What Our Monuments (Don't) Teach Us About Remembering The Past

Aug 23, 2017

As the debate rages over what role Confederate monuments do — and should — play in commemorating U.S. history, Jennifer Allen says we can learn a lot from Germany.

Allen is an assistant professor of German history at Yale University, and she specializes in something called memory politics.

She also attended the University of Virginia, located in Charlottesville, where violent clashes earlier this month over a statue of Robert E. Lee brought this debate back into the national spotlight.

The way people understand history, Allen says, is constantly evolving. And the discussions about monuments and the Confederacy, she says, are an opportunity for the U.S. to reimagine its relationship to the past.

We talked with Allen this week about why the objects we use to remember history are so meaningful and what the experience of Germany can teach us. Here is an edited version of our conversation.

You were a student at the University of Virginia. What were your feelings about the Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville back then?

I'm embarrassed to admit this: I lived just down the street from the Robert E. Lee memorial and I must have walked past it dozens of times and never gave it a moment of thought. Incidentally, not four blocks away from that, there is another monument — even more inconspicuous in Charlottesville's court square. A small plaque, embedded in the ground, that marks the site of a former slave auction. And I also walked past that countless times and did not pay attention to it at all.

Monuments don't mean things on their own. They mean things because we make them mean things. So this Robert E. Lee statue, which I suspect most Charlottesvillians would have walked past and ignored as well, has taken on a new valence. And I think that's an important reminder. Monuments are not static things that have a single narrative behind them. Monuments are things that we create. Monuments are objects whose meaning and significance we create daily.

In the wake of Charlottesville, a lot of comparisons have been made between the way the United States commemorates slavery and the way Germany commemorates the Holocaust. So how has Germany dealt with its role in the Holocaust?

I think Germany is a really fascinating case study in the depths of human depravity and also the resilience of the human spirit.

The German case is interesting, and complex, and it has gone through many transformations. The Nuremberg trials are sort of the first important moment of reckoning, but also a complicated one. Part of what the trials did was identify a very select group of perpetrators. So it allowed one to say, "They were the ones who did this. Not me."

The first big transition that you see in West Germany's attempt to reckon with the legacy of the Holocaust was in the '60s, with the so-called "generation of '68," who revolted against their parents. Who said "no, you've been too silent." That's a kind of second generation of reckoning. Those are the children of the perpetrators [of the Holocaust.]

And now you're getting into a generation of grandchildren and of great-grandchildren, and I think that moment is where you start to see a sort of qualitative re-evaluation of the kind of forms memory and commemoration might take.

What can that teach us about reckoning with the history of slavery in the United States?

I think what we're looking at right now is a kind of belated — one might say very belated — attempt to think through, yet again, what monuments to the Confederacy mean. How the United States wants to commemorate black history, African-American history, because really that's what this comes back to, in the kind of "post-Ferguson" moment.

Memory is not just the things that we recall on a moment-to-moment basis. Memory is something that also means something in the world; what we decide is important to remember is something that is collectively determined, and the politics, the negotiation, the conversation by which we determine what matters and what doesn't. Politics is a process of negotiation. So is the conversation over what should be memorialized, what should go in a museum, what should take the form of a monument, what should be a holiday.

All of these things we sometimes take for granted. We take for granted that we celebrate the Fourth of July. But what we're seeing right now unfolding in the wake of Charlottesville is that, for example, commemorating the Confederacy is not something we should take for granted. It is something that is, in fact, debatable.

You mentioned that large grass-roots movement in Germany to commemorate victims of the Holocaust, often driven in part by the descendants of perpetrators of the Holocaust. Why isn't there the same momentum in the United States to commemorate enslaved people?

The banal answer is that race relations are still very complicated in the United States. And the question of responsibility for commemorating the human aspects of slavery — that is, slavery not as an institution. To commemorate the Confederacy is to think, at most, abstractly about the way that slavery tied into that heritage. And I think with each successive generation, it has become more and more difficult to reckon with the question of responsibility. You see this play out in the debates about reparations.

In the German context, the Germans jumped immediately to make reparations to the Jews, to Israel, to other victims of the Holocaust. And we just never had that conversation. The further away you get, I think, there's a sense of distance. "I didn't own slaves. My parents didn't own slaves. My grandparents didn't own slaves. So why is this my responsibility?" Or, "I am an open, tolerant person. Why should I carry that burden?"

