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Tuesday 12 November 2019
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Commentary

Think twice about tearing down statues

DISCUSSIONS about tearing down statues disturb me so I felt quite uncomfortable when I read that Port of Spain Mayor Joel Martinez promised “a cross-section of prominent, civil-society organisations” to discuss the possibility of opening a national consultation on the “future of the state of (the) Christopher Columbus (statue).”

I get that Columbus and his statue highly offend some people, and perhaps the best place for Columbus is in a museum as one of the descendants of Hypolite Borde, who erected the statue in 1881, expressed, but I am uneasy when people talk about tearing down statues.

I happen to agree with famous civil rights leader Andrew Young, who walked and struggled alongside Martin Luther King Jr in the 60s to fight racism in the US. In a blog by Jim Galloway titled “Andrew Young: Fights Over Confederate Symbolism are a ‘Mistake,’” posted on August 16, 2017, Young spoke about tearing down statues.

He said, “I am always interested in substance over symbols. If the truth be known, we’ve had as much agony – but also glory, under the United States flag. That flew over segregated America. It flew over slavery….”

I agree. I would like to see consultations that really solve problems. One about the poor drainage system in Port of Spain that washes most of the city’s rats into the Port of Spain Prison would be a good one, as would one about what we could really do to honour Amerindians and help them today.

History is history, and for me there is a danger in trying to tear down symbolism – even when it appears to be justified. That’s because there is always more than one side of a story.

Yes, Columbus left a hideous legacy, but what do we do about the fact that we are all here because of Columbus? Is that something we are supposed to be ashamed of? Doesn’t Columbus also represent the many cultures that came and blended here? That’s a good thing, isn’t it? Or is that we should never have come? And if we move the statue into a museum, does that help the Amerindians today? Are we doing right by them? Can we do something more than removing a statue of Columbus?

I look at the statue of Columbus and remember that horrible history as well, but I also think about how far we have come from. To me, that statue symbolises the work we still need to do. I look at Columbus and also see an adventurer, who merely set out to find a better trade route. He didn’t set out to conquer the Amerindians. Of course that doesn’t excuse what he and the Spanish ended up doing. I am merely pointing out that people and history can’t be reduced to a single image or symbol. History is complex. So are the people who represent history.

I was horrified when rioters began to tear down Confederate statues in the southern US. The reasoning was that those statues stood for the Confederacy and therefore stood for slavery. To me, those statues recorded history.

The statue of Stonewall Jackson was not just a statue of a Confederate soldier. Jackson was a military genius admired and respected by northern soldiers as well. I wouldn’t have put up a statue of him, but I didn’t want to take it down either – and I am horrified by slavery and the civil war.

But what hurt me most was tearing down statues of Robert E Lee, the Confederate general in charge, because this meant tearing down his legacy. Lee had the good sense to surrender when many in the South were not yet willing to concede the civil war, and he worked tirelessly to heal the wounds and convince the South to accept that loss.

His work after the civil war was greatly admired by many. Washington University in Lexington, Virginia, was renamed Washington and Lee University after Lee became head of the university for the work he did in shaping the lives of young, southern men after the civil war.

This is the Robert E Lee I choose to remember when I look at his statue. This is what his statues means to me. To deny Lee’s post-civil war contributions is to deny that people are capable of change.

You see, I believe we should choose substance over symbols. I also believe that we deprive ourselves of seeing the many sides of an issue, the many sides of history when we insist on symbolising a person as one image cast in stone.

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