I have hesitated before posting anything on the events surrounding the protests following the murder of George Floyd, not least because I have been trying to process it all and indeed I still am. I wanted to make a considered comment and not something that was the result of gut-reaction inspired anger. If I am honest, my hesitation also sprung from a lack of courage. I am concerned about saying something that will cause offence. I am still not sure that I have the emotional reserves to combat the inevitable backlash from people whose views differ from my own. I know many people have been severing social media connections with those who express extreme views that they do not share. I have deliberately not done that, although I do admit to hitting the ‘snooze’ button on Facebook occasionally. I think it is important that I am aware of a range of opinions, even if it means seeing comments that make me horrified, angry, confused and deeply saddened. I know that we are all a product of our upbringing and our past experiences and that some of these opinions are very firmly entrenched but I am still struggling to understand the views expressed by some. So, this is my stance. It is still a little unformed but as an historian, I cannot delay any longer.
I am not a person of colour. I am fortunate to have grown up in a multi-racial area and to have had non-white close friends. I have the advantage that I am just young enough to have escaped the jingoistic, empire adulating, ‘everything Britain ever did was right’ version of school history. I have also spent more than forty-five adult years studying history. I am aware of the appalling atrocities that peoples of the past have committed but I know that nothing I can do will make me truly understand what it is like to be black in today’s white dominated world. My background means that I am aware of the European arrogance of the past, the notion that we have a right to colonise the rest of the world; the Americas, Australasia, Africa, the Indian sub-continent have all suffered at the hands of white European invaders, often acting in the name of religion. I know too about other invasions but I am trying not to turn this into a three volume history text book.
So, what do I feel about the perceived ‘erosion of history’, the spate of tearing down statutes? Firstly, who is committing these acts of criminal damage? In many cases these are not the acts of those with a genuine grievance, they are a mindless mob, who are copying the herd. Like those who are using violence to defend those same statues, most have very little knowledge of the person that the statue adulates. It is hard to empathise with those who are defacing, or indeed protecting, statutes without knowing about who they represent. I do understand however that people are, justifiably, angry. Whilst I think illegally removing or defacing statues is counterproductive, I do have sympathy for those who actually understand the full (and I do mean full) history behind the statue and exactly what that person did and are offended by aspects of that person’s life.
Let’s consider Edward Colston. I am probably one of the few people outside Bristol who had heard of Edward Colston before his statue was forcibly removed. Slavery is appalling. There is no other way to view it. I would like to think that no rightminded person now believes otherwise but sadly I am still hearing views that attempt to justify it – ‘but they treated them well when they got there’. What!? Where on earth does that travesty of the truth come from? This is the level of misinformation that has to be overcome. Yes, Colston was acting perfectly legally at the time, yes, he also acted philanthropically, establishing many institutions in Bristol and yes this was partly funded by the profits of slavery. These are facts. Slavery was an atrocity and nothing can dilute that. So, should his image have been removed in the way that it was?
I think it is essential that our past atrocities are not swept under the carpet, that man’s inhumanity to man is remembered. We can only move on if we look back and learn from our mistakes. It is no coincidence that the header on the home page of this website is George Santayana’s ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfil it.’ We do need to remember Colston. Remember him as a flawed human being who did good and bad things in his life. We also need to remember him in the context of his time, when his actions were both lawful and regarded as acceptable. This is emphatically not saying that slavery was in any way acceptable but we have to acknowledge and take ownership of the fact that it was regarded as an appropriate way of conducting business by those in western Europe at the time. Remembrance is not the same as reverence. Do we need to remember Colston by having a statue in a public place? Maybe not. It is also important to remember that this particular statue was not erected until long after Colston’s death. There had been an ongoing campaign, over many years, for its removal and it was undoubtably a daily affront for black people in the neighbourhood. I think, in this case, I side with David Olusoga, who advocates having the statute in a museum where the whole story can be told.
