On April 8, 2015, students at the University of Cape Town sent a shockwave across South Africa when the statue of Cecil Rhodes was taken down after the success of the Rhodes Must Fall movement. The movement began almost a month prior to its removal and called for the removal of this calcified representation of institutionalized racism in South Africa. Rhodes actively opposed the abolishment of slavery and is directly responsible for the exploitation of South African peoples, lands and natural resources. Knowing that he viciously disregarded the lives of numerous Africans while he colonized Zambia and Zimbabwe for the British Empire, the removal of his statue from the South African university campus was indisputable. The success of this movement continued to fuel civil rights movements in South Africa and around the world.
On June 30, 2020, a statue of the former Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie was destroyed in a London park during a protest on behalf of Ethiopian musician and activist Hachalu Hundessa who had recently been murdered. Hundessa actively advocated for the marginalized population of his country, especially for those within Oromia (Oromiyaa), his home region. The singer’s political assassination led to unrest throughout Ethiopia, resulting in the unfortunate loss of over 150 lives during the protests.
Selassie’s 39 years as Emperor, not including the 5-year exile due to Italian invasion, came to an end when a left-wing military force overthrew him in a 1974 military coup. Selassie’s legacy is complicated, a martyr to some, an oppressor to others. Among some members of the Rastafari tradition, he is referred to as the returned messiah of the Bible, God incarnate. By destroying Selassie’s bust, protestors signified their opposition to governments willing to suppress its people. The Statue of Selassie represented the legacy of political oppression and continued political tyranny in contemporary Ethiopia. You see, a hero to some may be a villain to others.
On November 16, 2020, a statue of Lord Nelson (or Vice-Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson) in Bridgetown, Barbados was removed from National Heroes’ Square with the intention of relocating it to the national museum alongside other artifacts. The statue was first erected by the British occupying Barbados in 1813 as a commemoration of their victorious Battle of Trafalgar that occurred in 1805 against the Spanish and the French. In other words, it is a monument whose purpose is to celebrate a battle that plays little cultural significance to the citizens of the island all the while normalizing the colonial power that reigned over them for centuries.
As the statue was carefully being taken down by construction workers, Prime Minister Mia Mottley gave a speech emphasizing the importance of mental emancipation. Although Barbados became part of the Commonwealth in 1966 thereby ending Britain’s reign, the Prime Minister tells her citizens that, “those who went before us, ran their leg of the relay race to allow you to walk these streets free. But are you really free until your mind is liberated?” Prime Minister Mottley suggested that by placing large statues of historically impactful Bajans, it will allow history to be expressed through the eyes of Barbados’ citizens rather than through the oppressive fog of colonial history.
Each one of these monuments was erected in a different era, and for a slightly different reason. They were also taken down in slightly different ways, but for the same reason. Maybe the one common thing, is that the erectors were incapable of imagining a world where its former subjects would grow to realize their immense power and agency. The over glorification of these colonial governors, emperors, and soldiers, serve as a reminder of the harsh realities of decolonization and liberation.
The act of removing the monument universally stands for the refusal to accept that colonial forces shall continue to define our present and future. The perpetuation of racism and oppression is no longer an option. By keeping these monuments in public parks or in front of government buildings, they validate and normalize the atrocities these generals, emperors and governors inflicted on human lives.
These statues as well as the plaques beneath them serve as learning moments for many. The words placed on them or used to describe them are crucial and should be selected with great care. If the monuments depict colonizers and slave owners, a realistic descriptor should be placed alongside them. Whether it’s decided that certain monuments will be taken down, relocated, given an additional plaque or whatever the “solution” comes to be, it bears the weight of negotiating power, history and privilege in society. Before terms like blatant vs covert racism and microaggression became more mainstream, throughout our lives, we have long endured the damage caused by mass callousness being masqueraded as simple ignorance. The definition of racism directly expresses that its deployment against another individual is the manifestation of a power imbalance amongst those within the interaction. Removing all of the statues and monuments has been met with resistance, but regardless of what happens to them in the future, they must be recognized for the enormous role they play in the preservation of white supremacy and oppression as well as the maintenance of racial-ethnic power imbalances everywhere.