Photo by Ben Birchall/PA Wire/PA Images
During the peak of the Black Lives Matter protests there was one significant moment in the UK that is etched in my mind for all the right reasons: the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue.
Colston was a slave trader, merchant, and philanthropist from the city of Bristol. His memorial statue absurdly decorated the city, gazing down upon the descendants of slaves he sold and transported. Yes, he may have been a ‘great benefactor of the city of Bristol’ giving to charitable institutions, but does his slave-tarnished donations deserve to be celebrated so publicly? The people of Bristol said no. Standing for 125 years to long, the statue, after its brief dip in the harbour, will now be housed in a museum with other antiquities that belong in the past and out of sight, where people can learn about Colston’s involvement in transporting 80,000 men, women and children into the slave trade via the Royal African Company.
This single act, of the unceremonious removal of Colston from his pedestal, was profound in so many ways. It represents people, whose voices have been repressed so desperate to be heard that they need to take physical action; people taking change into their own hands and standing up for what they know is right; the awakening of the nation to the racism that still exists in every fibre of our society; the downfall of figures who seek to oppress the Black community; and the beginning of the long journey our country is taking to become anti-racist.
The toppling of Colston has sparked an evaluation into memorial statues and landmarks of other slave traders nation-wide. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan has launched a review into all monuments in London to ensure they reflect city’s diversity, saying: I’m all in favour of our city reflecting the values that we have and also the diversity of our city – more murals, more blue plaques, more statues of people that reflect that side to you.”
I believe this needs to happen, as our city evolves and becomes more diverse so should the people we celebrate so we can create an inclusive society. Statues that are erected to commemorate the life of influential people, those that have oppressed the Black community have no longer space in such a public arena.
Other Government officials have suggested a more passive approach of offering ‘reflective’ details about the person’s involvement in slavery through installing plaques. Leaving these statues as a stark physical representation and reminder to the Black community of the repression their ancestors faced, the effects of which are still apparent today.
Marvin Rees, the Mayor of Bristol, said: “The events over the last few days have really highlighted as a city we all have very different understandings of our past. The only way we can work together on our future is by learning the truth of our beginnings, embracing the facts, and sharing those stories with others. Bristol’s journey to become the modern city it is today includes a history of huge disparities of class, race and gender and the struggles for equality.”
And Rees is right about education and learning truths. Removing statues is not about erasing history, in fact it is the opposite. By housing statues in appropriate locations, we have the opportunity to empower people to learn about their lives in an educational space that can be preserved for future generations, not at the detriment of others.
Alongside museums, we need to also educate people through the curriculum – and not through colonial literature which perpetuates the importance of the White voices and negates the experiences and perspectives of Black voices through history.
We should be amplifying and celebrating Black figures and voices, to show the vast contributions Black people have made to society past and present. Take a look around the statues standing proudly in our City of London – and now I ask you, how many of those people are Black?
Recently the BBC have delved into these figures and the research shows a clear under representation of Black people:
- The Public Monuments & Sculpture Association (PMSA) has recorded 968 public statues or sculptures in England Scotland and Wales; only three were Black individuals.
- The BBC found 175 named statues built since 2007 across the UK – only 11 were black individuals. Of these, just six of the statues were of Black Britons.
- Historic England acknowledged that just two of its listed statues are of Black individuals
- English Heritage is responsible for London’s 950 blue plaques, which identify buildings with connections to notable figures says that less than 4% of the plaques are dedicated to Black and Asian people.
The media also has a considerable hand in amplifying Black voices and the Black narrative. They have a significant role in shaping our beliefs, perceptions, and unconscious bias through their language and imagery. When far right activists come together to protect a statue they are referred to as ‘a gathering’ or ‘group’ despite their violent behaviour. When BLM activists come together to protect the Black community from inequality they are labelled as a ‘rally’ and ‘protestors’ despite their peaceful action. A subtle difference in the choice of words can have a big impact on readers.
Removing overt representations of racism and oppression that are present in our physical environment is the first step but let us not forget the underlying threads of racism covertly woven into our everyday lives too. Will we be eliminating these too?
Dismantling racism will take more that pulling down a few statues. Racism is not just standing on a plinth in front of us, it’s embedded in every system of society, in housing, education, employment, healthcare and criminal justice system; and we must collectively address, challenge and keep the momentum going.
We need to represent Black voices throughout history, to educate our nation, recognise Black contributions in public spaces and change the media narrative.
It not about erasing the past, it is about making Black inequality history.