By Nicole Doyley
First published on nicoledoyley.com on March 15, 2023. Permission granted by author.
It is rare in America to see a Black man on a horse – or a statue of Black man on a horse. Historically the privilege to ride rather than walk was reserved for white men. It symbolized power and authority, two things withheld from Black men for centuries. Lately I’ve become intrigued by the Kehinde Wiley Rumors of War statue, which first stood in Times Square, and now rises proud and tall in Richmond, VA. It depicts a Black man in contemporary clothes valiantly astride a rearing horse. It is a picture of power and the fact that it was erected in Richmond while Confederate statues were being removed is profound.
Up until recently, Richmond was home to more Confederate statues than any other city in the country. Yet, in the summer of 2020 Mayor Levar Stoney ordered them to be removed and this past December the statue of Lieutenant General AP Hill was the last to go.
Confederate statues started popping up shortly after the Civil War. They communicated defiance: the North may have won, but we will preserve our way of life. White men will rule, and Black men will serve. And so it was for one hundred years after Rebel defeat: black codes kept Black people under, beneath, serving, walking, never riding.
Even after the end of legal discrimination, the statues remained: Stonewall Jackson lionized, Robert E. Lee idolized. To some, these and others represented freedom and courage even though they dedicated their lives to fighting for the right to own people: to beat sons and rape daughters and sell them both, unmoved by the desperate pleas of inconsolate mothers. They thought it was their divine right to deny the humanity of God’s melanated children.
They were wrong. That was not their right.
Contrary to the fear mongering of conspiracy theorists, these statues are not being destroyed, but rather most are being moved into museums. No one wants to erase history, just merely to be a bit more circumspect about who gets to be honored in the public square.
When Stoney ordered the last statue’s removal, white contractors refused to do it. Some were intimidated by parents and grandparents who promised to disinherit them if they signed a contract. But a Black contractor said Yes and both he and the mayor received death threats. Yet they persevered and saw it through.
If you ever want to know if something is an idol, just touch it. The rage, hatred, chest beating and hair pulling should make us pause and wonder what these statues represented. What would it take for you and me to threaten someone’s life or to disown a son? Touch an idol. Question a lost cause. Reexamine a hero.
Nostalgia is a wistful affection for the past. Some of our country's past deserves our affection and some of it does not, and a right telling of history will leave us proud one moment and ashamed the next. Honesty requires both responses. I’m glad that brave men and women sometimes put their finger on something and ask, does this really warrant sentimentality? Is this really what we as a people consider noble? Is this man truly an honorable man?
Rumors of War derived its name from a Bible passage in Matthew’s Gospel: You will hear of wars and rumors of wars but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen… (24:6). Black men taking their place in American society must happen. Black men belong here; they are part of the imago Dei; they don’t have to walk anymore, but can ride - and that’s good news, for everyone.
Check out Nicole's podcast episode, Statues, Flags and Heroes.