Monday, March 26, 2007

Race and Public Monuments in Pensacola, Florida

The following was originally presented as a paper to an annual meeting of the Gulf South History and Humanities conference:

As with most cities, public monuments litter the landscape of downtown Pensacola. This is nothing new. Monuments and monumental architecture more broadly have always been a feature of urban landscapes. As signs representing the past, monuments can serve the interests of elites, and on occasion others, in shaping public memory, discourse about the past, and indirectly identities and discourse about the present.

The public monuments of Pensacola are mainly of two types: those which commemorate the achievements and the memory of particular individuals, such as Andrew Jackson, who had something to do directly with Pensacola history, and a more recent type, those commemorating the memory of generic groups of individuals, such as Vietnam veterans at the Wall South, a replica to Washington, D. C.’s Wall, or the Missing Children’s Memorial. Two particular monuments stand out as different, representing individuals who, while related to broad regional processes and events which clearly affected Pensacola, were not associated with Pensacola specifically, and never actually set foot in Pensacola: Martin Luther King, Jr. Plaza and its bust to MLK, and Lee Square (actually a circle) and its monument to Robert E. Lee and other “national” figures of the Confederacy.

The obvious commonality between the two monuments is that the two are tied (albeit in quite different ways) to the often troubled history of race and racism in the southeastern United States generally and in Pensacola specifically, even if there is more going on as well. In fact, if we look at the monuments in relation to one another, they say more about race than was perhaps intended.

The monument to Lee sits within a traffic circle on Palafox Street (a main street in downtown Pensacola) at the peak of North Hill. The monument itself consists of a four-sided marble pedestal, atop which is placed a column with a sculpture of a Confederate figure atop the column, which makes for a typically phallic monument. The monument is surrounded by trees, largely obscuring it from view when passing by. At the same time, the site is relatively inaccessible to pedestrians, not being located at a light for safe access. The overall impression when passing by is of circulating around something important – yet something secluded, protected – sacred even. In certain ways, Lee Square is similar to Lee Circle in New Orleans. That monument, similar in basic appearance though much larger in scale, is also located within a traffic circle along a major street offering one of the main entryways to downtown. It is not so inaccessible to pedestrians, nor is it secluded from view by trees. It is, still, separated in another way, by its base being situated atop a still larger pedestal which must be surmounted by a flight of steps, so that the inclination of the pedestrian simply walking past on St. Charles is to simply circulate around the monument without directly approaching it.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Plaza in Pensacola is located just a few blocks from Lee Square at the base of North Hill. It is hard not to look at this tableau - Robert E. Lee atop a tall pedestal atop North Hill looking down towards, i.e. looking down upon, the much smaller monument to MLK - as an icon of race relations in the city – and indeed I see no reason not to interpret the juxtaposition in exactly that way, even if there is more going on as well. MLK Plaza is located within the median of Palafox St.., with a bust of King upon a small pedestal, and low brick walls funneling the pedestrian/viewer towards the bust. From the perspective of the passing motorist (and in Pensacola one is almost always a motorist, almost never a pedestrian), the monument and plaza are a small affair, easy to miss while driving by, in contrast to Lee Square where it is impossible not to notice that one is passing by something of importance – even while that something is largely secluded from the gaze. Once noticed, though, - if noticed - MLK Plaza is much more visible, that is, more open/vulnerable to the penetrating gaze.

These monuments are about race in a variety of ways, and not just as iconic metaphors of race relations and racism in Pensacola. Ironically, they say something significant about race relations through their utter avoidance of overt mentions of race. At MLK plaza, the only inscription (aside from a plaque listing primary donors) quotes from King’s Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech from December 11, 1964, “Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.” This is certainly a sentiment worthy of commemoration, and it further stands as a reminder that King was not only a leader and hero for black Americans – though he was that – but also a leader and hero for all. At the same time, though, if you didn’t already know much about King and his struggles, you leave the monument with no additional knowledge about King and his struggles.

