On a misty Monday afternoon a few days after the violent protests in Charlottesville last year, artist Pablo Machioli patched up and painted the toppled statue of Madre Luz. With the help of friends he lifted the papier-mâché installation into position in front of the statue of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee in Baltimore’s Wyman Park. Madre Luz is larger than life and naked from the waist up requiring four men to hold her in their arms and embrace her to tilt her upright. In her vulnerability she draws people to her that way and asks them to become their better selves. Some listen, and the battering she took from those who do not made her look even more majestic: a chipped statue of a pregnant black woman carrying a child in a brightly-colored sling on her back. Originally Madre Luz had been facing away from Jackson and Lee, but this time, sensing her command of the moment, the men slowly turned her doleful face and raised golden fist toward her oppressors.
Decades ago when my wife and I lived a few blocks from Wyman Park, we often passed by the double equestrian statue of the Lee Jackson Monument that loomed over one of the entrances. I hardly gave it a thought. I was in graduate school at the time, and Barbara worked at Johns Hopkins University in the admissions office. We spent most of our free-time, before we had kids, deep in conversations about art, poetry, ideas, and our future. We loved the city, especially that park, where many in the neighborhood would gather for lunches and watch dogs chase Frisbees. Rarely did the statue catch my eye, and I certainly knew nothing of its history.
Barbara says that she did notice how beautiful the horses were, and looking at photos of the statue of the two mounted confederates now, I see it. The horses are stunningly rendered. Lee’s steed has come to a stop, both feet planted, and gazes down, forelock draped over the bridle strap and ears perked, alert. Jackson is pulling back on the reins of his horse, but the animal resists, its mouth drawn taut by the bridle and nostrils flared, with one leg held mid-air and chest muscles flexed. It is the eyes of Jackson’s horse—a wide-eyed fear captured in bronze—that is arresting. It is afraid of you, you realize, if you stand before it and gaze up, making you a part of the artwork, and for a few days the raised fist of Madre Luz filled that horse with a terror that caused Jackson and Lee, and all they represent, to retreat.
On the base of the Lee-Jackson Monument someone spray painted “Remember C-VILLE” in crude letters. Lately I have been having a hard time not remembering Charlottesville, another place where I lived and went to school. It is hard to erase the faces of more than one hundred men carrying torches across The Lawn at the University of Virginia and snaking through the grounds to the statue of Thomas Jefferson, making animal sounds and chanting “blood and soil” and “you will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us.” The organizers clearly wanted to re-enact marches by Nazi youth in Germany before World War II, evoking feelings of disgust in those who watched by shocking us, and they succeeded.
“I’m carrying a pistol. I go to the gym all the time. I’m trying to make myself more capable of violence,” the racist Christopher Cantwell tells Elle Reeve of VICE News before the march to the Robert E. Lee statue in Emancipation Park. That’s a shocker. Here’s another. “I’m here to spread ideas, talk in the hopes that somebody more capable will come along and do that, someone, like Donald Trump, who does not give his daughter to a Jew.” Cantwell spits out the word “Jew” with a smirk on his face to the muted laughter of young men behind him. “I don’t think you could feel about race the way I do and watch that Kushner bastard walk around with that beautiful girl, okay?” The language is sexually charged on purpose. Reeve is a petite blonde reporter and Cantwell attempted to show off by provoking her—at times it looks and sounds like verbal abuse as she struggles to maintain her poker face.
Sadly, there is more and it gets worse.
“This city is run by Jewish communists and criminal niggers,” says Robert Ray, another neo-Nazi, in the VICE report He goes by the name Azzmador and writes for The Daily Stormer, a magazine that promotes racist ideas and trolls its critics in an ugly and mean-spirited way. To him words are weapons and he is fond of using imagery of infestation to attack. “We’re showing to this parasitic class of anti-white vermin that this is our country, this country was built by our forefathers,” he explains to Reeve in a manner that was creepily measured, given his words, but as he spoke his voice rose as if he was giving a speech, and turned strident. He calls his enemies “anti-white, anti-American filth,” bearing down hard on the word “filth” for dramatic effect, and shouts that at some point neo-Nazis “will have enough power that we will clear them from the streets forever,” an unmistakable nod toward ethnic cleansing and the mass deportations and extermination of Jews and others during the Nazi era. “That which is degenerate in white countries,” Ray eventually yells, “will be removed.”
