Protests against racism unleashed by the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of police in Minneapolis spread all over the United States, Canada, and parts of Europe in May and June of this year.
As the protests spread, so did the practice of toppling statues in public spaces commemorating historical figures associated with the slave trade, the Confederate side of the American Civil War, or European colonization. In the United States, protestors toppled or beheaded statues of Christopher Columbus and Jefferson Davis, the leader of the Confederate States, while in the United Kingdom protestors threw a statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader, into a nearby river. These are laudable attempts to tackle the legitimization of racism and challenge historical narratives based on white supremacy and both are much-needed in a world where power dynamics in many countries are still based on neocolonial and racist structures.
However, while it may seem as though the dismantling of statues is a new phenomenon, it is worth keeping in mind that different manifestations of this practice have taken place in many parts of the world over the years, and that there are valuable lessons to be learned from past experiences.
For example, South Africa’s 2015 #RhodesMustFall movement, which saw symbols of colonialism removed from university campuses across the country, left us with the lesson that while the removal of statues can certainly be a cathartic moment, it can also end up becoming simply a superficial gesture unless there is meaningful change in terms of curriculum changes and power dynamics within these institutions.
Spain’s 2007 Historical Memory Law, which led to the removal of busts and monuments honoring fascist dictator Francisco Franco and eventually to the exhumation of his remains from a public mausoleum in 2019, taught us that efforts to reexamine problematic parts of our history eventually have to be translated into legislation in order to have long lasting effects.
Colombia’s efforts to empower conflict victims to use art – especially murals and performances – to re-appropriate and re-signify public spaces that witnessed acts of violence into spaces associated with reconciliation and human rights teach us that it is not enough to simply dismantle old narratives, but that it is also necessary collectively to construct new historical memories that promote inclusion and understanding.
So, in a sense, toppling a statue, despite its hugely symbolic implications, is the easy part. The real work begins now, when we are being challenged to reflect on the ways in which white supremacy shaped our societies’ past and continues to have an impact on our lives today. A key aspect of this process will be to find ways not to erase or obscure dark parts of our history, but to find ways to enable those who have been excluded from official narratives to have their stories heard, in an effort to learn from past mistakes and build more democratic, pluralistic, and equitable societies.
Protesters attempt to topple a bronze statue of slaveholder Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, in Washington D.C.’s Lafayette Square. Photo: AJ_Twitter