Keeping facts of history as we bust monument myths


People playing basketball near the Robert E. Lee statue at a park in Richmond, Virginia. While Virginia Governor Northam has ordered the statue to be taken down, a Richmond judge has issued an injunction temporarily blocking its removal. PHOTO | AFP

Following the gruesome murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, by a Minneapolis policeman, there has been a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement not only in the United States of America (USA) but, in many other parts of the world with sometimes, violent protests.

With it, the debate on monuments celebrating what is perceived to be the dark side of history, which is considered offensive to human rights, has been reignited.

In the USA, many monuments have been brought down by local authorities and protestors, especially those that celebrate Confederate leaders during the American Civil War. A statue of Confederate commander Robert E. Lee is being brought down in Richmond, Virginia, while the city fathers have proposed an ordinance to remove four Confederate monuments on Monument Avenue. In Birmingham, Alabama, a 52-foot-tall obelisk known as the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument was brought down following protests.

Arguments about Confederate monuments are nothing new. As early as 1910, Senator Weldon B. Heyburn lambasted the government’s decision to memorialise Robert E. Lee with a statue in the US Capitol. More recently, white supremacist Dylann Roof’s June 2015 killing of nine black Americans at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, as well as a neo-Nazi’s August 2017 attack on people protesting a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, have reignited the debate.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, local and federal authorities, particularly in the Jim Crow South, started commissioning statues idealising the illegitimate Confederate government.

These monuments aimed to “pay homage to a slave-owning society and to serve as blunt assertions weof dominance over black Americans” Contrary to the claim that today’s objections are merely the product of political correctness, they were actively opposed at the time, often by black Americans, as instruments of white power.

According to Kirk Savage, an art historian at the University of Pittsburg who studies public monuments, “A real reckoning is here. Confederate monuments have become targets because they are powerful expressions of the brutal practices that led to George Floyd’s murder; they are the artworks that gild the system”.

When asked “What is liberty?”, James Baldwin, the famous black American writer said in an interview with the film maker Ken Burns, said, “I can always quote the Declaration (of Independence) ….may all these truths be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But the moment I do that, I am in trouble again because obviously I was not included in that pronouncement.” He went on to say that as far as he was concerned, the Statue of Liberty is meaningless to him because his people were specifically excluded from enjoying that liberty in the real world at the time it was built in 1885.

Although Greek mythology was largely based on fables, it played a very important role in Greek society, defining, as it were, Greek ethos, or the ideals that citizens were required to aspire to. There were tales of good which citizens were supposed to emulate and tales of evil which they were to give a wide berth.

I believe that monuments should be viewed in the same light, as representations of myth not fact. As we consider what part monuments play in our culture, it is the facts of history not the mythology of monuments that we must remember. Monuments serve to remind us of the good deeds of the past that we should build upon, and the evil that we must not allow to happen again.

We must be careful not to imagine that bringing down monuments will in itself bring healing or change history. I agree that many monuments are offensive and should be brought down. A certain school of thought holds that some of these monuments which offend, should be placed in a museum (of offending monuments perhaps!) but I believe that by recording and writing our history, a permanent record and reminder can be established in libraries and popular literature which should also be taught in our schools to the young and old.

Recently, Lieutenant Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts and later with his sister Agnes, the Girl Guides movements has come under scrutiny with claims that he was a Hitler supporter, lost control of Zulu mercenaries who then committed atrocities against Zulu tribesmen and that he may have been partial to young boys. A local authority council in Bournemouth has resolved to remove his statue in light of these allegations.

Following these developments there have been calls for us to review the Baden-Powell Museum in Nyeri. This is a good example of why we should not idolise an individual, but celebrate his good deeds. After all, none of us are angels and no matter how good our deeds are, there will always be room to find fault. Even the Greek gods were not perfect!