It is a verbal cesspool—all of it. So, yes, after watching those images and hearing all of that word bilge I have no trouble remembering C-ville. I can’t get it out of my mind.
Neo-Nazis are defined by what they are most proud of and the list is ugly. Cantwell likes to parade around half naked showing off his torso. Throughout much of the VICE News film he protests with his shirt off, although in fairness he may have done that because he was maced and had to wash his head and neck with milk. He and his fellow protesters in Charlottesville are proud of creating a tangible—as opposed to an online—spectacle. “They’re supposedly here to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee,” Reeve explains, “but they’re really here to show that they are more than an internet meme, that they’re a big, real presence that can organize in physical space.” So biceps and pecs and abs and helmets and shields and tear gas. Size matters, too. “They have a lot of numbers,” Reeve reports, and Robert Ray, who sports a scraggly gray beard, glasses, and a ball cap—and fortunately kept his tee-shirt on—brags about the turnout when he says “we greatly outnumbered” the counter-protesters. “Last night at the torch walk there were hundreds and hundreds of us,” he explains. “People realize that they are not atomized individuals. They are part of a larger whole.”
They are also proud of their name calling. It is not just the words, banalities such as “vermin,” and “filth,” but the way they deliver these insults for effect. Ray may be listing his insults with the demeanor of an accountant tallying up tax liabilities, but when he raises his voice, there is something wooden about his delivery that belies the real motive of his performance, the calculated attempt to use words to intimidate. More natural in his delivery, Cantwell is particularly adept at twisting his face around insults and shoving them at Reeve, but it is still clear that it is all for effect. In fact, he has a knack—which he shares with President Trump—of making all language sound insulting, each word weaponized. When he says, “We’re here obeying the law, we’re doing everything we’re supposed to do, trying to express opinions,” the words are innocuous enough in themselves and we get the point, but we also hear in the menacing delivery that the words express more than opinions. They are vehicles of hatred. All of them. Spit bombs. Verbal gunshots.
It is not an accident that Cantwell mimics Trump talk. Neo-Nazis are proud of their association with the president, another fact that defines them. Cantwell may lament that the president would “give his daughter to a Jew,” but he punctuates the slur with a Trump-like hand gesture using his forefinger and thumb. President Trump equates neo- Nazis with other protesters by blaming “many sides” for violence in the Charlottesville protests and asking rhetorical questions about the “alt-left” attacking the “alt-right,” and this implicit support now and during his campaign has already had an effect, emboldening these groups to stage events like Charlottesville. In a tweet, David Duke, a Trump supporter and the former Grand Wizard of the Klan, thanked the President for having the “courage to tell the truth.” The neo-Nazis are a fringe group now and the 300,000 subscribers to The Daily Stormer make up only a fraction of Trump’s base. At most white nationalist rallies they are outnumbered by counter-protesters, but the president’s subtle endorsement boosts their ranks.
Madre Luz faces this swelling odiousness and raises a golden fist.
Pablo Machioli, an artist from Uruguay who has lived in Baltimore since 2003, designed Madre Luz to “create a conversation” about race. The name means “mother light,” but in Spanish it is associated with “dar a luz,” a phrase referring to giving birth and nurturing life. In an interview with Baltimore Sun reporter Christina Tkacik, the artist explained that his original idea was to construct a statue of Harriet Tubman throwing a brick, but he rejected that as too violent and chose instead a pregnant mother as a symbol of life. “I feel like people would understand and respect that,” he told the reporter. Standing defiantly in front of the Lee-Jackson monument, she, I believe, symbolizes more because her imposing presence combines maternal nurturing with power. Madre Luz is Gaia, The Triple Goddess, and The Mother’s Knot. She is the American Statue of Maternity. She is the African seed of the wawa tree. She is a black flame.