And I think that conversation is changing, too, as people — particularly the white American population — think about privilege in new ways. I think as people re-evaluate what their relationship is to people who carry the institution of slavery in a different way, namely black Americans, I think conversations about how to commemorate that event, as a human event, also change.

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GENE DEMBY, HOST:

The following podcast contains language that some folks may find offensive.

A lot has happened in the last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)

AVA-JOYE BURNETT: The weekend violence in Charlottesville resurrected a movement.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: A nationwide tug of war over these Confederate monuments...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: The unrest is renewing calls across the U.S. for the removal of Confederate monuments that many view as symbols of oppression.

BURNETT: Baltimore City Council voted unanimously to remove all four monuments that showcase Confederate history.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: In light of what happened, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed says he is considering petitions calling for the city to rename streets bearing names of the Confederacy.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: The mayor of Lexington, Ky., is moving quickly to relocate two Confederate monuments from outside a historic former courthouse.

DEMBY: After the violence in Charlottesville, cities across the country had been wrestling with what to do with their Confederate monuments. So there's an irony here, right? The white supremacists who went to Charlottesville said they were defending the city statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, from being taken down. What ended up happening was they probably ensured that even more Confederate statues across the country will be taken down even more quickly. And these fights over these Confederate monuments are really part of an ongoing litigation about the American Civil War and slavery.

So this is Richmond, Va. We are standing in the middle of a traffic circle in front of the gigantic - the absolutely enormous statue of Robert E. Lee. We knew from watching the conversation around Confederate monuments that sooner or later, this debate was going to land on the step of Richmond, Va., the former capital of the Confederate States of America.

What's good? This is CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby. This week...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Blow that piece of shit up.

DEMBY: ...This week on CODE SWITCH - how a city at the center of the Confederacy walks the line between remembering and memorializing.

KAT CHOW, BYLINE: I'm Kat Chow filling in for Shereen this week. Gene and I drove down to Richmond along with Code Switch producers Walter Ray Watson and Aleli May Vuelta. And today we're going to hear from some Richmonders on both sides of the debate over just what to do with these statues - the publisher of a local black newspaper that's been calling for the city's statues to go for 25 years and a spokesman for the Virginia chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: To me, it's like going to a museum with a knife and slashing paintings from the great masters because you have something against that great master or you don't like what he was trying to say in that painting.

DEMBY: Plus a person who is playing a key role in laying out the options over what to do about Robert E. Lee and the other Confederate figures whose statues literally overlook the city after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARL POLLEN: They're beautiful. You can't keep wallowing slavery. You need to get over it.

JOHN AHMED: Well, I'm ambivalent about it. I believe that these soldiers were professionals, and I think that has to be considered in all of this.

FRAN MILDY: I've always taken for granted it would be here. And when this started happening, I said, I better go get pictures. It's not going to change. Removing symbols is not going to change the hate in people's heart.

BRIAN PEYTON: I think it's a very slippery slope because once you open up that gate, it's very easy for somebody to say well, hey, I'm offended by the Vietnam Memorial. I think that needs to be removed.

BETSY TOWN: I think Monument Avenue without the monuments is still beautiful, historic, gorgeous.

MARLENE BECK: Right, yes, I don't think it's necessary to have the monuments to still have our Monument Avenue.

KENDALL BUSTER: Because to me, I think what you have to ask is, does a monument represent a unity and a people or divisiveness?

CHOW: Those are the voices of Carl Pollen (ph), John Ahmed (ph), Fran Mildy (ph), Brian Peyton (ph), Betsy Town (ph), Marlene Beck (ph), Joan Oberly (ph) and Kendall Buster (ph). They shared their thoughts as they stood around checking out the Robert E. Lee monument.

DEMBY: So Kat, you and I were at that monument, as we heard. That dude - he was wearing a Dallas Cowboy hat. He drove by. He leaned out of his car window, and he yelled...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Blow that piece of shit up.

