We support an idea about what to do with the empty space on the monument where the statue of Robert E. Lee once stood. The suggestion? Do nothing, leave the space empty, at least for a while.
This idea is not original to us. It was first mentioned by historian Walter Isaacson in an opinion piece he recently wrote for the New Orleans Advocate. There are few people in town who have as good of a grasp on history as Isaacson, who has written books about Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein and Ben Franklin, among other enlightened minds, and most recently Leonardo da Vinci. He understands the perfection and imperfections of historic characters and the relative importance of their contributions.
As for replacing Lee, Isaacson wrote about his experience from looking at the topless column from many angles and wondering what should go there. Then the thought hit him:
“But with each viewing from each new vantage, I am struck by how evocative and moving and memory-provoking the current poignant void has turned out to be. It has become a piece of public art, a piece of found art. It memorializes a moment when we as a city had a long and difficult discussion, then lived to remember the tale.”
Isaaccson was supportive of the monument’s removal, especially, as he tells it, after a conversation with musician Wynton Marsalis who first raised the issue. We, on the other hand, opposed the removals, especially Lee and, most of all, the one native in the group, Beauregard. So, we come to the issue from different directions but arrive in the same place. History, in this case, is best served by allowing the minds of the beholders to fill in the vacuum.
When race is a factor in a discussion, the conversation becomes more sensitive. Although there are many people who do not want to admit it, there have been enormous advances in racial justice since the passage of the Civil Rights act in 1964; nevertheless, there are still activists and politicians who exploit it. We are not yet at the point where discussion can be held without someone using the word “racist” as a bludgeon. We hope for better days.
We know that the present is often an unforgiving juror when judging the past. In Rome, monuments to pagan emperors (Marcus Aurelius and Trajan) were replaced by statues of Christian saints, Paul and Peter. Virtue is determined by who is in power.
Isaccson continues: “The vacant monument captures that moment and more. Whatever side of the debate you were on, each new viewing evokes not only the thoughts you had at the time but also your evolving feelings as time passes. You might even second-guess some thoughts you had at the time (what if we hadn’t taken it down when we did?), or perhaps not. How powerful is that?
Either way, it makes the current non-monument into a living and breathing memorial and unintended artistic statement.”
To that we add: At its best, the empty space could be a monument to the complexity of history and the pursuit of understanding. That could be the greatest tribute of all.