What strikes me most as I look at photographs of her online is the majestic power of her nakedness. She wears a white skirt with the upper half of her ebony body fully exposed. The pregnant belly and breasts droop heavily but the sling on her back carrying a child seems to pull her upright, standing triumphant despite the burden of life here and to come weighing her down. Her left arm is broken and repaired in two places but still upright. Her nearly featureless face bears a doleful but stoic expression, and the scratches and rips in the papier-mâché only add to her fearlessness. There is defiance in the pose, but the roundness of her body and the widening S-shaped curve of her fully erect self is invitation as well, a summons to do your best or do your worst. She has been embraced, photographed, and admired. She has been beaten, toppled, and thrown to the ground only to rise again. She has heard it all—all the bile of Cantwell and Ray and the other racists—and she can stand before their symbol of white supremacy, powerless and exposed, and still raise a fist sprinkled with glitter.
Her nakedness defies the violence it invites.
Violence is, in the end, what the neo-Nazis want. “I came pretty well prepared for this thing today,” Cantwell tells Reeve in his motel room in Roanoke Rapids, N.C. as he raises an AK assault rifle and tosses it on the bed. Next he pulls a pistol from under his belt. “Kel-Tec P-3AT,” he says tossing it on the mattress beside his rifle. He offers up that addled half smile of his. He loves this. “Glock 19, nine millimeter.” He lifts the gun from behind his back and sighting down the barrel briefly tosses it on the bed. He raises his pant leg and undoes the Velcro holster on his calf. “Ruger LC9, also nine millimeter.” He’s doing a lethal-weapon striptease for Reeve. “And there’s a knife.” He finds it in his side pocket and flips it. “Oh,” he says as an afterthought, “I actually have another AK in that bag over there.” Divested of his weapons he turns to Reeve: “You can lose track of your fucking guns, huh.”
Cantwell tossing the weapons is visual assault.
Reeve, still poker-faced but with her chin puckered, looks like a victim.
The bed looks like a crime scene.
Cantwell says that his band of white nationalists exhibited self-control during the demonstrations. He says that the death of Heather Heyer was justified, claiming that the crowd of counter-protesters James Alex Fields plowed into with his car provoked the death by “striking” the car. “When these animals attacked him again, he saw no way to get away from them except to hit the gas,” Cantwell explains, describing the video of the death scene as he sees it. “The amount of restraint that our people showed out there I think was astounding,” he adds sternly.
We can all watch the video. It is hard to see the Dodge Challenger accelerating into a milling crowd without braking and not call it murder. It’s hard watch the car back up, accelerating again, as bodies flip over the trunk or slide under the back bumper and not call it terrorism. It’s impossible to listen to Cantwell talk calmly beside a bed full of weapons and not fear that these white nationalists call anything but all-out war restraint. “We’re not non-violent: we’ll fucking kill these people if we have to,” Cantwell yells at one point, adding, bluntly, that “more will die.” He means it. He wants it. He is prepared to do it. He wants the masked Antifa, the small number of counter-protesters who believe in physical resistance to the neo-Nazis, to strike with their sticks and flagpoles, provoking a race war—a war he thinks he can win. That’s what the guns on the white bedspread are all about. The weapon of choice this time may have been a car with a detached bumper pulling away pathetically from murder and mayhem, but these guys are just itching to use their personal arsenals.
What stands in their way is the naked body of Madre Luz.
“I don’t think it’s ever been about a statue,” said Tanesah Hudson, a local activist from Charlottesville who spoke to a reporter from VICE News. It is true that as a black woman she puts up with the oppressive presence of Confederate statues daily. She “can’t stand in one corner” of her city and not feel “the master” staring down on her. But the calls to take down the statue of Robert E. Lee was not what brought the white nationalists to her city. That was an excuse for a show of force and a display of hatred intended to provoke a face off, and, in the end, the question is not what the white nationalists do, but the way others in this confrontation respond.
“It’s about right is right and wrong is wrong,” Hudson explained, her assertion of morality a challenge. With bigotry on one side, who are we on the other and how will we fight back?
The question is “What will I do with my anger and disgust?”
The answer is “not throw a brick.”
I try hard to hear respect for the law when David Duke explains that his people had “a federal court order to have this rally” as he leaves Emancipation Park. I would like to muster up some sympathy for Ray when he talks about young, white men feeling lost, atomized, and alone in America. I would certainly like to know what kind of insecurity causes Cantwell to say hateful things and then search Reeve’s face—which is the face of us all—for signs of shock. But I can’t. All of that talk was an excuse to create an explosive, and ultimately violent, spectacle for Americans to witness on their screens. The old guard of neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan members who talk like Cantwell and Ray is probably a lost cause, a pathetic group who actually is deplorable.
