A few weeks ago, while driving past West Main and McIntire Road, my 5-year-old daughter peered out the car window and asked who those people were on the statue.
“That’s Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea,” I replied.
No, she insisted. “There’s only two.”
Lamely, I offered the party line: “Well, you can’t see Sacagawea very well because she’s low down, but that’s because she’s tracking, because she was their guide.”
My daughter stared at me doubtfully. “Anyway, statues, usually, are mens” she concluded, definitively (she’s still working on her grammar).
While I attempted to explain, I found it striking, and a little funny, that what’s so obvious to a kindergartener should be the source of years-long debate among the grown-ups.
In short, who we choose to venerate in our public places sends a very clear message about who matters. Historical plaques cannot compete with heroic, life-sized figures mounted on enormous pedestals and elevated dozens of feet off the ground. Pretty obvious.
To that end, Kehinde Wiley, the artist best known for his presidential portrait of Barack Obama, unveiled a new bronze sculpture, “Rumors of War,” in New York last week. The 27-foot-tall statue is modeled on one of J.E.B. Stuart, in Richmond, but replaces the Confederate general with a modern-day African American figure, in streetwear and dread-locks—as Architectural Digest put it, “the contemporary anti-image of a Robert E. Lee.”
It will eventually move to the lawn of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, bringing it into conversation with Richmond’s infamous line of Confederate monuments. As a work of art, it’s provocative and visually arresting, even in photographs. And as a public statement it is hugely powerful.
Charlottesville is a much smaller city, and adding more monuments rather than removing the old ones isn’t necessarily the best answer here. But how delightful it would be to think this creatively, and expansively, about what we want to say in our public spaces.