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QONDILE KHEDAMA: How Black Lives Matter turned the world's perception of history

OPINION

Our history forms a greater part of our heritage. How our historic heritage is presented and preserved does not only impact on our integrity as human beings, but also manifests into knowledge that would be transmitted to generations to come. Heritage activists and authors do however acknowledge its vastness, including inherited heritage's boundless meaning. Like the advancement of physical sciences, heritage preservation is part of a greater universal cause. Heritage as a keystone that brings all expertise across disciplines together as a unified force for a noble cause. and has the potential to be an emotional issue, given a complex world social order.

The recent Black Lives Matter protest that was to change the course of United States' history is but one significant incident that demonstrates deficiencies in the handling of historical imperatives. A protest against racial injustices and police brutality that spread across that country and later in different parts of the world, following the brutal killing of African-American George Floyd, reignited an old discussion of the removal of statues, especially those associated with a bigoted history. As the protesters demonstrated, the first target in registering their disgruntlement was statues and monuments that have become sites of historical conflict. They defaced and removed them, revealing bitter divisions over interpretations of the past.

The debate on statues and their role in history remains universal and incessant, with Black lives Matter sparking a wide review about the historical figures who are commemorated in Britain. Those who were against the removal of the statues believed it was an attempt to rewrite history.

But some historians say statues themselves are not history – rather, they are a symbol about the time at which they were first erected.

Most activists who come from the background of oppression see that statues tend to commemorate historical figures for their positive actions, and omit their controversies. For example, Edward Colston in the United Kingdom was considered a philanthropist who gave large amounts of money to causes in Bristol before his death. However, his involvement in the slave trade through the Royal African Company was the source of much of his wealth. The plaque on the statue’s plinth reads: “Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city AD 1895.”

Community groups and petitions in Bristol had been campaigning for the statue to include another plaque outlining Colston’s role in the slave trade, or for it to be removed entirely before the protest. But progress was slow, leading to protesters taking the matter in their own hands. Some people have said that removing the statue of Colston is an attempt to erase parts of history of which we are now ashamed.

Those on the other side of the argument, such as Housing and Communities Minister Simon Clarke, did not come out clearly out of fear of vengeance – they were saying that Britain’s history is “complex”. Common view amongst the protestors was that statues tend to commemorate historical figures for their positive actions, and omit their controversies. Some have pointed out that the very act of removing the statue, more than 100 years after it was put up, forms part history itself.

According to the London South Bank University history lecturer Katie Donington, “the removal of the statue has now become part of the history of transatlantic slavery and its legacy; it’s part of the historical process of the country coming to terms with that history”.

Conservators say the cultural significance of an object is not static.

“The values that society associates with objects evolves as time passes and attitudes change. The act of erecting, moving, re-presenting or indeed removing an object therefore becomes part of the object’s history and should be documented for future understanding and interpretation,” says Sara Crofts, chief executive of the Institute of Conservation, whose members deal with the care of items, architectural features and decorated surfaces.

The Royal Historical Society says that statues do not stand outside history and their removal does not erase it.

“As historians, our job is to understand and explain acts of commemoration and resistance, including the one that toppled and then pitched the figure of a slave trader – a man responsible for the purchase, transportation, and deaths of thousands of Africans, including children – into the water of Bristol harbour on Sunday.”

Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals in London said it would remove two statues of their namesakes from public view due to their links to the slave trade. The statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square has been encased in a protective box after it was targeted during the protests.

Academics like Jessica Moody, a lecturer in public history at the University of Bristol, say one way of dealing with controversial statues is to place them in museums where their full context and history can be set out.

“Some of the statues currently under debate could certainly go into a museum where this history and context, the use and abuse of the past, can be more fully explored, so long as this was done in an appropriate manner with consultation – and which records the nature of their removal as an important part of the history of the communities around them,” Moody said, according to the Press Association.

This makes me ponder the real purpose of the erection of statues . This question also came to the fore when former United Kingdom prime minister Theresa May announced plans in June 2019 for a memorial in London’s Waterloo station commemorating the arrival to Britain in 1948 of the first of the Windrush generation, according to History Today. The Windrush Foundation criticised the plans, pointing out that the government had not consulted members of the Caribbean community in the UK before publicising them.

This was merely the latest in a succession of recent episodes that have fuelled global debates over the purpose of public monuments in society. The Rhodes Must Fall movement, which began at the University of Cape Town in 2015 and then spread to Oxford University the following year, protested against statues of the colonialist Cecil Rhodes on both universities’ campuses. Moreover, the past few years have seen ongoing campaigns in the US to have Civil War statues commemorating Confederate figures removed from public spaces. Counter-campaigners have sought to maintain those statues as they are. What these episodes all have in common is that, within each, monuments have become lightning rods for wider conflicts between competing visions of history.

Nations and communities have various options in dealing with controversial monuments. One is to remove them entirely. In some contexts, authorities have done precisely this. With the fall of Hitler’s Germany, for example, Nazi monuments throughout the former Reich were hastily pulled down, part of a wider effort to exorcise the spectre of national socialism.

Some who oppose particular monuments do not wish to take them down entirely, however, asserting that simply removing a statue is tantamount to pretending a traumatic event in the past never happened. Rather, they advocate removing controversial statues while retaining their pedestals as a reminder of the events that they invoke. Accordingly, empty plinths throughout the US show that some communities have confronted their difficult pasts in this way. Proponents of retaining controversial monuments have suggested that to remove them would be to efface a part of history. They argue that statues should be preserved because they teach people about the past. But is viewing a statue actually an effective way of learning about history?

An insightful way of answering this question is to examine the attitudes of past societies to their public monuments. Developments in 19th century Europe, in particular, have the potential to unlock a fresh vantage point from which to view this contemporary issue. In that era, many political communities pursued state-building programmes that involved appropriating history to serve interests in the present. Nations devoted substantial energy and resources to commemorating heroes from the past in monumental form. According to History Today, "Helke Rausch’s important work on the political uses of statues in European capitals between 1848 and 1914 shows that major cities received dozens of new monuments: Paris gained 78 new statues, Berlin 59 and London 61."

With good reason, historians often characterise the 19th century brand as an age of statuomania.

These monuments continue to shape the fabric of European cities even in Africa, which leads to discussions on spatial injustices. The battle of the statues is a global phenomena. In South Africa, the people started their fight to bring down the statues and namesakes of white supremacist colonisers as far back as in 2015. There’s concerted efforts by activists that this battle will not stop until this overdue reclaiming and rewriting of world history comes to full fruition.

The issue at hand here is more than just what these statues represent and literally stand for. What is at issue is that these statues occupy and pollute public spaces. People are asked to look up to, literally, and admire these men as their role models as they go about their daily lives.

These statues were never ornaments or innocent bystanders. They were erected to claim the public spaces around them for white people only. It is not accidental that most of these statues represent the most vicious racist mass murderers in history. They were meant to frighten and silence people into obedience. These men did not build their own statues. Others did – others who thought these monuments were necessary, like a totem pole to claim the land generations after generations, and whenever their ideologies of white supremacy were in need of being publicly and violently reasserted for oppressed to watch and learn and be quiet.

People are today reclaiming the symbolic registers of these public spaces and redefining them as a prelude to rewriting world history. Those perpetuating supremacy and oppressive systems resisting a change can only learn from the rise and resilience of the Black Life Matter campaign.

Qondile Khedama is communications practitioner, social commentator and a writer. He writes in his personal capacity.