CHOW: And while this guy in the car was, you know, really colorfully yelling to take that statue down, there was this other man. He was sitting on this folding chair in front of that Robert E. Lee monument. He was white, middle-aged. He had on this baseball cap and sunglasses and jeans. It was the afternoon. Gene, you and I noticed it was very, incredibly hot.

DEMBY: Very hot.

CHOW: And this guy was sitting there all day. And we asked him why he was sitting there.

DEMBY: And he told us he was there to protect an American veteran, by which he meant Robert E. Lee. And he said that most people didn't know that Lee was in the U.S. military. We sort of let that slide.

CHOW: And when we told him that we were from NPR, he kind of gave us this look, sort of like uh-uh and shook his head. So we left him alone.

DEMBY: But that scene - one dude yelling that the Robert E. Lee monument should be blown up, another dude sitting there in the brutal heat all day to, quote, "protect" that same monument...

CHOW: Air quotes.

DEMBY: Yeah - was a pretty good summation of the very strong feelings about these statues in Richmond because Richmond was the capital of the confederacy. It was the second-biggest slave trading center in the country after New Orleans. And it has an entire Avenue dotted with traffic circles bearing the imposing likenesses of all these Confederate leaders. So we drove down that street called, appropriately, Monument Avenue.

CHOW: There are these big, beautiful mansions on either side of the boulevard. It's got this kind of stately vibe. Monument Avenue is actually on the National Register of Historic Places.

DEMBY: Look at these houses. Look at that house.

CHOW: And to drive down Monument Avenue, you have to literally maneuver around a line of Confederate leaders. So there's Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, Matthew Fontaine Maury, Jefferson Davis.

DEMBY: Yeah, so when we got to that statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, we just stopped the car to read the inscription.

With constancy and courage unsurpassed, he sustained the heavy burden laid upon him by his people when their cause was lost. With dignity, he met defeat. With fortitude, he endured imprisonment and suffering. With entire devotion, he kept the faith.

CHOW: That plaque on the Davis monument - it says exactly what defenders of these statues say - that they're protecting these valiant defenders of their Southern homeland.

DEMBY: Yeah, that plaque - it read like a mission statement for the Lost Cause.

CHOW: Yeah, it did.

DEMBY: The Lost Cause, which was this historical reclamation project for the Confederacy where defenders of the Confederacy repositioned it as this society full of chivalry and virtue. And if you've ever heard anyone argue or read in a textbook somewhere that slavery was not the main cause of the Civil War, that's a result of the influence of Lost Cause revisionism in the Jim Crow era.

CHOW: And those Monument Ave. statues - they went up several decades after the end of the war. That Lee statue - it was the first in 1890, and it was the only one up before the Jim Crow era. It also was the biggest on the street at 60 feet tall. It was massive. And even at the time it was built, black people saw the statue as this way for white people to try and broadcast who had the power. And prominent black leaders - they tried to keep the city from paying for it, but they failed.

DEMBY: And so over the years, Monument Avenue became so associated with Confederate monuments that in the 1990s, there was this huge controversy when the city dedicated a statue on that boulevard to a famous black man - probably the most famous person ever from Richmond, the tennis legend Arthur Ashe. At the time, The New York Times called the controversy over putting Ashe there one of Virginia's most raucous debates on race since the state defied Brown v. Board of Education by closing its public schools - all that drama over monuments.

CHOW: We talked with a publisher of a local black newspaper who you'll hear from in a bit. And she told us white people who are partial to the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue said the Arthur Ashe monument didn't have the same character as the other monuments on that street. And she said a lot of black folks in town felt a similar way. They were like, why is an upstanding guy like Ashe being put on the same street as all these confederates? Plus, there was also this issue of location way at the far end of the boulevard.

DEMBY: So as we learned, these are old fights in Richmond over Monument Avenue. Levar Stoney is in his first year as Richmond's mayor. Stoney's a black man in his mid-30s. And a few months ago, he called for a commission to consider how to, quote, "recontextualize" those statues on Monument Avenue. But then Charlottesville happened. And Charlottesville, Stoney told the commission to also consider just straight removing the Monument Avenue statues altogether.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LEVAR STONEY: I knew that we were not immune to a situation like Charlottesville, so, you know, that really - it really stuck with me.