As a family historian, I can’t help thinking what about gravestones? Will there be a call to remove these monuments to people whose past deeds were contentious? Since I drafted this post, the news has come of gravestones being hidden because they refer to the deceased’s roles as ‘minstrels’. I don’t know what terms were used on those stones; I gather the language was deemed offensive. My own father blacked his face to perform as a minstrel when he was working with ENSA after the Second World War. Does that make him a bad person? Were someone to do this now, it would unequivocally be regarded as offensive but we cannot condemn the past by viewing it from today’s perspective. This does not excuse past behaviour but we need to remember the context. They knew no better. Now, there is no excuse, we all should know better; nothing justifies this behaviour today. Should my father’s gravestone be covered? In the case of those that have been hidden, is it the language that was being obscured or the person? Who decides who is ‘good enough’ to be immortalised in stone, be it a statue or a grave marker?
Perhaps though it is time to evaluate what statues and to a lesser extent gravestones, are for. Until now they have been regarded as a memorial, an object of undiluted glorification. The problem is that no human being that ever lived is wholly worthy of unadulterated reverence. Statues are a little like the air-brushed pictures of celebrities, that give people unrealistic aspirations and expectations. Images that tell half-truths, objects of propaganda intended to portray a one-sided narrative. We need to remember these people for who they were, a complex blend of admirable and despicable qualities, just as we are. At present, we are conditioned to think that anyone worthy of a statue must be a good guy (and don’t get me started on the preponderance of men in statues). Could we change that? Could we start to think about the people we have immortalised in a rounded way and in the context of their day? Could seeing a statue lead us to question, to wonder why people at the time thought them worthy? Could we start to think whether they would still be adulated today and if not, why not? Perhaps people will learn from the debates that may ensue as there are campaigns to remove or save individual statues. This would mean that there could be a new level of engagement with the past and that I would be thankful for. Statues need to remain but they should definitely tell a whole story and I hope that, by being there, they will spark conversations. Where they need to remain is a different issue and I am still not sure where I stand on that one.
I think it is our duty to preserve the past, in all its multi-faceted complexity. We should all strive to share that past in as balanced and unbiased a way as possible, be that the history of our nation or the history of our own family. Total lack of bias is almost impossible, as we all have firmly held convictions but let us at least try to see things from more than one perspective. As a result of what is happening now, perhaps a few people will be driven to look more closely at history and by that, I mean the history of all peoples. As a white history teacher, in line with the syllabus, I taught ‘Black Peoples of America’ and ‘The America West’ to a wholly white class. As an historical interpreter, I helped to present sessions on slavery. How arrogant was that? Yet it was my white perspective or nothing. What can I do now? What can I do to atone for having said #alllivesmatter? Of course, all lives matter, few people are suggesting that they don’t, it is just that some groups in society are less equal than others at the moment and that needs to be our focus until the balance is restored. We need to rediscover our compassion. We need to stop thinking only of our own narrow little worlds.
Although race is in the headlines at present and rightly so, this is about so much more than race. It is about intolerance. I have spent the past few years researching seventeenth century intolerance: religious intolerance, class-based intolerance, intolerance of difference, the plight of those who had no voice. Sadly, human nature does not change. In our ignorance, we still feel threatened by those who do not look like us, those who do not worship like us, those whose sexuality is not our own. In our fear we strike out, verbally and physically and we bolster ourselves by banding together with others who do seem familiar. We fear what we do not know and our ignorance leads to unfounded prejudices. ‘Ignorance’ sounds pejorative, perhaps ‘lack of knowledge’ would be better. The good news is that we can address our ignorance. We all have things we can learn, we can all do better. If you are reading this you have the gift that you need. All that is required is a willingness to learn in a spirit of open-mindedness, in a spirit of tolerance. I am debating what I can do to make even a tiny little bit of the world a more tolerant place, are you?
Thank you for reading. I know some of you will not agree with me. If I do not have the emotional energy to enter into a debate with you at the moment, it is not that I do not care. It is not that I cannot defend my views. It is just that my reserves are on empty and I only want to make a response when I am able to do so in a considered manner.