The monument at Lee Square, being by far the larger of the two, bears more inscriptions, one on each face of the pedestal. On the front face of the monument (that is, the side visible when one is facing Lee atop the monument) is the main dedication: “The uncrowned heroes of the Southern Confederacy, whose joy was to suffer and die for a cause they believed to be just. Their unchallenged duration and matchless heroism shall continue to be the wonder and inspiration of the ages.” Continuing around the monument, one encounters on the next face the following dedication: “Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America. Soldier, Statesman, Patriot, Christian. The only man in our nation without a country, yet 20 million people mourn his death.” On the third face: “Stephen R. Mallory, Secretary of the Navy of the Confederate States of America. ‘Tis not mortals to command success; But we’ll do more sempronius, we’ll deserve it.’” Finally, on the fourth face, the one inscription relating to a Pensacolian: “Edward Aylesworth Perry, Captain of the Pensacola ‘Rifles,’ Colonel of the 2nd Florida Regiment, General of the Florida Brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia. Among the 1st to volunteer in the defense of his adopted state. Faithful in every position to which his merit advanced him. His life and deeds constitute his best monument.”

As with the King memorial, the issue of race per se is occluded from the Civil War context being memorialized (that is, being promoted as a particular form of public memory). There is the slightest tinge of defensiveness in noting that the uncrowned heroes of the confederacy joyously suffered and died for a cause they “believed” to be just, but overall, the memorial sets out to glorify the inspiring nobility of the lost cause of the Confederacy. Through a variety of significations, memorials can attempt to promote or critique dominant (or other) discursive constructions in the public memory (and the same could be said of museums, the other main repository of public signs of the past). Here, the construction is one of nostalgia for the nobility and honor of the lost cause of the Confederacy, with any mention of the relevance of slavery carefully censured. Given the prominence of place (though site selection was also clearly driven by the presence of a Confederate Redoubt on the site during the Civil War) and the obvious investment of resources necessary to construct the large marble monument, Lee Square was an embodiment of dominant discursive constructions at the time of its dedication in 1891. It clearly still has a great deal of power for some local residents today, as seen with annual salutes to Lee and Stonewall Jackson held at the site by the local Stephen Mallory chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, as well as a small trophy that had been left at the site with the letters “CSA” hand-etched upon it which I encountered left behind at the site on a recent visit. Similarly, when encountering numerous white southerners, both in Pensacola and throughout the Southeast, with T-shirts or bumper stickers displaying a currently controversial symbol, the Confederate Battle Flag, along with slogans, such as “Heritage, Not Hate,” I take them to be sincere, in the sense that theirs is a nostalgia for a better time (which never existed) characterized by noble values and honor, that is nostalgia for a discursive construction like that represented at Lee Square and not for an actual social and economic system based largely in slavery and human misery. (But then there was the bumper sticker reading, “If I had known, I would have picked my own cotton,” or the restaurant somewhere in northern Georgia named the Kountry Kooking Kitchen [with the K, K, and K boxed off in diamonds lest you miss the point].)

MLK Plaza, dedicated in 1993, represents a more recent and widely accepted construction – one which is not the polar opposite of that at Lee Square, but instead one which attempts to censure the Confederate legacy every bit as much as the nostalgic constructions of the Confederacy attempt to censure the associations of the Confederacy with slavery. Instead, a benevolent universal humanism is embraced – a laudable thing in itself, while at the same time, the very real social fissures of race which continue to be produced are occluded. The two monuments together index (by omission rather than intent) an important quality of race relations and racism in Pensacola. In virtually every interaction between blacks and whites, race is a factor shaping the interaction and racial inequality continues to be reproduced, but as with these signs of public memory, almost never is it mentioned. In fact, though the monuments assiduously avoid any mention of slavery or of the racism which MLK and the civil rights movement addressed, the fact that they are icons of regional/national figures rather than local individuals belies the pain of racism and of addressing/speaking about racism in the monuments’ displacement from the particulars of Pensacola even when commemorating the Confederacy or the civil rights movement.

As important as these monuments are in illuminating aspects of race relations and racism in Pensacola and beyond, it is not solely race which is signified. They are also about class, and as with race, they largely function by occluding important aspects of class relations. For starters, nostalgia for the lost cause of the Confederacy depends upon an erasure of the class dynamics amongst whites of the antebellum South. Many, if not most, of the southern whites nostalgic for the Confederacy had ancestors with little stake in the economic system of slavery or the political and economic interests of the Confederacy. Further, nostalgia for the better days of the noble Old South is based in part in the class dynamics of today, based in the anxieties of working class white southerners in a time when working class Americans generally often feel rightfully anxious.