DEMBY: Stoney spoke with our colleague Lulu Garcia-Navarro on Weekend Edition about what happened in Charlottesville and how that shaped his decision.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

STONEY: I never was a fan of these monuments. When I ran for office, I stated that I would not shed a tear if Jefferson Davis' statue were to be removed. But you know, I wanted to create a process that, you know, people's voices were heard. And the one voice that was not at the table was that for removal.

And after Charlottesville, I thought, you know, we could no longer use these monuments as teaching tools to enlighten and educate. Now there are those out there - white supremacists, KKK, neo-Nazis - who now use these monuments for hate and bigotry and intolerance and violence. And to me, those are not the values of the city of Richmond.

CHOW: And of course not everyone is happy the monuments might be coming down.

(SOUNDBITE OF RINGING TONE)

B FRANK EARNEST: Hello.

DEMBY: That's B. Frank Earnest. We called him at his home in Virginia Beach. He wrote an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch back in July. And in it, he said he wanted to clear up some, quote, "misconceptions" about the Confederacy. And he was in Richmond this weekend.

EARNEST: I went to see great works of art before barbarians who cannot even recognize great works of art destroy them.

CHOW: Frank Earnest is not involved with the Richmond monument commission, but he's from the Virginia chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He's the spokesman of the chapter.

DEMBY: Can you tell us what the Sons of Confederate Veterans is?

EARNEST: Yes. And if you will, it's very easy what we are. We are the male descendants of the Confederate army and navy - all Confederate force, military force. My great-great-grandfather rode under General J.E.B. Stuart with the 9th Virginia Calvary. I just discovered that - I knew my wife's ancestor rode with the 2nd North Carolina, but as it turns out, those two units were in the same - under the same command. And so our great-grandfathers fought beside each other at Gettysburg.

DEMBY: In our conversation with Frank Earnest, he threw a lot of history at us - a certain version of history.

CHOW: Frank, lots of people - they use the phrase Southern heritage and that, you know, they're defending Southern heritage and not white supremacy. They tend to make a distinction. So can you explain what Southern heritage means to you?

EARNEST: Well, absolutely. I mean the reason that they say Southern heritage means keeping slaves - I mean that's what I've heard - and no, it doesn't. It's a much more political answer than that. This turmoil, North and South, had been coming. It had a lot of things that it was over.

This country was founded twice. It was founded in 1607 by people from Great Britain who were mainly Irish, Scottish, Welsh - the Celts. It was founded again in 1620 in Plymouth, Mass., by the English. We still call that New England. The X on our battle flag, the flag that upsets everybody so much, when it was originated, came from the cross of St. Andrew of Scotland. We have always had a balancing act between North and South that boiled over in 1861. Was slavery more fuel on the already burning fire - absolutely. I agree. It was definitely a cause. But the fire was already there before you threw more fuel onto it.

DEMBY: So a question I have for you is what Southern heritage should mean for the many, many black people in the South.

EARNEST: What they should understand is, like I said, when you go back, our ancestors were primarily Celtic, Scottish, Irish and Welsh. We have a different lifestyle than the North, always have had. We would have a different lifestyle with or without slaves. Slavery is a bad stain on all of America.

But Southern heritage is not slavery to us. It is the lifestyle that we have in the South that's different. And everybody to this days says, you know, we do things at a slower pace. We talk differently. We eat different foods. It is. It's a culture just like the black culture or any other culture. And these men to us are men who defended that culture and that heritage, not men who fought to keep slavery.

DEMBY: If I had a forebear who was complicit or involved in something heinous, I don't know if I would necessarily feel...

EARNEST: And I know what you're saying. And I understand. I do. I want to understand where you are coming from. But you must understand that there were hundreds of thousands of people involved on both sides of that war. Hundreds of thousands of people died. And any scholar or anyone, whether they agree with me or not, will tell you that at best, 6 percent of the South at that time owned - were rich slave owners.

I just cannot believe that my ancestors, the one's owned no slaves or anybody's ancestors could be brought to a frenzy where they would go and die the way they did and 14-year-old boys and 60-year-old men and almost the entire population of the South - to me, it's ludicrous to say that they - I agree with you. I don't think they would have fought for that. How could I defend men who would fight for this? I don't. I defend men who I don't think did fight for that.

