Pride and Privilege: challenging the myths of white America

Pride and Privilege: challenging the myths of white America

Photographer Kris Graves’s new monograph, ‘Privileged Mediocrity’ explores the American landscape at the dawn of the 21st century.

On October 20 2021, the infamous bronze statue of defeated Confederate General Robert E. Lee that once glowered from a massive pillar looming over Charlottesville, Virginia, met its logical end: the flames of a small foundry that reduced it to utter formlessness.

Nearly a century after the monument to a traitor was erected in 1924, the people brought it down — but the efforts to do so was not without consequence. The decision to remove the statue sparked the 2017 Unite the Right rally that resulted in the murder of counterprotester Heather Heyer.

At the height of the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement, the world descended on Lee’s monument once again. Vibrant messages of liberation were scrawled in spray paint along the base while Lee’s trust steed was emblazoned with bold letters proclaiming “BLM.” At night protesters projected images of liberators and martyrs like George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, and Harriet Tubman on plinth, transforming the desecrated monument into a symbol of resistance and triumph.

Photographer and publisher Kris Graves chose this moment for the cover of his new monograph, Privileged Mediocrity (Monolith Editions/Hatje Cantz). The book explores the American landscape at the dawn of the 21st century, offering a poetic mediation on the ways fascism and capitalism work hand in hand.

“We live in a society based on money and people having it, and we don’t really talk about the sufferings of the have-nots when it’s in conflict with the rich,” says Graves. “We don’t give land to the people we stole it from. Instead we’ve built factories and windowless boxes. We’re not trying to be a good place; we just live in a bullshit world.”

Graves crafted Privileged Mediocrity as a nuanced critique, inviting readers to wade into places where still waters run deep. His tender photograph of tattered stuffed animals left in the spot where Mike Brown was murdered by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson in 2014 stands as a silent indictment of Confederate monuments catalogued in the section titled “A Southern Horror”.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” Southern novelist William Faulker famously wrote in 1951, with the full knowledge America’s reckoning has yet to come. The long shadows of the past cast a pall over our daily lives, as evidenced in Graves’s photographs of institutions like Robert E. Lee High School.

Graves recounts an encounter with a friend who recognized one of the Confederate monuments in the book. “It was down the street and he had to pass it every day on his way to school,” Graves says. “His parents told him to be careful because the white people in places like that are for the Confederate South. To be Black growing up there was really difficult for him.”

Privileged Mediocrity concludes with a ray of hope: the destruction of monuments to traitors, slavers, colonizers, and genocidal maniacs who followed in the footsteps of Christopher Columbus — a powerful reminder that, as Malcolm X said, “Truth is on the side of the oppressed.”

Privileged Mediocrity is out now

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