How controversial can statues be?
The terrible events in Charlottesville seem to have originated in a decision to remove a statue of Robert E Lee: to some a Confederate and local hero, whilst to others a symbol of white supremacy and the defence of slavery. In many places in the USA, statues of Confederate leaders have been removed recently as they are offensive to many people and considered as reminders of a painful period in American history – some say actually symbols of racism. The same is true of the Confederate flag, ‘the Stars and Bars’.
In Britain we have had a similar argument over a statue in Oxford of Cecil Rhodes, a controversial figure in his own time and still today. An imperialist, blamed for, and certainly involved in, the British take-over of much of Southern Africa. There has also been a move to rename the Colston Hall in Bristol, as Mr Colston, although in many ways a philanthropist, made most of his money out of the slave trade, possibly being unaware of the real horrors of that trade.
What about statues of Robert E Lee?
It is ironic that Lee in particular should be the centre of so much of this controversy. He was not personally in favour of slavery, or of secession. That is why it was not so ridiculous that Abraham Lincoln offered him the command of the Union Army at the start of the Civil War. He said he refused it because his first loyalty was to his ‘country’ – meaning Virginia.
Lee wrote in 1856:
In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.
Most of us today would find a lot of that unacceptable, but it is far from the most robust defence of slavery or white supremacy I have ever read. Lee is not a good choice to be the personification of racism.
What about Donald Trump? In what way could he be right? About statues at least?
(A concept many people find hard to imagine!)
He said ‘we should not try to rewrite history but learn from it‘. If you reject everything else he ever said, as you might, you should think about this. Of course, the lessons of history tell us to beware of extremism, to reject white supremacy, and to respect human rights. I love history. Let’s not rewrite it. But let’s not be slaves to it. Rather, let’s look hard at it and learn. I wrote about the lessons of history in my blog “Would Brexiters or Remainers have preferred the Eighteenth Century?” You may see its relevance now.
What about my writing? Does slavery come into it?
In Highwaypersons, Book II, The King’s Justice, which I hope to publish soon, Billy and Bethan have several encounters with the slave trade, of which they initially know hardly anything. Their reaction to what they learn has a big impact on them and on the story. You may find some surprises, as they do.
Forget statues, what about the present?
I am concerned we can get too obsessed with the statues and symbols of the past and forget the very present evil of racism. Then there’s slavery. It still goes on. At least the British authorities are now aware of it and taking action. Let’s put an end to it. And let’s act against discrimination, show respect for all people. TODAY.