The recent violent events at Charlottesville,Virginia have ignited a worldwide debate about the role of statues in marking a nation’s history.
The violence at Charlottesville erupted, due to a mob of white supremacists and Nazis coming together to as they saw it to defend a statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee.
The statue was being taken down by the Virginia authorities due to its seeming to provide a remembrance to slavery in America.
There have been moves to remove such statues across America, since the shootings at a church in Charleston in 2015, when nine people were killed by white supremacist Dylann Roof.
Roof confessed to committing the killings in the hope of igniting a race war. He was found guilty or murder earlier this year, being sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.
At Charlottesville, those supporting the removal of the statue came out to oppose the white supremacists. There were violent clashes, culminating in the death of anti-racist protester Heather Heyer. James Alex Fields Jr has been charged with second degree murder.
President Donald Trump then fanned the flames of racism by failing to condemn the white supremacists. He chose instead to blame all sides. Universal condemnation followed, resulting in the President issuing another statement condemning the white supremacists more directly, only for him to go back to the original statement a few days later.
The situation of racial divide across America has become thus inflamed, not least by the actions of the President.
The President did though make a further point suggesting that if the issue were slavery then statues to the likes of past presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson could also come down, as they were slave owners. Others have suggested statues of President Harry Truman could come down, given his role in giving the order to drop the nuclear bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
The valid point being made is that statues are not simply silent apolitical symbols of the past but marks of a highly politicised landscape – evidence of a form of organised remembering and forgetting of past figures and events.
Few outside of America will have been aware of the way in which the erection of these statues reflect racial division across the land.
In my ignorance, I had thought the statues had been standing since the 19th century days of the civil war. However, it turns out they are all far more recent manifestations of malice, being erected in the early years of the 20th century, at the time of Jim Crow’s racist segregation laws, and during the civil rights protests of the 1950s and 60s. So there is a direct link between a racist agenda and the statues.
Given the nature of the Trump presidency and the constituency he has come to represent, maybe it should come as no surprise that the present violence should erupt during his presidency.
Events in America though have ignited debates elsewhere about the role of statues in marking history.
In this country, for many decades, the squares and roads around Parliament have been adorned by generals and others viewed as establishment heroes of the empire years. It always struck me as strange to see the likes of General Douglas Haig astride his horse, Clive of India and others dotted around the place.
The pre-eminence of these characters could be said to reflect the identity crisis at the heart of British society. A country that still believes itself to be a world power, hangs on feverishly to its own nuclear weapons of mass destruction in the belief that it in some way reflects greatness. A country, with one foot defiantly stuck in the past.
More recently, things have changed, with statues of the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela joining assorted British Prime Ministers in Parliament Square. In 2005, a monument was erected, near the Cenotaph, to the women of World War II.
So there is change afoot. However, overall, the breadth of statues – especially in the capital – do tend to still reflect the interests of the British establishment and a version of history that it wants to promote.
The lack of Labour and especially trade union leaders with any mark of remembrance is remarkable. This contrast was brought home most adroitly recently, with the controversy over the grave of the Sarah Chapman, a champion of the Matchwomen’s strike of 1888. Chapman’s paupers grave had been discovered, forgotten in an east London graveyard.
Instead of celebrating the life of Chapman as a great trade union leader, with a statue in Westminster, the remembrance is a paupers grave. What is more the area is to be flattened or “mounded over” to quote the official phrase in order that building can take place.
A campaign has been established to save the grave.
What this all goes to prove is that the erection of statues is an overt political act that says much about the country concerned. The eruption of violence and controversy around the Confederacy statues in the US is a reflection of the racial divisions that grow ever deeper in America today. In Britain, whilst there maybe a growing diversity of those we choose to erect statues to remember, at the centres of power the figures that remain are predominantly those that mark an imperial past, rather than the exploits of working people and those who represent them. Given recent developments, hopefully things might soon change.