Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Recent discourse surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement and the toppling of statues symbolic of our racist history has been hotly debated. People across the globe have struggled to fathom how toppling a statue assists the end of institutional racism. Many make the argument that pulling down a statue is simply ‘erasing history’.
When we reveal the histories that prominent statues venerate, the back-lash against their toppling appears all the more harmful. Dotted around the world are statues of advocates of slavery, or empire, who are glorified whilst representing racist and, frankly, evil institutions. Not only do these statues celebrate a racist past but the unwillingness to see them toppled shows a resistance to confront history. In Germany, for example, we see no statues of Hitler or any Nazis figures. Yet Nazi Germany is seen in any standard German history textbook. The toppling of statues does not erase the past but refuses to celebrate it.
Winston Churchill is both a symbol of British history and a figure whose praise currently faces controversial contestation. Remembered for his victory in World War II whilst his barbaric endeavours with the British Empire are overlooked. Churchill is responsible for the Bengal Famine which killed up to 3 million people. In 1937 he stated, in relation to the treatment of Native Americans and the Aboriginal Australians, that no wrong has been done as “a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place”. To continually celebrate Churchill as a hero is to neglect a large portion of history. Such neglect harms BAME people who experience the repercussions of his actions. To remove Churchill’s statues is not to erase history but to confront the forgotten.
The UK is not alone in glorifying its evil past. Countries across the globe suffer from a similar ignorance and have been forced to confront it during the BLM movement. The United States is marked by an abundance of Confederacy monuments, spreading the Confederacy myth and ignoring the sufferings of African-Americans in Confederate states. The Confederacy myth sees the removal of slavery as the main cause of the American Civil War and a focus instead on the issue of states’ rights. The BLM campaign to remove Confederacy monuments gives African-Americans a small justice from the horrors of slavery.
In Belgium, Belgians have pushed for the removal of statues of King Leopold II due to his actions in the Belgian Congo. The atrocities committed in the Belgian Congo are innumerable. The enslaved population faced torturous lives: authorities would chop off the limbs of those who did not meet the rubber quotas. As late as 1958 Belgium had ‘human zoos’ with the Brussels World Fair featuring a Congolese Village with a live display of people from the Congo. King Leopold’s own great-grand-niece, Princess Marie-Esméralda has stated that the statues “are not neutral” and “hurt people… For many communities [they are] really painful to see”.
The toppling of these statues represents a step towards countries recognising and confronting their colonial and racist past. To stop glorifying racist figures is not to erase history but to truly learn about it. Beginning with statues is a step towards education on BAME history and stopping the silencing of BAME voices across the globe.