Statues and Time Immemorial —by Jinny Batterson
Growing up in our long-generation family, I sometimes would hear an older relative talk about an attitude, custom, or monument that had been around since time immemorial. I figured the expression meant a very long time ago; rarely did I wonder what attitude, custom, or monument was under discussion. As we approach this year’s Memorial Day, I’ve thought a good bit more about what we memorialize, what we don’t, and how an aspect of human life continues to be remembered, even into “time immemorial.”
The past year or two has seen a lot of controversy about prominent memorials to Confederate soldiers and politicians. Most of these memorials were erected well after the end of the American civil war, not as a tribute to the sacrifices of ordinary soldiers, whose graves generally were elsewhere. Rather, the statues were strategically placed to reinforce Jim Crow segregation and to buttress attitudes and institutions of white supremacy.
During the decades when I lived in Richmond, Virginia, a former capital of the Confederacy, I got frequent exposure to several equestrian Confederate monuments along a mile or so stretch of expensive vintage homes on tree-lined Monument Avenue: J.E.B. Stuart, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson sat astride their mounts at prominent intersections. Near where I currently live, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is embroiled in controversy about the removal or contextualization of “Silent Sam,” a Confederate memorial statue erected in a highly visible location on that campus in 1913, funded jointly by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and UNC alumni.
Back when Stuart, Lee, Jackson, and Silent Sam were installed on their pedestals, I hadn’t been born yet, but I was around when Richmond debated placing a statue of African-American tennis hero and humanitarian Arthur Ashe along Monument a bit further west. After substantial controversy about the erection and placement of the Ashe statue, Richmond’s City Council eventually approved a Monument Avenue location. Sited at the corner of Roseneath Road, the statue was unveiled in 1996 on what would have been Ashe’s 53rd birthday. Ashe has no horse, but is standing on his own two feet, holding aloft a tennis racket in one hand and a set of books in the other. A group of four children gesture eagerly toward him. Ashe had given permission for the casting of his likeness shortly before he died in 1993 of complications from a blood-transfusion-acquired AIDS infection.
During recent decades, statues of several former dictatorial leaders, including Lenin, Stalin, Moammar Qaddafi, and Saddam Hussein, have been toppled or destroyed as their regimes or dominance came to an end. Will any of these leaders be remembered centuries or millennia from now? Will they instead share a fate outlined in Shelley’s romantic poem about a fallen monument to Ozymandias, “king of kings”?:
“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
If, eons from now, earthlings continue to create and honor statues, my bets for meaningful reminders are not on the cruel or despotic, but rather on heroes of sportsmanship and learning like Arthur Ashe.