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Commentary: Chronicles of a Chronic Caribbean Chronicler: Is destroying Cecil Rhodes statues a rightful way of correcting his historical wrongs?

By Earl Bousquet | The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the wider Commonwealth Caribbean needs to get in on the growing discussion about destruction or removal of statues of figures associated racism and slavery in the USA, UK and South Africa.

Attention is mainly on the USA today, but similar events in Europe and Southern Africa have closer meaning for the Caribbean than many may think.

Removal of statues of confederate General Robert F. Lee in the USA is akin to a similar campaign in South Africa and the UK against statues of British miner Cecil J. Rhodes, an original architect of apartheid laws in South Africa and after whom Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) was named.

Following student protests, Rhodes’ statue was pulled down at South Africa’s University of Cape Town (UCT) in April 2015; and Rhodes University in Grahamstown was also forced to consider a renaming exercise.

However, at Oxford University in Britain, where students also voted for a similar removal, they were overruled in January 2016 by the university’s administration — after the Rhodes estate threatened to withdraw annual support worth over £300 million.

Caribbean Benefits…

The Caribbean benefits from Rhodes financial legacy through the annual Rhodes Scholarships, which provide an international post-graduate award for students to study at Oxford University.

A Jamaican has received the prestigious scholarship every year since 1904 (except during the Second World War) — and among the recipients were the late Prime Minister Norman Manley and University of the West Indies (UWI) Professor Rex Nettleford, as well as famed attorney and Pan African politician Dudley Thomson (who represented Kenya’s independence hero Jomo Kenyatta) and UWI lecturer and politician Dr Trevor Munroe.

A Commonwealth Caribbean Rhodes Scholarship is also issued every year and Trinidad & Tobago’s Simone Delzin is the 2017 winner. (Another Trinidadian won in 2013.)

Shame or Pride?

So what of today’s Rhodes Scholars in the Caribbean — and around the world? Should they be ashamed that their sterling academic achievements were financed by funds with roots in Slavery and Apartheid?

Slavery was the greatest crime against humanity and racism remains its most damning legacy. The growing outrage across America against the resurgence of racist ebullience in states built on the blood and sweat of slaves must therefore be applauded.

Slavery’s role in the history of major US universities has also been unfolding lately.

Having been found guilty by the jury of public opinion of being on the wrong side of history, the related institutions are now hurrying to establish political correctness.

Questions Abound

But the questions abound:

How far does tearing down or otherwise removing statues of pro-slavery villains presented as saints really go in changing the living effects of their racist legacy?

How best can the increasing numbers of US universities mired in slavery best repair that sordid history today? By merely giving token scholarships to selected descendants of African American or Caribbean slaves in affected communities, states or nations?

Extremists take pride in displaying destruction of everything from giant religious statues to UNESCO-recognized World Heritage Sites, to museum collections thousands of years old. So, should the world ever even begin to consider accepting that such precious historical works of art can be destroyed on rival religious or cultural grounds?

Calls for removal of offensive statues are growing in popularity elsewhere — and opinion remains widely divided in each case and place, with the same unanswered questions.

Political Sensitivities

Some went as far as arguing (in London) that Nelson Mandela’s statue should be pulled down from its prominent location in the British capital, while like minds in the USA suggested new statues of Martin Luther King should not be erected on the anniversary of the great march he led against racial injustice – each claiming Mandela and King were divisive figures in the race politics of their time.

Related political sensitivities have also similarly flared into the arts in the USA, where, after over three decades a theatre has decided to ban annual showing the old film ‘Gone with the Wind’ after it was deemed this year to romanticize slavery.

But critics of the ban note it was also the first film in which a black American woman was nominated for an Academy Award — and ask whether that achievement should also be scrubbed.

The supporters of racism and defenders of slavery in the US, UK and Southern Africa idolize related leaders’ statues because they believe in what they represent. They too will fight on, to not only preserve those (statues and similar monuments) still protected by law, but also to replace those destroyed when historical timing next permits.

Flag shops have reported an increase in sale of Confederate flags in the American South as a result of the tearing-downs.

New Thinking

Actions continue to breed reactions. However, how far and fast nations or advocates go about correcting historical wrongs or rewriting fake history depends on several factors.

Some critics see destruction of statues as ‘editing history’, others as mere symbolism that just does not change reality.

Fact is, though, not everything considered bad must be destroyed and/or consigned to the crap-heap of history.

Slavery was the worst crime against humanity, but it cannot be simply wished or washed away just because it was so atrocious.

Some new thinking suggests that instead of destroying works of art for political reasons, related monuments can possibly be relocated, where the age-old lies associated with them can be exposed with facts.

Indeed, instances do abound where symbols of a sordid past have been preserved and maintained to show and teach lessons from the experiences they represent.

For example:

The Smithsonian Institute recently unveiled in Washington the Museum of African American History, where any American can see and learn, from visible exhibits, some aspects of slavery in the US.

Pieces of art destroyed in China during the Cultural Revolution are being painstakingly restored in many places.

Dungeons on African coasts where captured men, women and children were held for shipping into slavery still remain open today as popular tourism exhibits.

Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned and South African freedom fighters were tortured, was not shut down after the end of Apartheid as a disgraceful location of national shame. Instead, it is today a popular tourist attraction.

Equal Access?

Those who succeed in destroying or removing confederate statues in the USA and the forced removal of others vandalized in the UK do celebrate their victories each time.

But it’s yet to be seen how their actions will contribute to equal access for black students to attend those mainly lily-white ‘Ivy League’ universities funded by or named after those historical architects of racism.

Yet to be convinced…

I am yet to be convinced that tearing down statues of architects of racism and slavery is the best way to build consciousness about the wrongs they represent.

I didn’t enjoy watching Saddam Hussein’s statue pulled down in Baghdad by invading American troops, Muammar Gadaffi’s busts being destroyed across Libya after his fall, Vladimir Lenin’s monuments being torn down in Ukraine, or of Cuban independence hero Jose Marti’s bust being vandalized in Venezuela recently.

Each (destroyed statue) represents a permanent figure in the history of each country — and tearing down or defacing it, while celebrating an immediate historical feat, cannot erase that history.

I will not go to war with people who feels an unfair weight of history has been lifted off their backs by the destruction of offensive statues. But I would risk a battle trying to find out to what extent that psychological weight-loss becomes a qualitative, real-life game-changer today. CONTINUES

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