Public Figures and the State

The topic of monuments and memorialization of historical events has become a point of contention, leading to violence in Charlottesville, VA. During the “statue debate,” the fact that many Civil War-related statues were erected long after the war, in the early 20th century, was brought up in several articles. This fact might leave one to ponder, what was the intention of honoring Confederate military leaders in the early 20th century?

In Jena Osman’s book, Public Figures, she examines the monuments and statues of Philadelphia, exploring each statue’s literal “view” on the city as well as the embedded history within their creation and placement. As the book progresses, including photographs of various figures, the common theme remains (unsurprisingly) of militarism and pride in the state. Regardless of the historical context of a statue, whether it be a Civil War soldier or a replica of a classical Greek statue, weaponry including guns, swords, spears, and grenades are attached to the hands and arms of these iron men. Many are dressed in military uniform, differentiating them from the civilian life of the passersby.

Is the bellicose nature of these statues misplaced in common areas, such as the market, the park, post office, or public library? Osman ponders what we do and do not notice as we move about our lives. Does our oblivious walk past such statues parallel our nation’s ability to ignore the deadly work of our military and indicate an implicit acceptance of our country’s violent history?

The violent response to the proposed removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville left many wondering what such statues mean, what is their value? Some in Charlottesville have described the Robert E. Lee statue as overlooking the city, placed at one of its highest points. One might wonder: What message is being sent to the African American community of Charlottesville? Why is this community expected to accept a Confederate general looming over their daily lives?

When you next find yourself in a public space, take a look around at the monuments and art placed there. Ponder what the intended message is. Are their different messages for different communities? Could the work be intimidating to some?

To learn more about Public Figures, check out our Reader’s Companion. Teachers might find these classroom exercises useful.