By Eve Willis
The last few weeks has seen Britain, alongside America, catapulted into fierce and bitter contentions over the Black Lives Matter movement that, in the midst of a global pandemic, still mobilised thousands of activists across the country, fighting for the civil liberties promised to Black people centuries ago. Both conservative echelons of society and the media’s coverage reflect a deep resistance of Britain to admit to its own culpability in the slave trade and colonialism throughout South East Asia and Africa, alongside a complete refusal to commit to being anti-racist, with shallow assertions arguing that you can’t simply ‘remove history’.
The direct political action taken by demonstrators such as toppling Bristol’s Colston statue, the deeply divisive figure who pumped millions of pounds from the slave trade into Bristol, or the scrawling of Churchill “was a racist” on his statue in London sparked an opinion war with PM Johnson arguing that the Black Lives Matter cause had been “subverted by thuggery” and home secretary Priti Patel asserting that it was “not for mobs to tear down statues and cause criminal damage”.
Yet, when far-right hooligans descended upon the capital the following week, boozing, throwing Nazi Salutes next to Churchill’s statue (an irony lost on them), violently attacking the police and chanting “we are racist”, they were met with the same rhetoric that has befallen BLM supporters as Patel claimed that she “was saddened and sickened at the far-right thugs”. Her refusal to support BLM, allowed far-right racists to be called “counter protestors” by media outlets like the BBC, once again reflecting how weaponising language is a mechanism of power to control the narrative.
But what is the problem with historical memorialisation and why are statues highly politicised touchstones in the debate over racial equality? (Not that there should be a debate). History is not one objective event as it is always constituted by a duality of individual recollections. Yet, it is the present authority who can control and manipulate what representations of the past are publicly remembered and what can be intentionally evaded or forgotten. As a consequence, if the authority or government is upheld by systematic hierarchal relations of power such as race or gender, then the collective public understanding of its nation’s history is marred by the oppressive relationships of its leadership.
Memorialisation is publicly and collectively reflected in the public arena with it manifesting in the form of signs, monuments, days of historical memory, laws and generating performative effects within society. For example, in the U.K the ‘victory’ of WWII is thought to be solely to Churchill’s government’s merit, with statues to commemorate this, schools named after him, national days of celebration such as VE days and school curriculums obsessed with WWII. Therefore, as the authority of the present seek to define and determine what representations of the past are held in the public frame or attention, and what is not it; it indicates the preoccupations of the power holder who more often or not find their claims to legitimacy held in these historical glory narratives i.e. many white Tory party members who come from historically wealthy families have in some way benefitted from these hierarchical power relations of colonialism or slavery.
So the landscape of our public life is inherently political, if statues exist glorifying slave owners, if the plaques of these monuments don’t provide nuanced and multiple representations of the same event, or individual they are unquestionably suppressing other, equally valid, recollections of history. So when plaques are changed, statues are removed, like plans to finally remove Cecil Rhodes from Oxford’s Oriel College it is not an attempt to ‘rewrite’ or ‘remove’ history but it is to democratise it.
History and the public collective memory has always been vulnerable to the systemic constraints of the present authority and in the U.K our history is undeniably founded and sustained by white supremacist values which want to revere ‘the empire’ and the world wars and avoid the heinous place which Britain has had in raping countries of their wealth, humanity and culture with it now so detached from its role as an oppressor it often refers to countries in Asia and Africa as ‘third world’, as if they somehow naturally arrived at high levels of poverty.
So no, removing statutes, changing plaques and redefining whose voices should shape the frame of attention of the public consciousness is not in an Orwellian 1984-esque bid to remove history, but it is to broaden and deepen it, by democratising the plurality of historical representations. In a recent altercation in parliament in which Labour MP Florence Eshalomi questions Patel’s stance on “structural inequality, discrimination and racism” in the UK the latter retorted she did “not take lectures” on others about racism, as she highlighted perhaps why those in power, even people of colour, continue to tow the party line. With Academic Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu suggesting on Twitter that doing so legitimised a “Far right rhetoric against minorities and oppression of black lives matter solely for self-preservation”.
And it isn’t until that collective society effectively challenges and uproots these symbols of oppression, like in Bristol, that figures of authority will be forced to change the political landscape of public spaces and remove signifiers of a glory past, that inevitably continue to oppress black people.