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Pull down the Statues?

As I write, it is 3.0 am, and I cannot sleep. Several images I remember in my life flash before me as in one of those old newsreels they used to show in cinemas. These images arise from the 'Black Lives Matter' protests at the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in America. Here in the United Kingdom, we must confront our racist past and present, as statues of prominent slave traders are taken down or pulled down.



In 1970, on a cold, wet December day in Warsaw, the then West German Chancellor Willy Brandt laid a wreath at the memorial of the Jewish ghetto. I remember it. The lasting image of that day was a photo taken when Brandt unexpectedly fell to his knees in front of the memorial and remained still for half a minute on the wet stone floor - that half a minute seemed an eternity. Somehow, the world seemed to pause and take a deep breath. Willy Brandt said, 'No German is free of History'— and nor are we.

We will only defeat racism if we acknowledge racism in ourselves - in our history. It is like dealing with one's demons. Sometimes it is culturally or economically embedded, and we go along with it because we are its beneficiaries, or it is just too risky to challenge. We don't question it when perhaps we should. We walk on the opposite side of the street 'just in case.' We have fears; we have stereotypes of 'they.' We might even dislike how 'they' live. We see the other as an impenetrable mindset - 'they' think; 'they' are more likely to behave this way or that; 'they' are the other as if hidden behind a mask. 'They' are different. Who am I? Who are you? We crave for group identity, but at what cost, at whose expense? We use the words black and white as if they represent homogeneous entities. How could it be that the most important thing about us is the colour of our skin?

On the eleventh hour, on the eleventh month, year on year, 'we remember them,' those who gave their lives in the two world wars. We don't merely say it is history. We acknowledge the sacrifice they made. We reflect on its significance. Just as we acknowledge the debt we owe to those who gave their lives, so we must also take ownership of our past, and where it affects the living, we must do what we can to acknowledge wrongs. When we do that we are not rewriting the past, we are creating a better future.

When we 'remember,' we think mainly of the 'pals' brigades from the towns and villages of England's 'green and pleasant land.' People like my father, who signed up at the outset of the war in 1914 and was wounded on The Somme. Yet, we owe so much to so many who gave their lives, including black and Asian troops who fought alongside white in both world wars. In all, about 2,350,000 Africans were mobilized between 1914 and 1918 to secure the empire that oppressed them, while over 250,000 soldiers and carriers, as well as approximately 750,000 civilians, perished in this effort. More than 350,000 Africans served as combatants on the European battlefield, and over 350,000 African Americans had served with the American Expeditionary Force on the Western Front by the end of the war.

Even white supremacists feared the Great War as a threatening watershed, at a time when concepts of racial purity were ascendant. Until recently, history gave little prominence to the crucial role played by black people in what was mostly a white European civil war. Tens of thousands of African Americans fought overseas against Nazi Germany in the Second World War and again so many from the African and Asian colonies.

If we are 'proud' of our culture, then we must accept that our culture can be racist and that it makes us racist too. Knowing and acknowledging this is the first step in not being racist. So, this is how I feel now about the removal of statues that have long been part of our landscape. It isn't an airbrushing of history to remove them. We are creating a new perspective on that history, acknowledging committed wrongs. We are realising their significance so we can move on, not to forget, but to understand. The statues were not put there to remind us of the sins of our forefathers; they were there to commemorate and to laud them. In the words of Willy Brandt, none of us "is free of history."



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