We should never underestimate the emotive importance of statues
They are a reminder of the people our society considered great, people worthy of respect and looking up to. That is why we put them on pedestals and honour them in central places in our towns and cities, so future generations will pay tribute to them.
The problem is that in the US, the UK and South Africa there are numerous statues of men who were the opposite of great - they were the personification of evil. There are statues of men in the southern US who spent their lives fighting to keep African-Americans enslaved.
There are statues of men in the UK, like slave trader Edward Colston, who captured more than 100 000 African men, women and children, hoarded them in chains onto boats like cattle and sent them to the Americas to be slaves. One in four died on the way. Many of those who made it were either worked to death or at a minimum, were subjected to routine brutal whippings by their masters. Colston’s statue has now been pushed into the river.
There are statues of men in South Africa whose sole purpose was to entrench and uphold white supremacy and confine the majority black population to servitude. The statue of General Louis Botha, South Africa’s first colonial prime minister, towers over the entrance of Parliament. In addition to his legacy as the man who presided over the Union of South Africa, Botha’s legacy is also one of brute force that divided South Africa along racial lines and resulted in the dominance of one over another.
Paul Kruger, whose statue stands in Church Square in Pretoria, was the president of the Transvaal before the Boer War, and is remembered for many things, not least of which was that, as commandant-general, he led raids to procure slaves and he owned slaves.
The men may have been considered great by their constituencies in the past, but they do not reflect the values of our society today, and one has to ask whether they should be exalted as heroes, or perhaps their busts should rather be relegated to museums where students can learn from history. We should never try to erase the past or rewrite history, as it is from history that we learn the important lessons that prevent us from repeating the mistakes of the past.
For some, the statues of men who lived their lives perpetuating white supremacy may be abhorrent, but not something they consider worth tearing down a statue for. But what is more important to consider is how it makes the descendants of those victimised feel, who have had to live with the consequences of those legacies. How does a black man or woman feel walking past such a statue every day on their way to work, knowing that this particular figure played an instrumental role in the oppression and servitude of their people? Statues are supposed to fill us with inspiration and admiration, not disgust and anger.
Most Americans are only a few generations away from slavery, which was abolished in the US in 1865. Slavery is the elephant that sits at the centre of our collective history, and today we are living with its consequences. We need to acknowledge its significance to American and African history, and not continue to glorify those who were responsible for its perpetuation, and who fought for its continuation.
The fact that the US is haunted by systemic racism makes the reminders of the infamous former slave traders and Confederate generals even harder to bear. The fact that today black men are 5.8 times more likely than their white counterparts to be incarcerated, and most African-American men live in fear of dying at the hands of a white police officer, makes the emotive symbols of such statues intolerable.
When we see people spray painting “Black Lives Matter” on these symbols of the past, it is not because they are anarchists or terrorists as US President Donald Trump has made them out to be. They are reacting to the discrimination they experience in their communities as a result of the racism such men fought to uphold throughout their lifetimes. Why should such symbols be tolerated when the fight to overcome such racism is still on, when there is a long way to go to ensure that a white cop no longer thinks it is acceptable to kill a black man by kneeling on his neck?
Who are the dark figures of American history who are being dumped at the bottom of rivers, or hacked off their pedestals? One of the most prominent is Robert E Lee, who would have been a fine contemporary of Paul Kruger. He was the commander of the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War. He fought the war to keep African-Americans enslaved, and he opposed racial equality for African-Americans up until his death in 1870. Lee was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in defence of the South’s authority to own millions of human beings as property because they were black.
Historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor wrote a portrait of Lee, and recounted that when two of his slaves escaped and were recaptured, Lee either beat them himself or ordered the overseer to “lay it on well”. Wesley Norris, one of the slaves who was whipped, recalled that “not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, General Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done”.
Pryor said: “Lee’s cruelty as a slave master was not confined to physical punishment. By 1860 he had broken up every family but one on his estate by hiring them off to other plantations. The separation of slave families was one of the most unfathomably devastating aspects of slavery.”
This is the man that white supremacists and others in the US want to remain displayed in statues across Virginia and elsewhere. But the new fight to push back against systemic racism in the US is seeing America’s youth protest against such statues.
Protesters removed a statue of Lee from the Robert E Lee high school in Montgomery. The city played a major role in the civil rights movement, and is a majority black city which had a school named after Lee up until a week ago.
An 18m statue of Lee on a horse stands in Richmond, Virginia - the old Confederate capital. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam is trying to put it in storage, but a judge issued a temporary injunction blocking its removal. Northam is confident he will succeed. The statue is the largest of five Confederate monuments on Monument Ave. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said last week that he would introduce ordinances to remove the statues next month.
America is finally waking up, and many are no longer prepared to look the other way. This is a moment where momentum is building to change direction, and this necessitates refusing to glorify those who were an affront to humanity.
* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's Foreign Editor.