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Prominent filmmaker says Lee removal is exciting but that Richmond must change more than symbols

Statue hangs from a crane
A statue to Robert E. Lee which towered over Monument Avenue for over 130 years is removed from its pedestal. (Photo: Julia Rendleman)

The removal of the Robert E. Lee statue from Richmond’s Monument Avenue this month drew eyes from around the country. Among those watching was CJ Hunt, a field producer on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and a film director. His documentary, ‘The Neutral Ground,’ released this summer, looks at the city of New Orleans’ own struggle with Confederate monuments. He spoke about the legacy of the Lost Cause with VPM’s Patrick Larsen.

Patrick Larsen: CJ Hunt lived in New Orleans for nine years. After the city council there decided to remove its confederate monuments, it took over 500 days to actually take them down.

CJ Hunt: And why a majority black city in 2015, would still have its highest places of honor, dedicated to, you know, folks who would have had people who look like me enslaved in the city. That was something I wanted to tease out in the film about, you know, how is this this hard to move these objects?

Larsen: Hunt says it’s sometimes helpful to think of the South’s relationship to the Confederacy as a break up.

Hunt: And we kept all of their stuff, we kept it in the living room, and it makes people feel weird. And there is a denial around how weird it is to still have that stuff in the living room. And Black people forever. Since these symbols went up, Black people have been pointing to them going, that is weird that that's there.

Larsen: Including Black Richmonders.

Hunt: Right in 1890, the Black writers for the [Richmond Planet] were saying the Black man put these monuments up and he will be there when it's time to take them down.

Larsen: Hunt finds it darkly comedic - though he says the comedy is a way to cope - that statues honoring an army that lost a major war are still standing over a century after they were put up. To him, it’s largely due to a practice of forgetting - specifically forgetting the legacy of white supremacy.

Hunt: Confederate monuments are only an issue because whenever you want to move them, you have folks who say, Oh, forget, just forget, look away, look away from what these men did look away from what they wrote down. Look away from the speeches that were said, you know about segregation and white supremacy at their dedications. And I think the country right now is in a moment where we are saying we will not look away.

Larsen: Hunt has been following the story of efforts in Richmond to remove the city’s own monuments. He watched the statue of Robert E. Lee come down this month over a live stream. He says these moments are exciting - they’re empowering - but he warns against a sort of amnesia, which sets in in the aftermath of an iconic, but symbolic change.

Hunt: So when they write the story of how Robert E Lee finally came down in Richmond, I hope that that story goes beyond the mayor and the governor and recognizes folks like Chelsea Higgs Wise and the Race Capitol team and Princess Blanding. And all of the Richmond organizers who like for 100 days last summer, were out in the streets in the heat protesting police violence and these monuments. Right, like, I hope we do not forget that those same protesters got tear gassed at the base of those monuments.

Larsen: The title of Hunt’s documentary focusing on New Orleans, ‘The Neutral Ground,’ asserts that white supremacy is so strong because it pretends to be the status quo - it’s neutral, it can’t be changed.

Hunt: So I feel dope. I feel excited. I feel hopeful that Robert E. Lee's down in Richmond finally, finally. But what does that mean, if Republican governors across the country are able to pass laws to make it illegal to teach children that Robert E Lee was a part of a white supremacist army?

Larsen: Hunt says monument removals fly in the face of the Lost Cause narrative - but don’t erase it.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.