Destroying our Past Will Not Change Us

In the summer of 2020, the streets of London were awash with protestors who were motivated by the killing of George Floyd in America and set to achieve systemic change to the racial balance of society. Alongside the outrage that was expressed concerning the murder of George Floyd, citizens took to the streets to advocate for deeper change. People wanted to see justice achieved, not only for Mr. Floyd, but all those who had suffered at the hands of unfair racial structures in our world. In this battle, there is still much ground to be covered.

While this cause is undoubtedly a worthy one, and long overdue, elements of this movement displayed a particular form of protest by strategically graffitiing and damaging statues around the country. One poignant example of this practice was displayed in Bristol, where the long-standing statue of Edward Colston was theatrically tossed into the harbour. Another occurred in Parliament Square, as one protestor graffitied the words “Was a Racist” beneath the statue of Winston Churchill, which still faces the Palace of Westminster today.

While the motivation to achieve change in race relations is clear, the motivation to deface images depicting long-dead men is not so obvious. The rationale behind the downfall of Colston’s statue in Bristol arose from the fact that Colston built his fortune by transporting tens-of-thousands of slaves from Africa to America in the 17th century. Bristol benefitted immensely from his will, as he left most of his fortune to the city itself – hence the statue… As time progressed, the knowledge of Colston’s role in the world slowly turned him from an entrepreneur into a morally reprehensible opportunist, who actively participated in the suffering of others. Similarly, in targeting Churchill’s statue, protestors sought to highlight the attitudes that the former Prime Minister held in his views of non-white people. It has been said that Churchill viewed the world as a racial hierarchy, with protestants at the top and Africans at the bottom.

While I wish to make it clear that these views are by no means defended in this article, and that the actions of these individuals are undoubtedly racist by today’s standards, looking so definitively into the past ought to be done with a degree of caution. Today, we live in a vastly different world those of Colston and Churchill, and consequently, find ourselves uniquely positioned to both comment on the past and keep our present vivid in our minds. This forms the basis of a vexing hypocritical conundrum. How can we, as agents of today, appropriately judge those of the past while we continue to live in a world of inequality?

To judge their book by our cover is to pretend that our world is perfect, that we may now hold the two against one another and speak to what is wrong with their picture as though ours is crystal clear. But this practice is illogical. Our world faces far more inequality now than the worlds which came before it. Over the history of the slave trade, 12.5 million slaves were brought from Africa to other nations. Only 10.7 million survived the journey. While bearing these numbers in mind, we should reflect on estimates which say that 40million people worldwide are trapped in modern slavery, and that 25% of this number are children.

By no means do I wish these numbers to lend credence to the notion that we should not care about past injustice because our current reality is worse. This would be morally wrong and is not the point of this paper. We must, however, have an accurate picture of the world in which we live before we seek to a) judge the world of the past and b) attempt to change our own. There is no doubt that both historical and contemporary slavery are evil practices which must be struck down if we are to truly live in a world where everyone is free. It also remains true to say that we cannot judge the past by looking at it from our present perspective.

The attitudes and entrepreneurship of men like Colston and Churchill, although morally illegitimate, were legal things to participate in during the time that they lived. It was the inadequacy of these systems which allowed morally reprehensible actions to remain legal. Today’s society still proves that just because something is legal, it does not make it right. Participating in and exploiting these systems was the right that these men had by virtue of the fact that they lived within them – regardless of whether their actions were morally correct or not. Today, these practices are condemned much more readily, and consequences for racial bigotry or attempting to sell human lives should be swift and severe. But they are not. We still live in a world where slavery exists. We still live in a world where racism exists. It is from this perspective that we must truly judge reality.

The practice of spray-painting statues of dead and buried individuals is dramatic and done in efforts to inspire revolutionary action. This action should and must happen, but this should not be achieved by defacing our past. The statues of those who perpetuated wrongs should be removed from their plinths, placed in museums, and used to demonstrate why we still live in a world of inequality. To destroy these historical artefacts would be tantamount to ripping pages out of a history book because we do not like what they say. We should be engaging with these historic wrongs every day, not to champion them, but to understand how not to repeat them. In looking at the past, we should not judge individuals for living in the time that they did. In the case of Churchill, his attitude towards other people did not translate into discriminatory action against them, and his efforts in preventing the spread of fascism in Europe ought not to be forgotten when remembering those elements of his character which would not be acceptable today. We must always look upon the picture as a whole, and not simply cherry-pick history.

We must wake up to our current reality; many people currently profit from contemporary inequality and criminal activity, so why is nobody defacing the front door of Amazon on a regular basis?

Note from the writer

After this piece was initially published, a good friend of mine noted that the meaning of my words was unclear. With this in mind, I hope that readers can take away my intended meaning from the clarifications below. My thanks go out to my friend, who I hope will continue to comment on those things which appear wrong.

• This article never intended to justify Colston’s role in the slave trade – his actions were and are wrong. Any mention of his exploits is for the purpose of context.

• We should not glorify men like this with statues that hold no context in their own right. If we are to display these images at all, they must be accompanied with a history, otherwise their relevance may be misconstrued. We should remember them only for the purposes of learning to be better ourselves.

• We need more statues of people we can remember for good reasons.

• The word “dramatic” is used in this article. The use of the term “dramatic” was never intended to undermine the motivation behind the BLM movement or ideas of racial equality. It was not intended in the way that it is commonly used, i.e., “they are causing drama”. This word was used to mean “(of an event or circumstance) sudden and striking”. In no way is this meant to belittle the significance of this movement.

• The point of this article was not simply to condemn those who graffitied a monument. This is a trifling offence. This article is concerned with the division in the BLM movement caused by issues such as this. Those in power are more than capable of diverting the discussion to problems with an easier fix. This is why the names of institutions have been changing, statues have been taken down and the government can give itself a big pat on the back. The lives of black people remain in danger because of systemic inequality, however. I am not saying that these monuments are not problematic, I am saying that we need to move with a united issue to achieve change. Do not give those in power and excuse to maintain the status quo under the guise of making advancement. Names may change, but institutionalised racism has not budged.

• In an informative sense, my words of judging history were wrong. There are of course instances where we can look back and say, “that was wrong”. This was a mistake that I can only put down to tunnel vision. Naturally, you can judge the past. In looking at contemporary problems however, I maintain that we should deal with the now before we re-evaluate the past. Looking at the past with scorn before properly fixing our own world is premature. We must act to solve the inequalities of today above all else.

• Learning about these topics is a difficult but worthwhile crusade. Failure to grasp concepts is inevitable, but mandatory. We must dismantle white supremacy across the globe, research properly, and endeavour to engage with these discourses wherever possible, no matter who we are.

Written by Isaac Knowles

Isaac Knowles is a columnist at DecipherGrey.

Photograph: I threw a guitar at him.|