Pulling down the statues of the past that pollute the present

Jul 17, 2020 | 29 comments

By John Keeble

A British city that traded 500,000 slaves during the 17th and 18th centuries has been catapulted into the Black Lives Matter forefront by the toppling of a slaver’s statue and its replacement in a dawn protest raid with a resin-and-steel figure of a protester.

Local authorities in Bristol, southwest England, have been responding with caution as the city comes to terms with its past and the way that slavery and white supremacy are seen today.

The Edward Colston statue, which was dumped in the harbour last month, was erected in 1895, more than 170 years after his death, apparently to laud his philanthropy. It will now be displayed in a museum along with placards from the Black Lives Matter protest.

Protester Jen Reid and the figure that replaced the slaver.

The people’s replacement of the controversial city centre statue with the figure of protester Jen Reid highlights again the inflammatory roles and deceptive natures of statues and memorials. Report link

Statues and monuments are usually erected by the powerful and wealthy to further their own views of how their worlds should be run and to praise those who they support. They rarely depict the weak and abused, the victims of the strong.

They are important parts of the fabric of national, social and cultural myths and values. Unfortunately, many are manipulative warriors in the game of constructing, expressing and passing destructive values down the generations.

Their ideological assertions from the past fight for new expression in the present. And, in some cases, there are willing takers who try to legitimise their extreme views by tying them to the monuments. Confederacy statues and monuments in America are easy examples.

Some statues are hate speech from the past: they were set up with the intentions of glorifying abhorrent values, attitudes and actions, like those surrounding slavery and genocide, and left for the future to continue.

Messages from the past: the Robert E. Lee statue that Charlottesville wants to remove

Pulling them down is difficult for authorities because it means pulling down the myths that have become part of some people’s self-identities and politics. For others, the horrors of the past have been sanitised by time and they bask in the statues’ rose-tinted nostalgia without thinking about what they are supporting.

At the time of their erection, statues and monuments may represent something of their subjects’ values. But mostly those who commissioned and installed them decided their meanings to glorify their own views and social constructions.

Put another way, statues and monuments tend to be warriors in the erectors’ machinations or unconscious values, attempts to glorify and perpetuate specific social constructs, to convince and influence an unthinking public, sometimes to legitimise the unthinkable like genocide and slavery, and to fight against change.

They are important to us individually as part of our psychological landscapes. Their messages, openly hidden in their illusions of official legitimacy, seep into our minds. They become part of who we are, though their personal acceptability can change as we understand more.

I once liked to think of Winston Churchill’s statues as representing heroic ideals… but now his darker side haunts me; British war memorials might be grand but they changed for me when I chanced upon a small memorial north of Cape Town … the desolate site of a British army concentration camp where hundreds of Boer men, women and children died; the elegant Confederate and other military monuments in beautiful Savannah, Georgia, captivated my interest … but contrasted bleakly with the slavery and civil rights centres I had seen at other locations, including lynching and slavery scenes at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

Images of the reality of slave life at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

An evaluation of our statues is an evaluation of our nation’s past and, for many, an evaluation of the constructions of our minds. Do we accept the messages from the past? What do we believe is morally right? What kind of world do we want to live in when oppressors are glorified?

Look at a statue that glorifies white supremacy and see a message from the past urging you to take those values and squeeze their victims forever. A dead hand twitching the puppet strings of the present. How should we feel about that?

While many statues and monuments were designed with ideological intent – the Confederate monuments, for example, are said to have been designed specifically to reinforce white supremacy – not every destructive message from the past was put there deliberately.

Cultures at the times of their designs and installations could have normalised the ideas contained in the statues and made them acceptable, even invisible in their obviousness, as they were hauled into place.

Roosevelt statue now seen as an unacceptable message of white supremacy.

A growing dispute, between sensitivity to racial slurs and the facts of history, was laid to rest in Lincolnshire, England, recently with the removal of the headstone on the grave of the black labrador retriever identified with the Dambusters raid in World War Two. His name was used by the raid’s leader, Guy Gibson VC, to signal success in destroying the Moehne dam in Germany. This is an example of the normal then, in this case 1943 England, no longer being acceptable now. Report link, Wikipedia symbolism discussion

Wider successes of subjects can either blind the commissioning powers to the brutal messages in the designs or give them a menu of aspects to best fit their own preferences – Bristol’s Colston statue, for example, praised his philanthropy but essentially propagated the message that being a successful businessman/killer soaked in the blood and lives of slaves was not just all right, it was to be celebrated.

If Colston’s statue was a silent supporter of the slave trade in a city built on its proceeds, other statues do not share that reticence and inspire hatred and violence today. Eleanor Harvey, a senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and a scholar of Civil War history, writes of Confederate monuments: “If white nationalists and neo-Nazis are now claiming this as part of their heritage, they have essentially co-opted those images and those statues beyond any capacity to neutralize them again.” Reports link

There is an intricate, deceptive knot in the meanings of many statues: while the statue itself is projected as some kind of innocent truth, its designers and erectors have captured complex individuals and actions and tied them in such a way that they represent very limited ideas and ideologies to suit their own views.

Winston Churchill statue in London. Should we forget his role in famine and deaths?

Take, for example, the Teddy Roosevelt statue that has outstayed its welcome at the American Museum of Natural History: a complex man of many accomplishments reduced to one meaning.

As statue re-evaluations go, that statue does not present a vastly difficult problem. The statue depicts a powerful, armed Roosevelt on horseback with a subjugated Native American on one side and an African on the other. Pretty much the only one against getting rid of it was the world’s most powerful tweeter.

Roosevelt’s great-great-grandson, the museum, and the public agree that the imagery is no longer tolerable. “If you look at it now, I think it gives the wrong message,” said Kermit Roosevelt III, a professor at Penn Law. Interview link

For many, it must seem only too true in an America where other images show a white knee on the throat of a black man, and Native Americans with their sacred sites desecrated and their lands taken for white projects.

Should Roosevelt be remembered for positive aspects of his life and career rather than being captured as an ideological icon for white supremacy?

The reverse is true of the Winston Churchill statue outside the Houses of Parliament in London: the criticism is that, while the message is benign, the character is flawed. The statue depicts Churchill as the World War Two prime minister who kept the nation together through defeats, bombing blitzes and victories. However, his past – what he was in different phases of his life – is now seen by some as reason for the statue’s removal.

“To many outside the West, he remains a grotesque racist and a stubborn imperialist, forever on the wrong side of history,” judged the Washington Post. “Most notoriously, Churchill presided over the hideous 1943 famine in Bengal, where some 3 million Indians perished, largely as a result of British imperial mismanagement.” Story link

Two statues: one overwhelming the good in Roosevelt and the other masking the bad in Churchill. The first touching the raw and painful conflicts of today; and the other the pain of the 20th Century still felt today.

Perhaps it is time that our nations re-evaluated their past and who they chose to represent greatness – and replaced the destructive imagery with constructive signposts to a better future.


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