DEMBY: A few people have pointed out, notably the historian Kevin Kruse, the irony of the alt-right descending on Charlottesville ostensibly to defend the statue of Robert E. Lee but creating this universe in which the statues are so radioactive that it almost sped up their being taken down a lot of places.

EARNEST: Well, you or whoever said that about the alt-right is absolutely correct. All my life, I've seen men, women, black, white, whatever sitting on the steps at lunchtime, eating their lunch. The alt-right did us more damage. And they were not there to protect that statue. They were there just to spew their hatred. And that was just a reason to do it.

So it was all this bringing this attention. I guarantee you that 80, 90 percent of the population just saw a horse with a guy on it anywhere and probably didn't even know who it was. People are not that knowledgeable of our American history. So people have been told to be offended. And then you get the idiots like alt-right getting in the middle of it, too.

CHOW: I'm curious, Frank. So you kind of talked about how the Sons of Confederate Veterans are distancing themselves from white supremacists and also the so-called alt-right. So what discussions are you guys having, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, about monuments and whether or not they're going to be taken down?

EARNEST: Well, we follow the law. We always have. And when the very first thing happened in Charlottesville and the City Council voted to take down the monument, we filed suit in court because that's the way civilized people handle things.

No matter how much we've been told that everybody with a Confederate flag is exactly like the alt-right people, no, they're not. There's legitimate, sane people who don't - you know, are your neighbors, are people who go to court. They go to work. They're not - you know, we're not them. And don't punish us and take our statues down because of the alt-right.

DEMBY: B. Frank Earnest is the Virginia division heritage defense officer for the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Thank you, Frank.

CHOW: Thank you, Frank.

EARNEST: Thank you, Sir. Thank you, Ma'am. Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHOW: We visited Jean Patterson Boone at her house in South Richmond. It's in a quiet neighborhood with nice, big lawns. It kind of feels suburban even though it's in the city. Way back in 1992, Boone and her late-husband Raymond - they started their Richmond Free Press, a local black newspaper. And from its very beginning, the paper loudly called for the Monument Ave. statues to come down. And Boone told us that her husband Ray had a bunch of nicknames for that street.

JEAN PATTERSON BOONE: An avenue of losers, loser's lane, you know? Anything that had losers in it was about them.

DEMBY: Even before the Boones started the Richmond Free Press, Jean said that her husband Ray was always really outspoken about racism in the city. He used to be an editor for a paper called the Richmond Afro-American. And his writing there earned him a lot of unwanted attention from white supremacists.

BOONE: You know, Ray had a long history with the Ku Klux Klan. I mean they would...

DEMBY: What do you mean?

BOONE: Meaning that when he was editor of the Afro, they wrote him anonymously but signed it the Klan, saying, when you start your car, it will blow up.

DEMBY: We asked Jean Boone how readers responded to the Free Press's calls to get rid of the statues on Monument Ave.

BOONE: For the most part, were with us and are with us. Our latest editorial by our managing editor, Bonnie Winston, has a strong, strong voice for the monuments need to go down. I mean I am a South Carolinian by birth. So when I hear and see that the Confederate flag went down in South Carolina, I'm like, if South Carolina, Columbia, can make that happen, any place could make that happen because I grew up in a very segregated, very racist place.

DEMBY: When you go down Monument Avenue, what do you feel?

BOONE: I feel, why are these people here? Why is this here? Why are we teaching our children either by default or explicitly that these people are heroes? The monuments get in the way of how beautiful it could be. And many times, I'll have my grandson who's 10 years old in the car. And the older he gets, the more questions he asks. And I have to, you know, try to give him an age-appropriate answer to why they're there.

DEMBY: The city of Richmond is just over half black. It's had several black mayors in the past. Richmond is also the capital of Virginia. And way back in 1992 when the Free Press was founded and when it first started calling for these statues to come down, the person who lived in the governor's mansion was Doug Wilder, the first black governor in the United States since Reconstruction. So we were curious. You know, given all that black political power in Richmond, why was it still so hard to get those statues removed?

CHOW: And what Jean Boone told us was that Virginians had always been good at making their pro-segregation, pro-Confederate stances seem reasonable and refined. She said that Virginians fancied themselves as genteel and polite.

