Rumors of War, the war, and how it can end.

Photo, Virginia Museum of Fine Art

Six months ago, The Virginia Museum of Fine Art in Richmond, VA, dedicated Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War, its newest acquisition, and installed it in front of the Museum along Arthur Ashe Boulevard. The monumental equestrian sculpture of a Black man, proud and contemplative, turns his head North, towards Monument Avenue, the famous Richmond street lined with Confederate monuments. It was an astounding moment for this art teacher, and 25 year-Richmond resident.

“Honestly, this makes me think more about where this story starts,” Wiley said in his address to a New York City crowd, who watched the sculpture unveiled in Times Square. “The story starts with going to Virginia, of course, and seeing the monuments that line the streets. But it’s also about being in this black body. I’m a black man walking those streets, I’m looking up at those things that give me a sense of dread and fear. What does that feel like physically, to walk a public space and to have your state, your country, your nation say ‘this is what we stand by?’

Wiley’s past work has appropriated many paintings from art history and replaced white symbols of power (such as Napoleon, and King Charles I) with portraits of young Black men and women, people who have had held no power in the contemporary world as well as through out history. His idea to appropriate a Richmond monument to J.E.B. Stuart, a Confederate general, aligns with his body of work. Wiley disrupts the worship of White Supremacy and imagines a new kind of statue, one in which cultural peace is celebrated rather than violence.

The Valentine Museum collection, The Robert E. Lee monument, 1907

The Confederate monuments, memorializing the lives of J.E.B. Stuart, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and several other military heroes of the Civil War, were not conceived to teach history to new generations of Americans. The monuments were not erected at the end of the Civil War, but rather 25 years later, as White Richmond residents fought back against the gains that newly-freed Black citizens had made in Richmond’s civic life during Reconstruction. The monuments were erected to remind Black residents that they were far from free.

The Lee monument, is not a historic representation of Robert E. Lee, in fact the sculptor, Marius Jean Antonin Mercié, rejected a photograph of Lee to use for reference because Lee’s horse was not as heroic enough for the idealistic depiction of horse and rider. Equestrian sculptures were first used in ancient Rome to remind Romans of the power and might of their emperor. They were erected all over Western Europe throughout history and became popular with absolute rulers such as Charlemagne and later, Napoleon. Lee’s monument is no different. 10,000 Richmonders celebrated its dedication in 1890, with one purpose; to terrorize Black citizens into submission.

Johann Galtung, a sociologist and founder of Peace and Conflict Studies, would call the Monument Avenue Confederate monuments, cultural violence. According to Galtung (1990), cultural violence is “any aspect of a culture that can be used to legitimize violence in its direct or structural form. Symbolic violence built into a culture does not kill or maim like direct violence or the violence built into the structure. However, it is used to legitimize either or both.” I learned about Galtung last summer as a part of the Religious Literacy Project at the School of Divinity at Harvard University. I have come to rely on his ideas to teach my students about the ramifications of the current political and societal events happening every day in their world. There are many of examples from which to choose from. Cultural violence is alive and well in our country and in our city.

As a teacher at a funding-starved public high school, I witness the effects of Galtung’s cultural violence each and every day. I see the effects of substandard facilities and a lack of resources on my Black and Brown students. I see teenagers who rely on violence to resolve conflict, and use a learned language of self-doubt that prevents them from taking academic risks. I see chronic absenteeism, high drop-out rates, and children who struggle to see themselves represented in the curriculum that is mandated by the state of Virginia. I see security staff and police officers stationed in my school to remind students of their criminality on a daily basis. Structural violence created this environment. The monuments in our city are the symbols that stand for this violence that has endured for centuries right here in the midst of our day to day lives.

Since the beginning of June, the Lee Monument has for the first time become a true artifact of war rather than just a symbol of White supremacy. The graffiti-decorated version now serves as a primary source for the Black Lives Matter Marches and Uprising of 2020. The monument now shows the marks from the struggle to end police murders of Black human beings. The layers of graffiti mark the disruptive change that has finally occurred in the minds and hearts of Richmond residents. The purpose of these monuments has been righted and now it is time to take these monuments to White supremacy down. Taking them down does not “erase history” as many are charging, because the monuments have never been historical artifacts. The battlefields of the Civil War remain. Plantations with their “slave quarters” have been preserved for future generations to learn from. Nobody will forget the Civil War if the monuments disappear.

Take them down. They are vestiges of terror. They are commemorations of hate. Black citizens, and my students, live with the effects of racist systems that have created generations of inequities in health care, education, housing, policing, incarceration, wealth-building, and civic participation. When the monuments come down, this oppression will not magically go away. Once you are done calling for those symbols of terror to be taken down, the real work will remain. There are many people in Richmond who are doing the work already, who have been calling out and struggling to end the systems that we have upheld for a very long time. Join them. Destroy, and then BUILD.

Kehinde Wiley’s title for his equestrian sculpture was taken from the New Testament, but Rumors of War does seem quite prophetic now. Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates said that the North might of won the Civil War, but the South won the war of American mythology. The myths of the Lost Cause have always reigned supreme here in the capital of the Confederacy, but I would like to think that somehow Wiley’s work of art was a placeholder of sorts. His sculpture held the promise of a new myth until the people of Richmond grew angry enough to fight back against our old ones.

Black Lives Matter



Teacher, student, writer

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