More Afterword: An Archaeology of the 2020 Protests

This week, I’ve returned to mulling over how to write a meaningful afterword to my short book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a short section about writing a book with the COVID as a backdrop. Today, I want to try to draft a few words on writing during the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020 and the riot-cum-insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. Both of these events had significant material aspects that help us understand their impact and their significance in our contemporary world.

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I was writing Chapter 7: Industrial Ruins and the City when the police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25, 2020. I revised it against the backdrop of the protests that this senseless killing prompted. Like many white archaeologists, I listened intensely to the conversations that Floyd’s killing pushed to the fore, read with fresh eyes books such as Whitney Battle-Batiste’s Black Feminist Archaeology (2010) and the urgent work of Maria Franklin and her colleagues (Franklin et al.2020) as well as works by activist-writers and scholars such as Ibram X. Kendi (2016, 2019), Robin J. DiAngelo (2018), Keise Laymon (2018) and others. To my embarrassment, much of my reading took place too late to shape the contents of this book, but Floyd’s death and the wave of protests that it triggers has indelibly impacted how I think about racism and anti-racism in the United States and the archaeology of contemporary American society.

I was especially drawn to the moving images associated with the removal of racist monuments across the US. My father grew up in Richmond, Virginia and my parents were married at a church of Stuart Circle, named after a monument to the Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart, on Monument Avenue in Richmond. I went to college in Richmond and during that time Monument Avenue, its stately homes, and its procession of Confederate leaders fascinated me. It was not a surprise that the these monuments became targets for protestors during the summer of 2020. The majority of people living in the City of Richmond, like many cities in the US, were African-American, the city was home to two major, historic HBCUs, Virginia Union and Virginia State University, and had a history of African-American political leadership dating to the 1970s. At the same time, the city had struggled with poverty, violent crime, and its tragic and complicated legacy as capital of the Confederacy, capital of the state of Virginia, and a symbol of a more racially, socially, and economically diverse New South. 

As someone who grew up in the suburbs of Wilmington, Delaware, another city with a complex and tragic history of racism, Monument Avenue attracted my attention, in part, because it stood in such contrast to the landscape of my childhood. Like many suburbs in the US, the post-war suburbs of Wilmington lacked monuments which made explicit reference to the area’s history. In fact, the most prominent structures in the landscape tended to be commercial and corporate buildings and schools characterized by the austere, functionalist style of mid-century modernism. Public spaces, such as parks, stood as open spaces devoid of historical associations or statues, but filled with playing fields, basketball and tennis courts, playgrounds, and other practical paraphernalia that marked their function as public space. Having grown up in this typical mid-century suburban environment, the presence of figural monuments to white men in spaces such as Monument Avenue in Richmond (or Rodney Square in Wilmington) defined the historical character of the traditional urban core. Figural monuments marked urban space as both distinct from my contemporary suburban landscape, but also legible and familiar as part of my historic identity as white, male American. 

The effort to recode public space amid the protests associated with the murder of George Floyd depended in some ways on understanding the history and material manifestation of post-war settlement change in the US. The construction of middle-class suburbs around the functional, if iconographically impoverished architecture of the single-family home, the shopping center, the school, and the park, left the predominantly white residents of these subdivision to project to re-imagine and appropriate urban landscapes as historical spaces rather than lived spaces. 

In this context, the demands for the removal of statues celebrating the achievements of racist white people by the predominantly non-White residents of US cities that monuments represented an effort to claim urban areas as their own. The covering of the statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond with colorful graffiti demanding racial equality transformed the monument from a lingering reminder of the painful legacy of an American anti-hero to a visually dynamic call for social change. Push back from predominantly white and, I’d suggest, predominantly suburban residents against the visual impact of these recoded monuments reflects a generation-long expectation not only that urban areas exist as public mausolea to their own imagined past, but also that contemporary urban residents do not have the right to appropriate their lived environment for their own community. In this way, the re-coding of the Robert E. Lee monument and the removal of statues from urban areas elsewhere in the US represents in material terms the demand for the end of the police violence against Blacks and other people of color. By claiming the right to transform or remove public monuments, Blacks and people of color visibly claim their right to control public space and publics affairs, especially policing, but also education, social services, and other vital functions that shape their lives and wellbeing, in their own community. 

Recent work by Christopher Matthews in East Orange, New Jersey and Krysta Ryzewski in Detroit highlight how the archaeology of the contemporary American experience supports racially diverse communities as they work to assert their control over urban public spaces not just by re-claiming their historical presence in the urban landscape — as projects like the well-known African Burial Ground excavations in New York City establish — but also their claim over the contemporary city, its monuments, its streetscapes, and its social functions. The backdrop of the protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder roused me from my white suburban complacency by making clear that the re-coding of monuments in American cities was not simply an effort to erase the memory of a racist past, but to establish their right for anti-racist future. That my book does not understand the significance of this movement and these action speaks loudly to my own upbringing and white privilege which suffuse my perspectives on the contemporary world. 

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