Monumental Decisions


Some Timely Thoughts for August 18, 2017

In 1996, I was asked to participate in a panel of scholars and prominent citizens in an open forum as the Commonwealth of Virginia struggled to decide whether the time had come to ditch its official state song, a slightly modernized version of Carry Me Back to Old Virginny, composed by African American songsmith, James Bland in 1878. Many found the song to be offensive due to its romanticization of slavery and its lyrics that used minstrel-like parodies of of African American speech. On the other hand, it was at that time the only state song in the country that had been written by an African American. My advice at the time was that a work of art that offends a substantial portion of the population should be somehow honored for what it is, but demoted from its public pedestal. It could not properly represent all the people of Virginia. Virginia decided to designate the song as “state song emeritus,” retired it, and went on to seek a new state song more suitable to Virginia at the turn of a new millennium.

One and a half centuries after the end of the Civil War, much of the South—the former Confederacy—struggles to decide what to do with symbols that trouble many citizens. One of these is the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. This so-called “Confederate Flag” was never used as an official flag of the Confederacy, but it has nonetheless come to be viewed as symbolic of the South as a distinct “nation” within the larger United States rather than as a bottle flag of an Army that raised arms against the United States.

Similar symbols of the South are the numerous statues of leading generals and statesmen of the Confederate States of America that are found throughout the South. Like the old battle flag, they too have become bones of contention between folks who find them to be offensive reminders of a not-so-grand historic era of White supremacy, slavery and racism versus those for whom they are romantic and honorable memorabilia of a time and culture that formed the South into a distinctive cultural region of the nation.

Today the South deals with this question: Is it time to “retire” the monuments and symbols of the Confederacy? Nowhere is this question more important than here in Richmond, Virginia, the former Confederate capital, and no other display of public art and artifact in Richmond can begin to compete with the grandeur, beauty and intensity of feelings generated by Monument Avenue. Depending on who you are and what you know about the grand avenue and its monuments, you may view them as commemoratives to honor Confederate leaders, especially military leaders, or you may view them as disgusting and reprehensible reminders of the evils of racism. Perhaps you have never really thought about them in depth and they are simply the decorative artifacts of Richmond’s grandest public avenue.

It helps to understand what they were built for, and at this point I believe most knowledgable scholars would argue that they are clearly the product of the so-called “Lost Cause,” a massive cultural mythos evolved in the hope to have the South “rise again” after the period of Union occupation and Reconstruction. Southerners had it found humiliating and degrading to be forced to permit African Americans to vote, to own property, to get education, and to hold public office. No sooner had the occupation ended than the South immediately launched the oppressive Jim Crow era which aimed to undo the progressive actions of Reconstruction and to institute laws and extra-legal sanctions against African American (and other non-White) citizens. Thus began the long ugly rein of lynch mobs, the Klan, and segregation.

Richmond’s mayor, Levar Stoney has created a commission of scholars and prominent citizens of the city to address the possibility of finding acceptable ways to “contextualize” the monuments on Monument Avenue and, perhaps, elsewhere in the city as well. The mayor’s vision was to seek a solution that would teach the actual history of the monuments, warts and all, without having to take the extraordinary move of decimating an enormously important historic district and its unparalleled artifacts of both the beauty and the beastliness of Gilded-Age Richmond.

I was personally glad to hear about Mayor Stoney’s commission, because as an archaeologist-historian I am a firm believer in preserving our cultural artifacts precisely so that different communities and different eras have their opportunities to appreciate, interpret, loath, and/or love the manifold meanings such artifacts can elicit. I was equally glad to hear that the mayor extended the mission to include gathering public comment and input on the possibility of removing the monuments, especially because he added that he finds them personally offensive. He is African American and does understand what they meant to those who erected them and what they mean to many Richmonders and other Virginians today. Like that old state song, how can a landscape that is so public be permitted to stand when it is offensive to so many citizens.

So to return to my original question: who owns these artifacts of history and culture? Legally they belong to the City of Richmond, I suppose, but I question whether or not the Mayor or City Counsel have the ethical right to remove these monuments without some sort of city-wide, and perhaps even state-wide or nation-wide referendum. At the very least we need a long, ongoing, serious public discussion. As the Mayor’s commission discovered in its first public meeting, this will be a loud, emotional, not always rational discussion. There will be lots of heat before there is any clear light to light the way to a decision that can be broadly supported.

