Departmental Statement Calling for the Removal of Silent Sam
In September 2017, in the wake of the tragic events in Charlottesville, the Department of Art and Art History issued a statement (below) calling for the removal of UNC’s Confederate Memorial, observing that “its very presence is an act of violence.” That violence was answered on this campus not quite a year later by peaceful demonstrators acting in a long and honorable tradition of civil disobedience, which deserves the University’s respect. Our original statement remains on the department website as an affirmation of the values of diversity, inclusion, and mutual respect to which we remain committed and a reminder of the reasons we support the removal of the monument. We regard Chancellor Folt’s statement of August 31 as a welcome first step, and strongly agree with her that the former Confederate Memorial does not belong “at the front door of a safe, welcoming, proudly public research university.” Reiterating that this monument does not belong in any position of prominence on the UNC campus, we look forward to engaging in the civil, constructive dialogue on this issue that the administration has promised to lead.
The Department of Art & Art History is committed to developing critical thinkers who respond to the visual world around us through historical context and with deep curiosity and careful observation. As artists and scholars, we understand the agency of artists and the power of art and visual culture to solidify dominant ideologies or to transform them entirely. Our departmental values statement, “The curiosity, empathy, and courage to engage diverse perspectives,” demands that we address situations in myriad ways, this public statement being just one.
Silent Sam, a powerful visual symbol, was erected as a form of white supremacist intimidation and in tacit defense of slavery and a racist social order. This ideology was openly espoused at the monument’s dedication in 1913, at a time of Jim Crow, segregation, and terrorist violence. It served as an active rewriting of Confederate history – one that turned the slave owners’ rebellion into a false narrative of Southern struggle against Northern oppression. The United Daughters of the Confederacy commissioned an artist to create their monument in an attempt to legitimize the project of white supremacy, which it conveys insidiously as subtext. This is the power societies grant to monuments: to shape collective memory and manipulate the past in order to construct and form the present. Each successive generation has the right, and the duty, to examine those endowments critically and, on careful reflection, to alter them.
Thus, while we understand the statue to be a legitimate object of art historical study, we also believe that, like monuments to discredited leaders, it is no less a legitimate candidate for removal. Its very presence is an act of violence – a visual attack on UNC students, teachers, and workers, who walk under its looming shadow every day.
Years of struggle and debate over this statue need to end now. The university’s commitment to inclusivity demands Silent Sam’s removal and historically accurate contextualization elsewhere – a step in recognizing and contending with UNC’s racist legacy of supporting and venerating white supremacists throughout its campus landscape.