As Monuments Fall, How Does The World Reckon With A Racist Past?

Historians in the News
tags: racism, protests, monuments, public history

Now, tough questions are being asked globally. What symbols from our past must be reconsidered or simply discarded? What stories demand a more complete and honest retelling? How should history be taught?

Using contemporary values to judge the moral failings and atrocities of ancestors and to reevaluate the lives and legacies of canonized leaders is an explosive calculus. Nonetheless, a growing number of nations seem ready to embrace the moral deconstruction of the past to understand and improve the present.

The removal of monuments and symbols to a racist past is an important step to a more just future. Some scholars see the current waves of activism that sprouted primarily from the Black Lives Matter movement as a precursor to overdue structural reform.

“The racial justice movement currently underway is unprecedented and can be considered a game changer. The way many people look at the world has literally changed in weeks,” said Kevin K. Gaines, Julian Bond Professor of Civil Rights and Social Justice at the University of Virginia.

“Majority-Black protests like we’ve seen in the past can be marginalized or discounted. But now when you see little white kids and college students posting Black Lives Matter on Instagram, the narrative isn’t so easy to corrupt. When you see an elderly white man knocked down by police in Buffalo while peacefully protesting, the demands of a movement are not easily discarded or ignored. Dominant national myths are being exploded. This is a transformational moment not only in the United States but around the globe. In the United States this is a multi-racial movement under the banner of Black Lives Matter. That’s what’s novel and unprecedented about this effort,” said Gaines.

The assault on effigies of racial supremacists from bygone eras has proven contagious. British demonstrators in Bristol tore down a bronze statue of Edward Colston, an infamous 17th Century slave trader, and tossed it into a harbor; a week later, the governors of the University of Oxford voted to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes was a mining magnate who ruled over the British Cape Colony in what is today South Africa and paved the path for South Africa’s system of apartheid. The man responsible for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship was an unabashed white supremacist who viewed the indigenous Black population of South Africa as an inferior race.

Read entire article at National Geographic

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