- What Can and Can't Be Said: Race, Uplift, and Monument Building in the Contemporary South by Dell Upton
In Birmingham, Alabama, three recent monuments by James Drake evoke the brutal official suppression of civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s, from the fire-hosing of children to the use of vicious police dogs to attack demonstrators. In Washington, D.C., a colossal relief depicting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Stone of Hope, is carved with his words. And in Salisbury, North Carolina, a new memorial honors freedmen buried in unmarked graves. In What Can and Can't Be Said: Race, Uplift, and Monument Building in the Contemporary South, Dell Upton explores the cultural meaning of these and other monuments to the civil rights movement and African American history, more broadly, across the American South. His focus is on the visual principles and social pressures that have shaped these works, from the language of the Western memorial tradition to the legacy of race-based conflict in the United States that remains unresolved.
What Can and Can't Be Said presents a wide range of case studies from conception to dedication, illuminating the complicated and often frustrating processes of debate and compromise surrounding civic monuments today. Through these, Upton offers a rich new template for understanding the complex nature of Southern memory—one that will be of interest not only to scholars of the region but to anyone concerned about the growing polarization of American political life.
His investigation is shaped by two key questions. The first is that of "what can and can't be said" (7). Upton asks this both of the interpretive possibilities inherent in the visual conventions of Western monumental language and of the limits placed on public art commissions by contemporary American political discourse, especially within a white Southern culture in which negative depictions of slavery or the Confederacy are often met with deep hostility. In designing monuments, artists draw from a variety of conventions of visual expression, including those established by funerary monuments, war memorials, and other works of outdoor art. They must decide whether to work in an abstract or realist mode and how to deploy inscriptions and other text. All the while they are beholden to the public committees and other stakeholders who employ them and who often hold competing ideas about Southern culture, slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the civil rights movement.
The second question framing the study is that of how artists navigate what Upton labels the South's "dual heritage," "which treats white and black Southerners as having traveled parallel, equally honorable paths" (15). To many Southern whites and some Southern blacks, white history and black history are paradoxically understood as completely separate, despite the fact that their development is logically inseparable. It is nearly impossible to discuss the history of slavery or the struggle for universal civil rights without placing blame, and yet the concept of dual heritage requires exactly that. This fragile ideology can only maintain its balance if the two sides refrain from criticizing, or sometimes even acknowledging, one another. The challenge of monuments to the civil rights movement or to the African American experience in the South, then, is to create meaningful memory spaces despite the strictures of the dual heritage ideology.
In the first four chapters of the book Upton explores the evolution of Southern memory. Chapter 1 investigates white supremacist symbolism in Southern public spaces, focusing on the controversial history of a Confederate monument erected in 1898 in Montgomery, Alabama; the bust of Confederate lieutenant general and early Ku Klux Klansman Nathan Bedford Forrest, erected in 2000 in Selma, Alabama (and stolen in 2012!); and the so-called Liberty Monument, an obelisk erected in New Orleans in 1891 to commemorate a coup perpetrated by local whites in 1874. Chapter 2 examines proposals from the 1990s and early 2000s in Bowling Green, Virginia, and...