Black Lives Matter Are Not Destroying History. They Are Restoring It | Sebastian R.B Cousins
In recent weeks, in the last month even, the contained anger against racial injustice of generation after generation has come to the forefront of public discourse. A lot of think pieces have been written, this being no exception, with a lot of the right-leaning ones stating that the recent pulling down of statues (such as Edward Colston in Bristol) and the want to discuss their racism or slave owning (sometimes both) is an attempt to destroy history. This piece intends to say the contrary: that wanting to spark public discussions on the racist side of prominent individuals of the past is what history is about; with the statue toppling being a symbolic way of starting said discussions by gaining the needed and traditionally restricted attention required.
I’d like to start my argument with Winston Churchill, or rather his statue. Most of us will be aware that his statue in London was graffitied on and was eventually put into a protective box, this whole incident getting much attention in the press. It also got attention from Tory MPs, the common reaction being ‘if you’re angry about Churchill, you should see the guy he beat!’. I presume they mean Hitler, and not some dastardly bully from Sandhurst, even though I believe that some other leaders like Franklin Roosevelt would like some credit too for that, nor forgetting the countless soldiers, spies and civilians who took up arms against fascism. Anyway, the point they, these Tory MPs, are trying to say is that, comparatively with a utilitarian-esque injection, Hitler was worse so stop talking about Churchill’s issues. Susan Neiman (going off her book ‘Learning from the Germans’) would rightly criticise this approach to history as being the same as a toddler shouting ‘he did it worse!’.
Related to this is another point: the Churchill comparative defence misses the point and proves what protesters are making: we are constantly painting (or in this case, putting a statue) over the flaws of historical figures in the name of the symbol Churchill represents to us. Wanting to discuss issues like the Bengal Famine of 1943 in public (where there exists a consensus that Churchill’s policies of stockpiling aid for Europe after the war rather than sending it to Bengal worsened the crisis) and were controversial at the time too)- is not a rewriting of history or stopping free speech: it’ us a restoration of history from a skewed, tinted nostalgia.
And it is free speech too, in action. It is saying, to use a metaphor George Orwell would approve of, that 2+2=4, and that that is important when discussing history. For a long time, we have, simply put, had 2+2=5 when teaching about British history (believe me, at college I had a Corbynista for a history teacher, and still we didn’t learn about the Bengal famine then). That is an obfuscation of history, and it masquerades as freedom of speech; a freedom of speech against this fictitious idea that the elites want ‘to put Britain down’. Really the elites are all in favour of obfuscation, especially those who benefit from mainstream politics. For if we do not discuss and learn our history, then we allow the elites to say ‘there is no alternative broad set of policies currently in force. Why fix, say, systemic issues of racism (such as issues on housing), if the mainstream can say that racism is a post 2016 issue, and that we were all tolerant and fine before it?
Racism, as pointed out by Reni Eddo-Lodge in her book ‘Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People about Race’, is not an issue of ‘good v bad people’ – it is an issue of systemic violence used to uphold a status quo of those who have something, and those who do not. I cannot do it justice in terms of describing this intangible yet very real problem, though I would say that perhaps the voices of the oppressed would. I can to some extent describe what it does: a black man being eight times more likely to be stopped by police, a situation in our universities where a black person is less likely to pass with a First or an Upper Second class degree than one who is white, and a situation where, as a result of housing discrimination, a black person is more likely to die from Covid-19. As we can see, this is not some trite debate game: this is history as continuance, with those ignoring it being in power.
Essentially, there is an anti-history consensus in public and political discourse that define what we can do as a country. This is apparent not just in issues regarding race or sexism, but also in other areas like economics. As John Tosh, in his book Why History Matters, pointed out, recent debates over issues like the national debt have portrayed it as some novel issue only affecting us today (hence justifying austerity and all its ills), when really the national debt, when one looks to history, is generally high, to the extent that if the Bank of England went to the IMF in the 1970s, it would have been laughed out. But the lack of history infused public discourse on issues like this means we are taught, as stated, a propagandist and nostalgic history in its place. This makes our public discussions circular; outright rejecting ideas that have developed over generations that have come to the fore in favour of dodgy statistics based on self-perception by deluded individuals. Will the circle be unbroken? Or will we continue to listen to lies, damned lies and statistics?
That, in part, is up to you. And you will have to make your mind up, for history, like everything, never ends. But for the record, remember: Black Lives Matter is restoring, not destroying, our history.
Photo by Paul Lurrie on Flickr.