I find the so-called Confederate Flag offensive because it represents institutionalized racism. It always has done and it always will do, ever since it was taken up by the KKK and then again by post-1964 redneck racists opposing integration and civil rights enforcement. My thought about the flag is that if you view it primarily as a romantic icon of the South and Southern culture, then hang it on your living room wall and enjoy it. But keep it out of my face in public places.

I find the question of monuments to be a much thornier thicket, especially the monuments of the Confederacy on Monument Avenue. There is no question that these are major elements of the city’s architecture, landscape and history. They define a major central neighborhood—a neighborhood designated as historic and significant by the national, state and city governments. The monuments have stood for nearly a century and have, therefore, played a very significant role in the spirit and culture of Virginia’s capital. Most Richmonders, I suspect, can barely imagine what a loss they would feel if the city were to have them removed.

Nonetheless, it cannot be denied, that they, like that battle flag, came into being through the post-Reconstruction institutionalization of White supremacy in Virginia. It should not surprise anyone that some of our city’s citizens and visitors who understand that truth find them as offensive as I find the “Confederate” flag to be. Nothing could be more “in your face” than these huge bronzes of generals, an admiral and a president of the rogue nation Confederate States of America parading endlessly down the grandest boulevard in town.

My recommendation to the Mayor and his commission is this. Recent history reminds us pointedly that we have not outgrown the hunger by some to keep alive a state of White supremacy in Virginia and elsewhere in this country. Richmond has been making some very fine progress in conquering that evil in recent years. I am proud of my city, my home and its people for that reason. Let’s not make any rash decisions in the current environment of political rancor, the rise of the “alt-right” and the beyond-the-fringe element of White supremacists currently stirring their long-simmering pot in the Federal government. If the City feels a need to take some action sooner rather than later, then please don’t make it an irreversible one.

Let’s try something like this first. The City could seek help—financial help and planning help—from both the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the National Park Service which has designated the district as a National Historic Landmark. The effort would be to continue considerably extend the mayor’s original plan of seeking the best practices for contextualizing the monuments. I would personally love to see fairly prominent signage at the major entries to the district on and adjacent to the Avenue. Such signage would state unequivocally that the district began shortly after the Civil War as a search to erect a monument to General Lee upon his death. That initial idea lay mostly dormant until after Reconstruction when it became perhaps the most prominent urban-art expression of The Lost Cause. Further signage at each statue could address both appropriate histories of the persons represented there, but they should also detail the complex meanings of the Lost Cause, the rise of the myth of Southern honor and chivalry as well as the unambiguous effort to subjugate African Americans and codify White supremacy in the South.

Perhaps the messages of such signage could be more extensively interpreted through a Monument Avenue museum: a small but purpose-driven institution perhaps run or advised by the Virginia Historical Society, the Valentine or the City, funded, one would hope by both private benefactors and public governments up to and including the National Park Service or other appropriate Interior Department entity. The mayor’s current commission might best give way to a permanent entity responsible to the city’s public for the ongoing interpretation of Monument Avenue.

This is just one citizen’s ideas, not even fully formed. That said, they are the ideas of someone who devoted most of his adult professional life to discovering, conserving and interpreting the history and culture of Richmond and its surrounding region of Central Virginia. I have probably given as much thought as anybody to the meaning of our material artifacts and how they can be used to help our communities progress towards an ever more enlightened understanding of our shared histories and destinies.

Can there be a Pragmatic Archaeology?

Comments on Carol McDavid’s  “Archaeology as Cultural Critique: Pragmatism and the Archaeology of a Southern United States Plantation”

Originally published in 1999 in Philosophy and Archaeological Practice, Perspectives for the 21st Century, edited by Cornelius Holtorf and Hakan Karlsson, University of Goteburg Press.


The current movement to make the social sciences “hermeneutical” rather than Galilean makes a reasonable, Deweyan point if it is taken as saying: narratives as well as laws, redescriptions as well as predictions, serve a useful purpose in helping us deal with the problems of society. In this sense, the movement is a useful protest against the fetishism of old-fashioned, “Behaviorist” social scientists who worry about whether they are being “scientific.” But the protest goes too far when it waxes philosophical and begins to draw a principled distinction between man and nature, announcing that the ontological difference dictates a methodological difference.

