Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 1, 2017
Dell Upton What Can and Can't Be Said: Race, Uplift, and Monument Building in the Contemporary South New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. 280 pp.; 59 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780300211757)
Thumbnail

Within years after the end of Reconstruction (the period from 1863 to 1877 during which the federal government controlled states of the former Confederacy and African Americans attained fundamental rights of citizenship), supporters of the Confederacy began commemorating its short-lived existence, its soldiers, and the “Lost Cause” interpretation of the Civil War by placing monuments throughout the South. For the most part, these monuments stood uncontested until the 1970s, when activists and some politicians began demanding the removal of Confederate memorials. Other politicians and activists vigorously defended the monuments, and most still remain in public view. In the late twentieth century, however, organizations and municipalities began placing monuments commemorating the civil rights movements—and African American history more generally—in public spaces in the South. Dell Upton, professor of architectural history at the University of California, Los Angeles, explores the meaning of the evolving commemorative landscape in his challenging, carefully argued book What Can and Can’t Be Said: Race, Uplift, and Monument Building in the Contemporary South.

Upton constructs his arguments through case studies of both well-known and obscure monument projects from Virginia to Louisiana, and his work is in dialogue with other scholars of monuments, including Erika Doss, Kirk Savage, Owen J. Dwyer III, and Renée Ater. Although Upton does not ignore aesthetic factors, he is more interested in examining the processes that led to the creation of these monuments and the work they perform. Through interviews, archival materials such as newspapers, and close readings of the monuments themselves, Upton creates a layered description of the memorial landscape, and in the process also reaches unsettling conclusions about race and public life.

In the first chapter, Upton introduces the “dual heritage” framework. Monuments commemorating African American history in respectful, dignified ways became possible when African Americans gained access to political power. However, white power brokers often thwarted or neutralized monuments that too overtly challenged Confederate monuments or white comfort levels, effectively limiting “what can and can’t be said.” Upton argues that the constraints placed on these newer monuments reveal the “continuing dominance of white supremacy, both in its traditional forms and in the subtler, more modern assumption that such monument must meet white approval and that whites are neutral arbiters of what is fair and truthful in such memorials” (vii–viii). The “dual heritage” landscape is characterized by muted monuments honoring the civil rights movement and African American history that literally or metaphorically stand alongside memorials celebrating the Confederacy. Until recently, most southern municipalities vigorously resisted any proposal to remove or relocate Confederate monuments. (Though the strange history of the New Orleans monument to the White League insurrection, which the city moved to an abject site in 1993, may be a notable exception.) Many contemporary defenders of Confederate monuments tortuously argue that although they despise white supremacy, removing the monuments would be erasing history. This line of reasoning conflates a simplistic view of history—as “factual, transparent, true”—with the monuments themselves and rejects understanding monuments as manifestations of historical interpretation (57). Few defenders of Confederate monuments openly acknowledge the underlying premise of “dual heritage”: the incorrect, insidious, and ahistorical message that the Confederacy, based on white supremacy, and the civil rights movement, a struggle for equal citizenship, are equivalent.

The second chapter explores “uplift,” a term Upton uses to describe the insistence that monuments commemorating African American history both convey redeeming or positive lessons, and eschew complex emotions such as sorrow, anger, or vindication. From the late nineteenth century, African American elites used “uplift” to describe their duty to elevate impoverished members of their race, a history explored in the scholarship of Kevin Gaines, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Martin Summers, and Deborah Gray White. Upton acknowledges the historical antecedents of “uplift,” but uses the term more generally. In his telling, most promoters of “uplift” may sincerely believe in their approach, but they are also deeply pragmatic. A monument conveying a positive message may be more likely to survive a hostile vetting process than a monument with an apparently ambiguous message. Upton notes that advocates often support works that supposedly cannot be misinterpreted in part because “the civil rights memorials are countermemorials to the view of black Americans embodied in the white supremacist monuments that stand all around them” (160).

