I would like to commend retired history professor Milton Ready for his recent commentary on what remains of the Vance Monument [“Down by Law: The Monumental Toppling of Zeb Vance,” June 21, Xpress]. In this thoughtful piece, professor Ready explains to the people of Asheville that the demolition ordered by the City Council more than two years ago was completely unnecessary. Instead, says the professor, an informational placard, small but strategically placed, could have been used to “contextualize” the life of Zeb Vance and bring his racist infamy back into compatibility with modern-day values.
Must have been more than a few slapped foreheads over at City Hall when that story broke. All that controversy, all that turmoil, all those advisory commissions, all that shouting — and the ideal solution was right there the whole time. But don’t blame professor Ready for delivering the embarrassing news. Telling folks what they should have done in the past is what being a historian is all about.
My only criticism is that professor Ready’s proposal doesn’t go far enough. If we really want to resurrect the Vance Problem and then take an informational tack to solve it, here’s an even better way:
Rebuild the 75-foot obelisk just like new, but this time with a more complete dedication that reads: “Zebulon Baird Vance — Champion of White Supremacy; Scourge of African Savages; also Rebel Officer, Governor, Senator and Blah, Blah, Blah.” All that information is accurate, so no one could possibly bellyache.
The inscription might seem a little jarring at first, but when historical memory is at stake, halfway measures just won’t do. White supremacy wasn’t merely a footnote to Vance’s public career, after all, and he would have been the first to tell you so. In fact, he would have been appalled to find his many contributions to racial theory buried in the fine print.
With the heavy lifting out of the way, of course, we could still follow professor Ready’s advice and add a little placard somewhere explaining to any skeptics why our golden boy’s racist side, though regrettable in hindsight, should not prevent viewers from appreciating his monument with a mixture of awe, gratitude and nuance. That sweet spirit of toleration would inspire all but the most flint-hearted. A towering achievement, as it were.
Or we could just turn the contextualization thing over to the spray-paint pundits again. That would work.
— Peter Robbins