Black Lives Matter Teaches Us That Symbols Matter

Statue of Edward Colston, Bristol, UK, 5/6/2020 © Christian Lathom-Sharp / Shutterstock

Because the toppling of the statue of slaver Edward Colston in Bristol final month, a stream of articles, many by white writers, have referred to as for such monuments to be positioned in museums. These writers argue that, with delicate curation, such statues can act to teach a public blind to the struggling inflicted by abusive techniques of energy just like the slave commerce.  

However the educative powers of Victorian-era statues are, to say the least, doubtful. Texts educate us. Narratives educate us. Photographs definitely can educate us. However to take action, they require qualities reminiscent of creativeness, shock, immediacy, magnificence, honesty — all of which absent from these uninteresting, obedient, typically flattering likenesses in inert gray stone. Provided that no one requires these outdated statues of Colston or Robert Clive to know these figures’ historic relevance, is it not insensitive, throughout probably the most passionate anti-racism protests in residing reminiscence, to immediately name for his or her conservation? 

Gone With the Wind: On the Pitfalls of Symbolic Politics


The museum champions manifest a failure of empathy. Additionally, they reveal a want for stasis — conservation over change, resurrection over reform. It’s no coincidence that it’s a Conservative authorities that’s misreading the Black Lives Matter motion with such shameful incompetence. From the Windrush scandal to Overseas Secretary Dominic Raab’s failure to test the origins of taking the knee earlier than uttering his laconic “Recreation of Thrones” reference, the get together manifests a stunning disrespect towards black British residents.  

Moderately than making an attempt to rescue monuments, why not invent methods for additional dismantling racist buildings? This argument has nothing to do with erasing historical past. It has by no means been extra essential to doc our previous so that each citizen feels that their historical past has been acknowledged and revered. Right here, museums can and do play a necessary function. It’s very important that the exercise of June 2020 is chronicled with care and intelligence. Hopefully, that course of might be led by its actors. The most effective historians allow us to inform our personal tales.

It is a second during which centuries-old ache has manifested itself with very important, electrifying depth. That anger is being expressed not simply with ardour however with monumental creativity: Social media is alive with dazzling poems, photos and movies of iconoclastic actions so dramatic they’ve a performative cost. Hopefully, a few of these might be preserved for the longer term. That’s fairly totally different from embarking on a dialog about “saving” and “curating” a previous that inflicted untold struggling. For individuals who weren’t a part of BLM earlier than, it’s time to hitch in, to pour power into fashioning a world devoid of such false gods. 

As for the query that if it’s Colston at the moment, will it’s Churchill tomorrow —  frankly, does it matter? I’m white, additionally Jewish. Ought to I be grateful to Churchill for saving my grandparents by halting Hitler’s advance? Or ought to I be offended that the British authorities turned away hundreds of Jewish refugees when officers knew the destiny that awaited Jews who remained in Nazi-occupied Europe? Churchill’s lively anti-Semitism is disputed, however his racism isn’t. He referred to Africans as “savages.” Barack Obama’s grandfather was tortured for resisting imperial rule in Kenya whereas Churchill was in cost. When Obama got here to the White Home, he returned a statue of Churchill that George W. Bush had left on his desk. If he didn’t wish to see one, why ought to I? We don’t want a statue of Churchill to know what he was and wasn’t, to know that typically merciless folks can, in a selected context, do a “good” job. Roman Polanski’s movie “The Pianist” is one of the best film I’ve ever seen concerning the Holocaust, however I consider its director must be in jail for rape. 

If the Black Lives Matter phenomenon tells us something, it’s that photos matter. Symbols matter. When, after this tumultuous June, you exhibit a want to avoid wasting the icons of oppression, it’s symbolic of a want to maintain the established order. It suggests you haven’t any vested curiosity in severe, systemic revolution.

Such pondering suggests our struggles are separate. We will solely ever “hear” and “respect” the opposite’s story, not share it. However to restore our wounds, humanity has to see itself as a collective. This isn’t to disclaim in any means that we’ve totally different histories, that a few of these histories, reminiscent of slavery, inflicted particular, dreadful and nonetheless uncauterized wounds — nor that these wounds shouldn’t be acknowledged and reparations made. Such recognition is important for therapeutic to happen. However it’s to say that inside these variations we’re profoundly interdependent. If a statue offends my sister, no matter our totally different ethnicities, it additionally offends me.

The views expressed on this article are the creator’s personal and don’t essentially mirror Honest Observer’s editorial coverage.

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