make the site sacred and pass just a limited set of bureaucratic modifications–banning the (apparently already banned) cladding, putting in sprinklers, and the like. It’s not that these things shouldn’t be done but that they are window dressing the dynamic that underlies “royal” estate-based capitalism worldwide.

This ownership incarnates colonial sovereignty and makes it possible for a corrupt financier of such capital to be elected to the US presidency. Abolition has always been about land from the demand of the Haitian revolutionaries for small-holdings to the US call for “forty acres and a mule” and the {r}evolution in Detroit.

Black Lives Matter tweeted today: “Today is #Juneteenth, honoring the June 19, 1865 announcement of the abolition of slavery. And today we take back land and reclaim space.” It’s still abolition time.

That is to say: abolition is to decolonize; which is to create a relationship of power, knowledge and subject. And that is to be done by creating space, liberating land and ending colonial domination. Since 1492, there has been a convenient fiction that it is possible to apply Roman law to the entire planet for the benefit of those with such sovereignty. Or to put it more simply, this “law” allows the colonizer to claim unused land as their own. The colonizer says, “in my view, you’re not using this land, so it’s mine now. Go away.”

Khadija Saye. “Dwelling” (not to be used commercially)

It is, then, shattering to remind ourselves that the young Black British artist Khadija Saye, who died in the Grenfell fire with her mother Mary Mendy, had produced a stunning set of work with the title: “Dwelling: in this space we breathe” (2017). Her series of tin-types were decolonial because they addressed Ghanaian knowledges in ways that are not transparent to outsiders. Because she worked collaboratively with Almundena Romero to make the pieces. Because the work does not limit power to the human. And because it knows that life is living breath together, not dead capital or royal estate.

A tin-type is one of the oldest low-cost forms of creating a permanent image from light-sensitive materials, using wet-plate collodion on tin (rather than the more expensive glass). The tin creates mysterious and unpredictable patterns, imbuing the plate with non-human agency. The spiritual practices–not known to me–that Saye depicts as her subject are, then, of a piece with her materials.

And yet the title of the series cannot but open this work to the Black Atlantic world.The tin-type was a form that formerly enslaved human beings had used to capture their likeness. From the top of the Grenfell where she lived and worked, Saye could see the Westfield Mall in Shepherd’s Bush, where activists held a die-in, chanting “I can’t breathe” in November 2014.

i can’t breathe
Detail from the drawing of HMS Brookes slave ship (1783)

If there was ever an abolition image, it was (from the white side of abolition), the drawing of HMS Brookes. I’ve seen it twice this summer, oddly, once in Copenhagen and again in Lisbon. And what I noticed is that the first thing that I (and many others) usually say about it was wrong. The figures of the enslaved human beings are not abstracted at all. As you can see above, each figure is distinct and separate. Perhaps that’s a good place to start: that white people looking for abolition images are more often wrong than not.

The Brookes drawing makes it clear that not being able to breathe was a condition of Atlantic slavery (and indentured servitude). If it helped bring about the abolition of the legal slave trade, the drawing could not change that condition. Nor should we expect it to, it’s just a drawing.

History painting claimed to be that form. In this year’s now notorious Whitney biennial there was, in addition to that painting, one by Henry Taylor, depicting the death of Philando Castile at the hands of Officer Yeronimo Janez. Who was just acquitted on all charges.

Henry Taylor, “The Times They Are A Changin Not Fast Enough” (2017)

Taylor’s picture is a transposition of Diamond Reynolds’ Facebook Live video that I have written about at length here.  The painting is large scale, opening the small phone-generated image into the imagined space of History. It creates a greater sense of openness and space in the car than the video and withdraws Yanez’s gun so that it seems to be outside.

Most notably, it changes the deep red splashes of blood on Castile’s T-shirt into yellow and green drips that rhyme with the other colors of the canvas. For some critics, this move was “transcendent.” I’m not sure that transcendence was the artist’s goal here. Certainly, Reynold’s repeated invocation “Please don’t tell me he’s gone” implied that Castile has a spirit or soul.  But while that spirit can depart, can we transcend this scene? More to the point, should we?

History painting implies that shift into the register of the sacred and the sovereign.  The little patch of blue sky does open a space outside the killing zone of the car. Castile is not sovereign in human terms, although his posture might be taken to indicate that of the dead Christ in the pietà. Only here the fallen is supported not by the Virgin Mary but by the passenger seat.  Perhaps it’s too early to tell what Taylor’s work means. If it enters one of the temples of white “civilization,” aka a permanent collection, perhaps it can subvert the meaning of those quiet halls.

Outside, it was the fifty-third time Castile had been stopped. His luck just ran out in what is still a violent white supremacy and for all his practiced skill in addressing the gun, it still fired at him, as it will do eventually. Castile need not be made into an icon. He was just a good person, who helped children to dwell and breathe, remembering their allergies and taking care of them.


And so the time of abolition comes to be now. Or it should be.