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Monday, July 13, 2015

When the World Must Fall

Cecil Rhodes: The original Jabba the Hut?

I was interested to read about a group of students at Oxford University calling for the statue of Cecil Rhodes to be taken down because it is claimed to symbolise racism and colonialism.

Comparing Rhodes to the morality of our times, he cuts an evil figure. He is dubbed by some as the founding father of Apartheid. In life, he was ruthless in his pursuit of gain for the British Empire and absolute British rule. In 1888 he launched De Beers consolidating mines in southern Africa. There, policies he fought to implement paved the way for racial segregation. Rhodesia - now Zimbabwe - was named after the diamond magnate.

Rhodes is also the benefactor of the Rhodes Scholarship, a postgraduate award that enables students - which have included former US president Bill Clinton - from around the world to study at the University of Oxford. Clinton, a well known exponent of civil rights, must have known his scholarship is tainted with money taken from the labour of southern African miners, who Rhodes exploited, which created the wealth that now endows the scholarship that is in his name.

Today, official files on slavery have revealed that thousands of modern-day British people are related to owners who received compensation when the slave trade was abolished. Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha as well as actors Benedict Cumberbatch (who made a gaffe by calling black people "coloured" on a US talk show) and Ben Affleck (who tried to hide his heritage from the public) have all been revealed as having ancestors linked to trading human beings as lifestock.

But maybe it's only natural: If you're a certain type of white person, then somewhere, some time, you are going to cough up bad blood along your ancestral timeline. Is it any worse to learn your family were compensated for it? Natalie Hanman, writing for the Guardian, believes that rather than being held individually accountable for our ancestors' injustices, we should take collective responsibility for structural inequalities.

Thus you can't hold every American accountable for the genocides committed in the birth of their nation, but you can blame them for wanting to bury the past without making adequate reparation to stall its present form. Hanman in her article writes that Cumberbatch revealed his mother once urged him not to use his real name professionally for fear of becoming the target of reparations claims by the descendents of slaves.

Such parental advice sits uneasily with the notion of undoing past wrongs, because although as historians we may say, "that was then, this is now", for humans - as well as nations of humans - to move on from their historic violations of human rights, there needs to be a transition to justice. It's about building a bridge that we can use to get over it, rather than allowing a chasm of the unspoken to open up underneath us.

Arguably, this is why deep potholes still open up under the feet of America's democracy from its nation-building heritage. In these few weeks one has been a push to remove the Confederate flag - used by the South in the American Civil War (1860-65) - seen by some as an icon of slavery and racism, while others say it symbolises US heritage and history.

The backlash against the controversial emblem grew when a white gunman killed nine black people at a Charleston church last month. Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old charged with the killings, was pictured holding the flag. Many white Southerners see its removal as an affront, but Charleston and South Carolina, with its Southern gothic steeped in a heritage of hate, must finally reckon with its past if it wants to keep its flag.

The people that argue the flag has become a passive symbol of heritage are deluded by the safe distance of history: Without justice there can be no transition from its terrible past. It's why the rhetoric that riots are the language of the unheard still holds sway every time a person of colour in the US comes up against police brutality. How many past wrongs have been righted for each to be able to look the other in the eye?

As Hanman correctly points out, the real challenge is to recognise, and address, how much the privileges of the past continue to benefit some, and wrong others, today.

Because although it's obvious slavery is an evil unrestricted to one colour, nation or time, it's not an excuse to point out the fact we are all as bad each other, either. The point is the heritage and ramifications (and the sheer number and level of barbarity) of the Western slave trade is still being felt today. It's too big to consign under the carpet of history, yet.

Towards that aim, whether we need to keep those statues up, and those flags flying - because to remove them is to forget - or whether their removal is a symbolic reparation in itself, will be decided on a case by case basis - because these symbols are not the main issue.

But this is: People need to talk to each other about the past. In our hurried need to build a better world, when the old one must fall, we should not furtively seek to bury it too early - lest its dirtied hands rise zombified from the ground to trip us up when we least expect it.

We need to accept and acknowledge our share in the past, and in doing so build a bridge to it, rather than bury it and whitewash it in some futile attempt to not speak ill of the dead. And the justice delivered will allow us to better review our human history without blind moralising.

So let statues fall, or flags fly; however without proper acknowledgement for what happened, and people openly expressing sorrow, the buried past will continue to rise from its superficial grave to infect us.

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