Renaming (but not Rewriting) History

In recent days I have seen the UK enter into yet more interesting times. Two events caught my eye and got me thinking. Both come on the back of Black Lives Matter protests, which have started springing up across the world.

The two events I am thinking of are in:

  • Glasgow, where someone has put up extra street signs offering “alternative names” for streets currently named after slave traders, (Guardian)
  • Bristol, where a statue of a slave trader was taken down (BBC)
The Colston statue being unceremoniously dumped into the water (Image from BBC)

These are fantastic ideas, and I love to see organised civil disobedience like this. But there is a threat underlying these actions, if they are taken too far: We risk forgetting the history of what happened. And if you forget history, you are doomed to repeat it.

The new street signs are currently placed alongside existing signs and offer people an alternative to choose from. It’s a purely cosmetic change. In the UK street names are not needed for sending post, as all you need is a house number and a postcode. The street names are there to help local visitors around, and if locals and businesses wanted to use the new names, then fantastic! If not, no harm is done.

The statues which used to be landmarks on a city do make it seem as if the city around it supports and want to remember their legacy. We certainly should remember their legacy. We should remember the horrors they helped perpetrate. But you don’t need a statue to do that. If anything, a damaged plinth would do more to tell a story of a past now scorned than the original statue continuing to stand proud.

The street names and statues hold a history. In days gone by, the people who they are named after were indeed famous, and often celebrated in the communities. They were the rich profiteering elite. If we want to strip them of their rank, as it were, by removing icons that used to celebrate their actions – something I heavily support – we must be careful not to forget those people ever existed.

Slave traders and the profit from slave labour was real, and Britain played a big part in its proliferation. I think it is right to try and reduce the amount of icons that play throughout our culture that celebrate unpleasant characters, but when they are replaced, care must be taken to not forget or rewrite the history of what truly happened.

Replacing street names with the names of activists who fought against the very actions taken so long ago, or who have suffered in modern times as a result of the legacy of old oppressive behaviours, still holds the history in their meaning. Toppling a statue is a very powerful act in the moment, but when it comes time to clean up later we must not forget why the man in question deserved such a statue to begin with.

We must all campaign for a better future, but at the same time we must not forget our past.

The Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art – A force for good in local culture, but initially set up by a tobacconist slaver.

An aside: Many of these old slave traders were celebrated by their communities not because people supported their actions, but because they brought profit into their communities. They set up local services, charities, schools and supported the local arts. (Glasgow Live)

In the past, these people who profited from horrendous actions would give back their communities. In no way does it justify what they did – absolutely not. But I do find it a bit confusing why they felt able to do so, yet now when I think of the rich elite it usually involves offshore tax havens, and local communities who continue to lose out despite the massive earnings of a small few.

A lot of history and culture in these big cities does come from bad people profiting during bad times, while supporting their local neighbourhoods. But where are the new, modern, “good” elite who give back to the community?


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