With King, the issue of racism and the civil rights movement is occluded, though much to the credit of the monument designers, the plaza does stress important positive aspects of King’s legacy and it probably can be assumed that very few passersby will be unaware of King’s crucial involvement in the civil rights movement and the struggle for racial equality. King’s writings and actions with regard to class and class inequality are similarly occluded – and perhaps to a greater degree because it cannot be so easily assumed that passersby will be previously aware of King’s writings and actions addressing class as much as racial inequality towards the end of his life. As Michael Eric Dyson has pointed out, in most versions of the lives of both King and Malcolm X, the trend of both men’s actions and words towards the ends of their tragically short lives was towards working across racial lines to address not just racial inequality but also class inequality and exploitation generally. If it is painful and threatening to deal with race and the continued social production of racial inequality, it seems to be that much more painful and threatening to move across race lines and address class inequality simultaneously, and it is not surprising that class is largely absent from public memory and commemoration.

These monuments are also about gender. The men being commemorated are just that – men. Martin Luther King and Robert E. Lee are tokens of the Great Man, embodying qualities such as honor, nobility, strength, and dignity (albeit in different ways) which are also often gendered qualities, symbolically associated with masculinity. Their masculinity is represented iconically in different ways, however, bespeaking the different ways and different contexts within which they embody characteristics of ideal masculinity.

Lee’s monument is a (stereo)typically phallic one, whose importance is reinforced through the forced circulation around him. The monument in its relation to circulating traffic provides a barrier to approach, and as discussed above, is largely hidden from view by a ring of trees grown tall over a century. This provides a spatial and visual ambiguity to interpretation, appropriate for the ambiguity of the Confederate legacy in public memory. On the one hand, the relative difficulty of approach alongside the seclusion from view reinforces the monument as sacred site and Lee as the Great Man, and as a typical Great Man difficult to approach and largely masked from the penetrating gaze. On the other, at the same time that when passing by one cannot help but notice that one is skirting around something of importance, this same difficulty of approach and seclusion from view of the monument itself meshes with attempts to erase the Confederate legacy from public memory.

The phallic icon is a typical component of monuments to Great Men and heroes, while with other sorts of historical figures or instances, monuments often take on other forms, such as the Wall in Washington, D.C. commemorating veterans of the Vietnam War and its replica, the Wall South in Pensacola, or the Holocaust Memorial in Boston – cases where there is a felt need to remember the tragic deaths of individuals en masse, but where there is no heroic triumph or even lost cause perceived as great. With King, we clearly have a Great Man, generally characterized as noble, strong, courageous, and dignified, but also a non-typical Great Man, associated also as he is with nonviolence – making him in my book an admirable token of the Great Man type, if we must have Great Men. One would expect, then, a non-typically phallic monument, and MLK plaza provides just that, and as with Lee Square, it is one whose meaning is ultimately ambiguous. King’s monument is still basically phallic in shape, even if on a less grand scale than Lee’s monument. In contrast to Lee Square, MLK Plaza offers a setting with easy access, overall visual openness, and a disembodied bust. On the one hand, the monument is penetrated by the gaze and as phallic icon, the bust as disembodied head is a castrated or emasculated one. On the other, the monument, by resisting the more obvious and clear phallic image of the Lee memorial, resists also the incarnation of King as Great Man with strength in the form of dominance. At the same time that use of space may evoke a sense of vulnerability, it also emphasizes the specific qualities of dignity and nonviolent resistance in the face of injustice – a theme which is occluded from the monument in other ways, but which is indexed here in the use of space and the disembodied representation of King himself. Either interpretation is possible, as are combinations of the two, and that is ultimately where I wish to end, with meaning open, for my intent has not been to criticize (I think that there is much that is overwhelmingly positive with MLK Plaza), but to provoke and open up to contestation the construction of public memory.

1 comment:

Derek Cosson said...

"Finally, on the fourth face, the one inscription relating to a Pensacolian..."

Stephen Russell Mallory was also a Pensacolian.