In two months, many corners of the world have gone from fighting over toilet paper to fighting against racism and white supremacy.
Just days after George Floyd’s killing sparked protests against police brutality, a possibly bored but observant and resourceful Egyptologist, Sarah Parcak, seem to read the tense mood in the air and posted on Twitter some advice on how people could get some, well, hands on experience in the fight against racial injustice. Her tweet on how to take down monuments went viral and, as the streets began to fill up, statues of those that upheld racism and white supremacy around the world began to come down.
In Belgium, thousands of protesters marching for Black Lives Matter packed the streets and demanded the removal of statues of King Léopold II, a brutal colonial ruler. King Léopold’s claim to genocidal fame was his orchestration of mass violence against the people in the Congo, a large portion of which he considered his personal territory for cultivating and exporting rubber and ivory. After a Léopold statue was defaced by protesters, officials in Antwerp removed it and said they would store it in a museum.
In Britain, a statue of the 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston was toppled by protesters and dumped into the very same waters of the Bristol Harbor that launched slave ships centuries ago. Protesters have also made threats against statues of former prime minister Winston Churchill, who was as revered for his lofty rhetoric just as he was reviled in former British colonies. Churchill, many overlook, held very racist views and was the architect of colonial policies that lead to the mass starvation of some four million Indians, the torture of Kenyans, and was in favor of using poisoned gas against “uncivilized” tribes. “It would spread a lively terror,” he remarked.
It would be too easy to blame the criticism and ultimate collapse of these symbols on the heat of the current moment. But academics, writers and activists have been trying to remove statues for years. Students deserve special credit because of their campus activism around the world in recent years; they were among the first to demand that their campus spaces be cleansed of the monuments to men who had caused so much misery to black and brown people around the world.
In 2015, students at the University of Cape Town in South Africa threw a bucket filled with feces at the statue of Cecil Rhodes, the British colonialist who believed that whites should “maintain their position as the supreme race” and that “the day may come when we shall all be thankful that we have the natives with us in their proper position.” Under the hashtag #RhodesMustFall, the students made their case and the debate even reached Oxford University, where students soon joined the calls to have a bust of Rhodes bust escorted from campus.
The students were attacked as being coddled, anti-history ruffians who were threatening free speech. Taking down statues was erasing history, critics said. These are the same tired arguments being used now against the current movement.
What these critics conveniently leave out is the fact that the countries that glorify these figures have also, in many instances, chosen to hide from public view documents that detail their cruel colonial past, or worst have actively destroyed records of crimes against black and brown people. Powerful governments erased the contributions of black people, the customs and traditions of native populations during colonization — and then whitewashed the evidence of the great harm done to these communities. This is what fuels the current moment: the statues are monuments to ignorance, to denying responsibility, to the romanticization of a history without reckoning with the dehumanization and violence that came with it.
Even the contributions of black soldiers in more contemporary events were not acknowledged. In fact, they were actively minimized by racist policies. Around 1 million Africans died in World War I while serving European countries on both sides of the conflict. As the artist and researcher Kathleen Bomani has pointed out, Germans and British forces exploited black “native carriers” who were forced to haul supplies and cook and clean for European troops.
And while white soldiers were given tidy, marked graves in well-kept cemeteries, scores of Africans were buried without markers in overgrown unkempt bush. “Most of the natives who have died are of a semi-savage nature and do not attach any sentiment to marking the graves of their dead,” one British officer, Maj. George Evans, wrote during the 1920s. “I consider the erection of individual headstones would constitute a waste of public money.” Churchill, then the chairman of the Imperial War Graves Commission, agreed.
After the independence of Britain’s former colonies, the records of colonial crimes were destroyed. As the Guardian reported in 2012, during the last years of the British Empire, the foreign office wanted to avoid embarrassing information from getting into the hands of newly independent governments. One memo read “it is permissible, as an alternative to destruction by fire, for documents to be packed in weighted crates and dumped in very deep and current-free water at maximum practicable distance from the coast.”
It is this history of deliberate erasure that must be corrected. Those criticizing protesters for pulling statues down (many of which could be put into museums or other spaces where they could serve a truly didactic purpose), should focus instead on pressuring governments to make records public for research and study. This would be a good way to honor the descendants of people who were erased, and it will be a step to have a complete and honest account of our shared history.
Karen Attiah is The Washington Post's Global Opinions editor. She writes on international affairs and social issues. Previously, she reported from Curacao, Ghana and Nigeria.