Richard Rorty, The Consequences of Pragmatism, pp. 198-199

In her essay, Carol McDavid has taken on a the very difficult (and paradoxical) task of describing the ways in which a philosophy known for its non-foundationalism can serve as a foundation for archaeological practice. Pragmatism is a peculiarly American philosophy that has many different colorations; however, certain important threads are found through the 19th and 20th century writings of Pragmatists. Some of these threads certainly appeal to present-day sentiments among many humanists and social scientists. These threads tend to be nondualist, anti-foundationalist, and anti-essentialist. Pragmatism bridges so many of the dualities and paradoxes of social sciences, in part by discrediting or ignoring them.

The realist-idealist debate, in the eyes of a Pragmatist, is a kind of fruitless academic pissing contest that cannot be won. The endless worrying about whether our conceptions and models of Reality adequately conform to “real” Reality might be Pragmatically characterized as a kind of mental masturbation that goes nowhere and does nothing, and so is not really worth the energy put into it except as entertainment. To the Pragmatist, “the proof is in the pudding.” As McDavid asserts, language is important to Pragmatists inasmuch as language and meaning are tied to action, and so McDavid finds herself engaged in the test of a true Pragmatist. She has to advance her profession and career, or else she cannot hope to continue to engage in the socially and personally meaningful action she has set out for herself. But advancing her career means writing essays in compilations of essays on archaeological theory…works which (as a class) by their narrowness, their lack of social effect, their mission of self-aggrandizement, are all contrary to, perhaps detracting from, McDavid’s noble goals of enlivening a broader conversation about archaeology and its subjects. Her essay uses words like “praxis,” “Rorty” and “anti-essentialist,” and these are certainly not words in the normal vocabulary of Brazoria, Texas.

This dilemma is exactly the sort of nut the Pragmatic philosopher loves to crack…for it is a false dilemma based on the dualizing of language for “professionals” versus “the public,” and similar dichotomies such as “theory versus practice,” and “data versus interpretation.” We tend to create such contrasting pairs and then cling to the notion that we can value one or the other poles of the duality, but never both…nor can we work fluidly along a dynamic continuum between them. And so we see dilemmas where they needn’t be. How can McDavid be a “scientist” concerned with what is real if she is being a “humanist” concerned with such fuzzy, “subjective” ideas as “voices,” and “conversations?”  The “Realist” shouts “She can’t!!!…either it’s politics or science…it can’t be both!!”  The “Idealist” shouts “Screw science…archaeology for the People!!” The Relativist shouts (or mutters) “Well in this situation it’s like this, but in the other situation, well, then, it’s different, so it all depends…” The Pragmatist doesn’t concern herself. She stays away from such fruitless conversations, and does what she does in order to advance her goals.

While this sounds self-serving, McDavid correctly points out that, for more than a century, Pragmatists have tended to exhibit inclusive and empathetic perspectives and passions. This seeming paradox probably proceeds from non-dualist thinking. Pragmatists are less likely to divide themselves from the rest of the world. A Pragmatist archaeologist, like McDavid, is likely to identify with or care about or feel responsible to communities beyond her own group (whether her “group” at any moment be a racial, educational, class, or professional category). Does this mean that Pragmatism is simply another form of Leftist practice like neo-Marxist Critical Theory? Not at all. While Pragmatists may often seem “liberal,” there is nothing in the philosophy that dictates that this must be the case. Richard Rorty (1993) notes that he has been criticized by the Right for his bleeding-heart liberalism, while Leftists accuse him of being a heartless Neo-Conservative for his refusal to join in the “America Sucks sweepstakes.” Pragmatists, it seems, are bound to be characterized by their politicized colleagues as unprincipled fence-sitters, changelings or opportunists.

In the realm of American politics, for example, Bill Clinton reasonably well exemplifies Pragmatism. What is Clinton’s “philosophy?”  Many would argue he has none, that he is a shameless, poll-watching opportunist. And yet from the beginning he has pursued countless opportunities to break down barriers of race, gender, age, handicap or other categorizations that traditionally lead to exclusion in the halls of power. Clinton does not write, talk or debate the idealized rightness or wrongness of his viewpoint, he simply acts in the best way he can to achieve a goal he believes in with the tools at hand for the moment. As a result he is hated by ideologues on the Left and on the Right. Rorty “enjoys” a similar notoriety among some scholars for his unwillingness to argue about the primary, essential nature of any specific position in morality or politics. To some casual observers, McDavid’s actions and wishes to incorporate a multitude of perspectives into her interpretive frame, and to conceive archaeology more democratically than its elitist origins would once have allowed, may make her appear positively Gramsciian in her approach. But there is a difference. She may hold dear some liberal moral convictions, but she has not elevated them to either a theory or a method that is based upon any particular socio-political assumptions.