Upton considers representations of Martin Luther King Jr. in the third chapter. New monuments work within the larger American tradition of honoring the “great man” (3), and King has become the African American great man of monuments. In Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and the monument on Washington DC’s mall, factions argued whether or not the representations of King actually resembled the historical man. Upton writes that these debates are a way to thrash out the contemporary meanings of King and the civil rights movement. Does King stand for a vague emphasis on love, which may comfort those unwilling to confront unfinished civil rights work, or is he the exacting prophet of transformational justice who inspires viewers to continue the struggle? When discussing monuments to great men, Upton could have paid greater attention to gender. Although he explores the limitations of embodying black masculinity in public space and documents the important role of women in creating civil rights monuments (4, 10), analysis of the few monuments dedicated to women is lacking.

Chapters 4 and 5 demonstrate the power and subtlety of Upton’s methodology as he parses the geographic, historic, economic, and political layers of the landscapes of memorials. The fourth chapter considers the transformations of Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Alabama. From the park’s founding, it was reserved for white leisure even as the surrounding neighborhood became predominately African American. In 1963, the site gained national notoriety through images of police turning dogs and firehoses on civil rights activists gathered in the park. In September of that year, four African American girls died when white supremacists bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which sits on the park’s edge. When Richard Arrington Jr. became Birmingham’s first African American mayor in 1979, he made commemoration of the city’s role in civil rights history a major goal, and much of his efforts focused on transforming Kelly Ingram Park. Upton’s analysis demonstrates how complex historical issues—for example, Birmingham’s divided white government in the 1960s and the struggle between confrontational and moderate civil rights activists—play out in commemorative activities. His nuanced discussion of the interplay between monuments and visual culture, reading Ronald Scott McDowell’s 1995–96 sculpture Dogs (The Foot Soldier Monument) against Bill Hudson’s photograph of a police officer and dog attacking Walter Gadsden (136–37, 167–68), is particularly instructive. Upton concludes that the current array of memorials in Kelly Ingram Park “mark the outer limits of what can be said in the context of contemporary Southern urban politics” (170).

Chapter 5 analyzes the manifestation of the “dual heritage” strategy at the South Carolina state house in Columbia. From the 1960s, the Confederate battle flag flew over the capitol dome, resulting in decades of protests and boycotts. In 2000, the state legislature finally crafted a compromise which removed the battle flag from the capitol dome and relocated it to the South Carolina Confederate Monument, a memorial that commemorates the Lost Cause. The legislature also authorized placing a privately funded “African American History Monument” on the state house grounds. Sculptor Ed Dwight created the monument, working within design criteria that proscribed identifiable individuals and abstraction, and that also “pushed the monument toward a historical treatment that comprised a series of vignettes representing the historical eras and episodes” (180). Upton documents the often prickly interactions between Dwight and the monument commission as he responded to their concerns and suggestions. The lengthy, sympathetic analysis of the final monument describes the artist’s attempts to fuse the history of the African diaspora with the particulars of South Carolina’s African American history.

The book ends with a consideration of several memorials that escape the “dual heritage” strategy. Although supporters of new memorials often express hope that these monuments will somehow heal society, Upton soberly concludes that such redemption is unlikely while legacies of white supremacist thought, the desire to create uplifting works, and adherence to “dual heritage” strategies stymie reckoning with the nation’s “bloody history of race” (212). After this book went to press, the United States began a new wave of anguished discussions of Confederate memorials. In June 2015, a white supremacist massacred nine African American women and men who were gathered for a prayer meeting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Revolted by shooter Dylann Roof’s embrace of the Confederate battle flag, Governor Nikki Haley called on the state legislature to remove the banner from the state house grounds, where it flew adjacent to the South Carolina Confederate Monument. Even before South Carolina officially retired the flag, communities reconsidered its display at churches, schools, and other public sites. The conversation quickly extended to Confederate monuments and buildings named for white supremacists, though the fate of these monuments and buildings remains uncertain. Upton’s What Can and Can’t Be Said will help those who care about contemporary discussions concerning Confederate and African American monuments to understand the deep history from which these debates emerge.

Modupe G. Labode
Associate Professor, School of Liberal Arts, Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.