And many old, moneyed families - she called them FFVs or first families of Virginia - play this outsized role in the cultural institutions of Richmond. And she also told us that to really understand why it's so hard to move the needle in Richmond, you just need to follow the money.

DEMBY: So we asked her, what do you think it is that people who really want the statues to stay up? What is it that they're not getting?

BOONE: I think they don't understand how hurtful a symbol like that is, that they don't understand that these monuments represent bigotry. And they represent white supremacy, most importantly and that there has come a time in America's history wherein black people are - and people of goodwill are saying white supremacy has no place in American life, period, end of story.

DEMBY: So we wanted to talk to some black folks in Richmond just about the statues on Monument Avenue.

CHOW: Like, non-academic types, you know?

DEMBY: Right, just people living their lives. As you might imagine, they weren't exactly posted up, you know, chilling at the Robert E. Lee monument.

CHOW: Not admiring it.

DEMBY: No, no, no. So Jean Patterson Boone said to us, like, go to the south side, to this restaurant called Croaker's Spot.

CHOW: Which has really, really good food by the way.

DEMBY: The food is ridiculous. They're not paying us to say that. They had this cornbread, though - this cornbread though...

CHOW: And their sweet tea was really nice.

DEMBY: Yeah. They do so much in the South when it comes to food. I love it. I'm here for it, anyway.

CHOW: (Laughter) So we caught up with some people who had just finished lunch there. And most of the people we talked to outside Croaker's Spot said they want to see these monuments come down.

HAROLD GLENN: Take them down. That history's slavery. And that what it stood for - to try to keep slavery.

LATIF JARAWA: I think it's time for them to be removed. I mean that period in time in history is past now.

RACHEL ROBINSON: I feel like they should be taken down. I mean they can go in, like, a museum because they are part of history.

CHOW: Those are the voices of Harold Glenn (ph), Latif Jarawa (ph) and Rachel Robinson (ph). But not everyone felt that way.

MARCEL ROBINSON: If they decided to go around and start taking down black monuments, it would be a big problem. I mean - and plus, these things have been here for years. I haven't seen a monument hurt anybody yet.

LISA CROOMS-ROBINSON: It was the capital of the Confederacy. Even if you get rid of the monuments, the structural nature of the thing that brought the country to a civil war is still in place. Monument, no monument's not really going to make a difference. I mean you think Charlottesville was deep. Let them try and take these down in Richmond.

CHOW: And those are the voices of Marcel Robinson (ph) and Lisa Crooms-Robinson (ph).

DEMBY: To hear from one of the people who's helped coming up with recommendations for the Monument Avenue statues, we drove across town to what was the Tredegar Iron Works. And back in the day, the Tredegar Iron Works was a big deal. It actually was a major reason why Richmond became the capital of the Confederacy because it was a major producer of guns and cannon and armor for the Confederates. Now the American Civil War museum actually sits on the grounds of those ruins.

CHRISTY COLEMAN: My name is Christy Coleman. I am the president and CEO of The American Civil War Museum. And I have been asked to serve as co-chair of the Monument Avenue Commission for the city of Richmond, Va.

DEMBY: Can we talk a little bit about what your job there entails?

COLEMAN: Our mandate had been to explore ways that we could add historical context to the monuments and to explore what other monuments might be added. Following events, the mayor expanded our mandate. And in truth, in our public meetings, we were hearing, why aren't we even at least considering taking them down or removing them or putting them someplace else? Why is that not even on the table? And I think that the mayor heard some of that and decided, OK, we'll open it up where removal is also an option.

But the charge of the commission itself is still one of information gathering both in terms of public comment but also of the expertise that each of us brings to the table, which is why we were selected in the first place. So we have academic historians. We have public historians. We have art historians. We have historic preservationists. We have public servants that are on this commission so that we could, again, gather and bring these materials together and set forth a series of recommendations to the mayor so that he can make an informed decision. That has not changed.

What has changed is that, by saying you also need to now look at what removal or replacement means, that opens up another sphere of work.

CHOW: So what would it look like to remove these monuments?

COLEMAN: For the ones in Richmond, it is an extraordinary task. These are not small pieces. And it is an extraordinarily expensive task. And the mere suggestion of putting a pickup truck to it - you'll kill yourself.