One of the most important points McDavid’s essay makes (far more important, I believe, than any statements about Pragmatism) is the critical insight concerning the patronizing arrogance that often accompanies archaeological “presentation” and “education.” I invariably cringe when I hear colleagues speak about “educating the public;” they inevitably mean “indoctrinating the public.” What’s more, McDavid deserves credit for taking this insight beyond some sort of purely academic critique. She is not simply substituting a “conversation” word-game for an “education” word-game. In fact it is her actual experience in trying to hear, work with, and participate in an interpretive community that includes descendents of the people who occupied the Levi-Jordan quarters—or others like them–that provides the insight in the load carried by traditional approaches to “educating the public about archaeology.” It is her action–and the actions of her fellow interpreters–that leads her to glimpse the face of the beast of Relativism…and to stare it down. How, she asks, do we deal with others’ “realities” if they directly contradict our own.  How does she stare down this monster–the one that scares the britches off all the hard-science set? She says she’ll deal with things on a “case-by-case basis.” That is, she’ll cross that bridge when she comes to it. She won’t allow imaginary “logical conclusions” to become practical limitations to reasonable action. Good for her.

Recently, a traditional scholar made a genuine arse of himself at a public lecture. The anthropologist spoke of narratives of African slaves in the “Middle Passage,” and acquitted himself and his long and productive career brilliantly…until the question-and-answer period following the lecture. An African American in the audience asked for the speaker’s opinion about Ivan van Sertima’s (1976) thesis that Africans arrived in the new World long before Europeans, and that they affected the early civilizations of Mesoamerica. Many Afrocentrists are, quite understandably, attracted to van Sertima’s ideas. This lecturer blew off the questioner, and the whole notion of Africans in Precolumbian America. He simply refused to get into a discussion and, in so many words, piled They Came Before Columbus on the trash-heap of fringe-zone archaeological books like Chariots of the Gods (von Daniken 1999). I don’t believe–and the majority of Americanist archaeologists don’t believe–the evidence warrants concluding there were Africans in Pre-Columbian America. I also feel that archaeologists should grasp every opportunity to share their knowledge and insights with others, but it is nothing but arrogant and idiotic to simply cast aside a work or an idea that has such a grip on so many people. It does not help provide a better understanding of the lives of Africans in America–a task to which this scholar has dedicated his life’s work–and it simply reinforces a widespread notion that scholarship is insensitive, irrelevant, elitist tripe. Needless to say, I prefer McDavid’s approach. She is likely to have much greater success evolving a body of interpretation that is meaningful to all of her communities–archaeologists as well as Levi-Jordan neighbors.

As I mentioned early on, the “proof is in the pudding.” I didn’t feel I could comment upon Carol McDavid’s essay without taking time to examine what the essay is about. This is represented, at least in part, by the web site she has created for the interpretation of the Levi-Jordan Plantation project ( I cannot help but wonder how the community she identifies with actually relates to this web site  (or if they do at all), but it is a very good beginning, and I hope others will take a long look at it.

I am fond of the newer flavors of Pragmatism—those of Rorty and Nancy Fraser, especially. They present us with a way of thinking and acting that accommodates postmodernist, poststructuralist, feminist, Marxist, antiracist, and other critiques of the traditional perspectives spawned by the Enlightenment. And yet, this Pragmatism does not require us to subscribe to a party line, or believe in the emptiness of every thought or endeavor, or to embrace the equivalence of all opinions. Can a view of the world that believes in not promoting foundational beliefs serve as a foundation for archaeological practice? Sure it can. Pragmatists don’t worry about such paradoxes.

Richard Rorty

  1. Consquences of Pragmatism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  1. “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids,” In Mark Edmundson, ed., Wild Orchids and Trotsky: Messages from American Universities, pp. 289-305. New York: Penguin Books.

Van Sertima

1976 They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America. New York: Random House.

Von Daniken

1999 Chariots of the Gods: Unsolved Mysteries of the Past. (reprint edition). New York Berkley Publishing Group.