Even the younger men whose post-adolescent minds are still forming and susceptible to other messages, seem like lost causes. The chant of “You will not replace us” as they march across the UVA campus may offer up an unspoken message of white anxiety about having no place in a changing world that will dis-place them, and as they approach the counter-protesters who link arms and form a ring around the base of the statue of Thomas Jefferson, the youthful physicality and camaraderie of both groups looks about the same, but the fury of the neo-Nazis is palpable, the voices reverberating in my mind like the ringing after a blow even now. I can’t hear a cry for help no matter how hard I try in the words they spit out. I hear nothing but racism. Can we stop this contagion of hatred from spreading?
The ones who concern me are the millions of young people who are watching it from the sidelines on social media. They are susceptible to hate-speech and propaganda and follow trends, but they are also ripe for change when a more mature self emerges, one capable of empathy, of re-placing themselves in the shoes of others before they speak and act. They do not need a violent face-off that begins with sticks, rocks, and mace and ends in gunfire. They need to see real courage in the form of a non-violent response the way I did when I was their age and was changed for life by protests I saw on television. They need moral leadership to awaken their consciences before it is too late, someone exposed and vulnerable who can speak to their better selves.
They need a fist of gold to lead them out of this torch-lit hell.
It was still dark on the Wednesday after the violence in Charlottesville when the Lee Jackson monument in Baltimore came down. A crane lifted the enormous double equestrian statue from its pedestal and a hard hat with a local construction crew guided it using rope under the glare of trailer-mounted lights while Madre Luz calmly watched. Around the city of Baltimore other controversial Confederate statues were pulled down that day, loaded onto flatbed trucks, and taken to a municipal parking lot. There Lee and Jackson and their beautiful horses stood in an unfamiliar spot, looking a little forlorn, among statues of confederate women, a dying soldier, a winged angel, and a robed figure slumped beside the hedges.
For two days after the removal of the Lee-Jackson Monument, Madre Luz stood triumphant, representing the only way to fight hatred: allowing vulnerability to penetrate the consciousness—and prick the consciences—of Americans. It worked at the Edmund Pettus Bridge when Martin Luther King, John Lewis, Jesse Douglas, James Forman, and Ralph Abernathy locked arms and marched toward Selma. It worked at a segregated lunch counter in Jackson, Mississippi when college students staged a sit-in. It happened in Charlottesville when Heather Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, stood defiantly at her daughter’s funeral and announced, magnificent in her grief, that white nationalists “tried to kill my child to shut her up, but guess what, you just magnified her.” And it was on full display as Madre Luz, a symbol of maternal love, stood before a Rebel statue and watched it being hauled away.
Those who practice nonviolence in the face of evil pay a price. Susan Bro lost her daughter. John Lewis and others were beaten when state and local police at the bridge near Selma attacked marchers with billy clubs and tear gas. The lunch-counter protesters were humiliated as white townspeople swarmed around them and poured sugar, ketchup, and mustard over their heads. And Madre Luz was in the end destroyed. To celebrate her triumph over Lee and Jackson the artist moved her to the pedestal where the statue had stood for sixty-nine years, but in the middle of the night someone knocked her over, breaking her body in several pieces as it fell headlong. The price for nonviolence is high, but it is an answer to hatred that produces results. After the Civil War, any durable gains of the movement for civil rights in America have largely been achieved by courageous, nonviolent protest, and if the movement turns violent, the bigots win. The way out of hatred is to follow Madre Luz. Mother Light. In the end, her upper torso was crushed and her head smashed in, but her golden fist remains intact reaching out of the ruin to us all.
Steven Harvey is the author of a memoir, The Book of Knowledge and Wonder, and three collections of personal essays: A Geometry of Lilies, Lost in Translation, and Bound for Shady Grove. Two of his essays have been selected for The Best American Essays: “The Book of Knowledge,” in 2013 and “The Other Steve Harvey,” forthcoming in 2018. He is a senior editor of River Teeth and the creator of The Humble Essayist website.