Culture

Silence and Statues: A Reflection on the Black Lives Matter Protests

The anti-racism protests following the murder of George Floyd have sparked debates worldwide about the appropriateness of statues which commemorate figures complicit in the slave trade and colonial exploitation. In recent days the Prime Minister has condemned actions defacing statues such as that of Winston Churchill, claiming that the protests have been ‘hijacked by extremists’, resulting in ‘indiscriminate acts of violence’ against both the police and public property. [1] For some, the removal of historical statues is equal to censorship of the past, erasing history, and, ultimately, detracting from the cause of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

As a young black woman, I find Boris Johnson’s comments incredibly disappointing. His words show misunderstanding of both the felt experiences of members of the BAME community and a cause which clearly seeks to shed light on history, not erase it. 

A few weeks ago, I did not know who Edward Colston was. When his statue was torn down by protesters, I attempted to find out more about him online, using my university’s search catalogue in hopes of finding more detailed information than the average Google search. And yet, in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, an academic website which I only have access to by virtue of being a student, the issue of his controversial past is mentioned vaguely, and only once:

‘Much of his wealth is thought to have been made in buying and selling slaves.’ [2]

In fact, Colston is thought to have been involved in the enslavement of over 84,000 slaves, more than 19,000 of whom died during transportation. [3] His subsequent philanthropy in Bristol (which was given far more attention in the biography I read) was funded by the abuse of thousands of men, women, and children. This is a story relevant to a great number of cities in the UK, and a legacy which we must now face head on: the country we live in was shaped by the profits of slavery. Nor are these racial injustices solely confined to our past; British taxpayers (including the black community) only finished paying off the debt incurred to compensate slave owners after abolition in 2015. [4] The economic effects of compensating oppressors, not the oppressed, have been felt within our lifetime, but the injustice of that burden is never discussed. In order to continue our fight against racism we need to learn about and acknowledge the darker aspects of the nation’s past, instead of ignoring them or patting ourselves on the back for not being quite so obviously problematic as America. Our past, it seems, is hidden – but hidden in plain sight.

A search through an academic website gave me very little information about Colston’s involvement in the slave trade. If I had walked past his statue on a street, I would have learned even less. We naturally expect to see memorials of people who deserve to be celebrated, giving these figures a pedestal without letting the viewer consider whether they should have one. The protestors who tore Colston’s statue down have taken action to enlighten the country – Colston was charitable to the city of Bristol, true, but we should no longer look at him with unquestioning admiration. This, it seems, is what Boris Johnson fails to comprehend when he describes ‘indiscriminate acts of violence’. These protests are not mindless, tearing down any and every piece of public property to be found; they are purposeful, forcing action where more traditional methods have failed. 

To condemn violence and yet defend statues which, for some, glorify a history of systemic violence against people of colour exemplifies the struggles that protestors striving to make change are facing. While we allow ourselves to be shocked by the difficult scenes unfolding both in the US and here in the UK, we are failing to scrutinise ourselves and address the causes of unrest and unhappiness. Previous campaigns to remove statues in the past have been unsuccessful, such as those regarding Cecil Rhodes at Oxford University in 2016. Despite the student and minority ethnic voices demanding its removal, the university refused, allegedly influenced by the threats made by significantly wealthier individuals to withdraw funds. [5] Renewed protests since Colston’s toppling have finally been heard, however, and Oriel College have since voted to remove their statue of Rhodes. [6] Last year, plans for a plaque detailing Edward Colston’s past were derailed after debate over the wording and the extent to which his involvement in the slave trade was emphasised. [7] Ironically, Conservative Party Councillor, Richard Eddy, argued that a plaque which challenged Colston’s philanthropical image (and identified Colston as a Tory MP) would be so outrageous that theft or vandalism of the plaque ‘might be justified’. [8]

So much for fears of erasing our history.

The right-wing protests supposedly defending Winston Churchill’s statue in London exemplify how calls for change and education are frequently taken as attacks. Yes, Churchill is a national hero – but he was by no means perfect. Our approach cannot be limited to the obvious defence that historical figures ‘lived in another time’; if they can’t stand up to our scrutiny now, do they deserve to remain our heroes? Pretending that Churchill had no problematic views denies the reality of history and insults the memory of those his prejudice affected. Educating ourselves and future generations about the problems of our past does not disgrace him; we can appreciate his achievements (and those of others, like Colston) while carefully distinguishing between behaviours which embody modern British values and those which belong in the past.

Providing information about the UK’s past is essential to making progress in the ongoing debates about racism’s legacies. If these statues truly represent British history, they should be viewed in a way which makes the reality of that history obvious to the viewer – accompanied by honest and informative plaques, or shown in museums where visitors can take the time to read the stories behind our ‘heroes’. Amidst increased calls for changes to the curriculum in line with these concerns, the government has an opportunity to make lasting change and create an environment which respects ethnic minorities’ experiences while (finally) being true to history. 

After all, empty spaces around our monuments represent silence about inequalities (past and present) – and silence is complicit. 

@notthatsunny


[1] BBC News, ‘Protests threat to Churchill statue shameful, says Boris Johnson’

[2] Kenneth Morgan, ‘Colston, Edward’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

[3] David Olusoga, ‘The toppling of Edward Colston’s statue is not an attack on history. It is history’

[4] Naomi Fowler, ‘Britain’s Slave Owner Compensation Loan, reparations and tax havenry’

[5] BBC News, ‘Cecil Rhodes statue to be kept by Oxford University college

[6] Sean Coughlan, ‘Oxford college wants to remove Cecil Rhodes statue

[7] Tristan Cork, ‘Row breaks out as Merchant Venturer accused of ‘sanitising’ Edward Colston’s involvement in slave trade

[8]  Tristan Cork, ‘Theft or vandalism of second Colston statue plaque ‘may be justified’ – Tory councillor’


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