CHOW: And Coleman told us that she felt like people should have it out about the statues.

COLEMAN: Let us have the process. Bring your voice to the table. Let's figure this out collectively. And we have to be respectful of the voices - people - everybody's expressing their grief. Everybody's expressing their rage. Everybody's expressing their fear of losing something or being unheard. That's really what we're dealing with.

Everybody's not going to be happy necessarily with what the solution is. But at least if we know that we are being heard and earnestly heard and we can go through a process that helps us make informed judgment, you know, that's quite frankly what I would like to see. Do I think that that's realistic? I'm damn sure going to try. But I know that it's going to be difficult. That's all I can say - is that it already has been difficult to a certain degree.

CHOW: How would you characterize what has been happening particularly in the last week? Is this a incredibly divisive time in your eyes in regards to how people think about history?

COLEMAN: Yeah, absolutely. But we've never fully agreed on history, right? We've never agreed on it. And part of the problem and one of the opportunities that we have in the museum world and what we do as public historians is we recognize right out of the gate - when we - whatever exhibits we're building or, you know, as we're trying to impart information, we know there's the history itself.

What actually happened? What are the documents, the artifacts, the letters, the diaries in total telling us? It's real easy to self-curate and only pick and choose the pieces that you want to tell a story. We see that unfortunately all the time. It doesn't make it true. It is the totality. It's almost like the Eastern philosophical statement about the blind men going around the elephant, and each one is asked to describe what it is. And the truth of the matter is there are each touching one part and describing the thing. But they are not talking to each other. If they had talked to each other, they would discover that in fact it is an elephant, not just the tail that might be a tree or the leg that might be a stump or - you know what I'm saying? And so we recognize, again, that we're dealing with the history. We're dealing with heritage.

Now, heritage is something else. Heritage is what a community has chosen to tell itself. Heritage is that piece of - this is what we will honor. And it's usually those pieces that come into conflict. And then we're dealing with memory. What is a person's personal relationship to that thing or that period or whatever? So, again, as public historians, we know for every visitor walking in our door, that's what we're dealing with.

So we craft our work so that people can discover new things. And that discovery can often lead folks to just this incredible, cathartic moment of, oh, my God, I had no idea. I wish I had known. I want to know more about that, where others are like, that's against everything I was ever taught. That's not right. It can't - and they reject it. But they can't unlearn or unsee what they saw. So the next time they see it again or they decide to interact with that again or they decide, see; I'm going to go and find out for myself again, they are moved a little bit.

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CHOW: Let's say the city does decide to remove the statuary on Monument Avenue. It's really not clear what happens next. For starters, there's this law in Virginia. It says local governments cannot remove monuments to any war or conflict. And while the city is responsible for Monument Avenue, the Robert E. Lee monument - it actually falls under the state's jurisdiction. So its fate might ultimately rest with the state legislature. And that's the case all over Virginia, where lots of local governments that may want to take down their Confederate monuments are trying to figure out whether that's even their call.

DEMBY: According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are more than 700 Confederate monuments in public spaces in the United States. Most of them are in the South. No state has more than Virginia, which has 223. When we were driving north out of Richmond back to D.C., we came by way of Route 1 or, as it's officially known in much of Virginia, Jefferson Davis Highway. The city of Arlington recently announced that it was taking suggestions for what to rename it.

That's our show. Check out our blog for more, including a Q&A with a professor who studies the politics of memory. Follow us on Twitter. We're @NPRCodeSwitch. We want to hear from you. Email us at codeswitch@npr.org. Subscribe to the podcast wherever fine podcasts can be found or streamed. And leave us a review on iTunes. It helps us with the rankings.

CHOW: It really does. Please do it. Our producers are Walter Ray Watson, Aleli May Vuelta, Leah Donnella and Maria Paz Gutierrez. Original music by Ramteen Arab Louie (ph).

DEMBY: A shout-out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam, Shereen Marisol Meraji, Adrian Florido and Karen Grigsby Bates.

CHOW: This episode was edited by Sami Yenigun and Steve Drummond.

DEMBY: I'm Gene Denby.

CHOW: And I'm Kat Chow.

DEMBY: Be easy.

CHOW: Later. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.