Around 2005, workers renovating the Dallas County Records Building in downtown Dallas removed some tiling on a wall near a drinking fountain and revealed the remnants of an old sign. It read, in faded discolored outlines on the marble wall: “White Only.”
The revelation was an embarrassment and a reminder that it was not long ago that the sign carried the weight of the law, that public buildings in Dallas were segregated, and by extension, the justice distributed within — and rule of law represented by — those public buildings was denied to thousands of Dallas residents simply because of the color of their skin. The discovery of the sign was also an uncomfortable reminder that such signs were once ubiquitous in this city, simple perfunctory instructions inserted everywhere into daily life not only to ensure that people of color did not enjoy the full rights, privileges, and protections of American society, but also to attempt to erase people of color from the white experience of that society.
The letters, faded discolorations on marble, could not be erased. They were scars, indelible and unforgettable. The county responded by placing a historical marker on the wall next to the sign to recognize and explain the history of the Jim Crow south. But one Dallas resident, artist Lauren Woods, had another idea. Woods didn’t believe that a historical marker was enough, that it couldn’t carry the full weight of meaning contained in the fact that the sign had been placed on the wall — and was somehow still on the wall — of a public building in Dallas. In 2013, Woods was commissioned by the county to turn the water fountain into an art installation as simple and direct as the words on the wall.
Today, when someone presses the button to activate the drinking fountain under the old “White Only” sign in the Dallas County Records Building, a video projector turns on and a news clip appears that shows little girls being power-sprayed by fire hoses during a Civil Rights demonstration in Birmingham, Alabama. The art installation is as poetic as it is blunt. It doesn’t soften the blow of the past, it amplifies it. In a single image, Woods makes explicit the abuse, torture, and hatred that is the real subtext of the “White Only” sign and exposes the racism that it truly represents: a moral world that attempted to deny and destroy African-Americans’ very humanity. With that simple gesture, Woods’ artwork completes and corrects the historical record.
The symbols and artifacts of the past — and the nature of the history they convey — has once again risen into the city’s public discourse. Responding to a national trend that has seen cities and towns across the southern United States reconsider the value and meaning of various monuments to the Confederacy and the Confederate heroes of the Civil War, Dallas has been debating whether it should remove its Confederate monuments, of which two most notably stand out: the statue of Robert E. Lee at Lee Park in Oak Lawn, and the massive Confederate memorial that stands outside the Convention Center at the edge of Founders Cemetery.
The debate has been framed around the question of whether the monuments should stay as they are or be removed. (My colleague Glenn Hunter argued yesterday that they should stay.) I believe the binary nature of that debate sells it short. The monuments are very much like the “White Only” sign in the Dallas County Records building — that is, historical artifacts that convey half-written or poorly written histories. They insert a historical reading into an aesthetic sphere, and so the response to the invalidity of that historical reading must also be aesthetic.
It is important to remember, as others have pointed out, that many of the monuments to the Confederacy erected throughout the South were born of a particular time and are the manifestations of a particular kind of cultural nostalgia, an early 20th-century attempt to come to terms with the complicated, contradictory, and conflicted history of the American South and to rescue from it its unique Southern cultural identity. But in reclaiming the valor of the imagined heroes of the past, the monuments reassert the primacy of the moral vision of that past. And regardless of any nuances of biography and history, the moral vision of the Confederate South was one of white supremacy.
It is impossible to separate that historical reality from the memorials erected in honor of that past, and so it is not at all surprising that African-Americans who have grown up in an America still very much shaped by racism and discrimination would understand those statues as nothing less than implicit conveyers of the power of the racist past extending into the present. Furthermore, to deny the validity of this response to the monuments is to participate in the very act of neutering engendered by the monuments’ implicit power — that is, it is to deny or attempt to erase the validity of the African-American experience of America.
But like the “White Only” sign, it is not enough to remove these markers. The monuments should not be covered up, but confronted, and — as Woods managed to achieve with her water fountain project — what is objectionable about these monuments should not be mollified but amplified. Because if we are ever going to come to terms with the reality of racism in America, the history must be confronted in its fullness.
I see two options for achieving this:
The first is to handle the statues exactly as the county handled the “White Only” sign. The city should commission an artist or artists to create a new work of art that could engage with, re-contextualize, and complete the monuments. I won’t venture to guess what this would look like, exactly. I’m not an artist. But I believe that, as with Woods’ and Cynthia Mulcahy’s Negro parks project, which attempted to bring attention to the complicated history of this city’s segregated parks and extend education around their historical research, the monuments offer an opportunity for Dallas to confront that history head on. Artistic approaches to re-contextualizing the monuments’ presence in the city would amplify the weight of their history while simultaneously symbolically reclaiming the public spaces they loom over for all the people of Dallas. Leaving them alone won’t achieve this. They must be co-opted and appropriated. If allowed (and, as a warning, permission was a real obstacle for Woods and Mulcahy with regards to the Negro parks project), good artists can do this, and it is precisely their role in society to do so.
The second option is to remove the monuments and place them in Old City Park, a setting already designated for the preservation and interpretation of the artifacts of Dallas’ past. Perhaps the monuments could better serve the historical import their defenders impart on them if they were not allowed to lord over Dallas’ public spaces, but were instead placed alongside the other artifacts of the society that they represent, like the Freedman Town shotgun shanties that already sit in Old City Park and testify to the abject poverty, abuse, and discrimination that was the flip side to the monuments’ nostalgic glorification of the Old South. But it would not be enough to simply leave the former locations of the monuments vacant. Rather, new monuments, historical markers, or artworks should be erected at the spot of removed Confederate monuments that reference the removal and the historical corrective the removal represents.
(Postscript: after writing the foregoing, I was reminded that Doyle Rader raised some of the same points for D Magazine in 2015.)