Mon | Aug 10, 2020

Ajilon Ferdinand | Let the statues fall

Published:Thursday | July 2, 2020 | 12:19 AM
Workers remove the Christopher Columbus statue from the Broad Street side of Columbus City Hall in Columbus, Ohio, USA, yesterday. The city says it will be replaced with a different statue or artwork that reflects diversity.
Workers remove the Christopher Columbus statue from the Broad Street side of Columbus City Hall in Columbus, Ohio, USA, yesterday. The city says it will be replaced with a different statue or artwork that reflects diversity.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

– Desmond Tutu

I have been familiar with the above statement for the last six years or more. I cannot recall exactly how long I have known it. At this point in history, that statement feels more significant to me than before. It strikes at my conscience and demands a response from me.

It’s been over a month since the May 25 death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, USA. With the use of unnecessary and excessive force, a white male police officer knelt on the neck of a dying, pleading George Floyd for a few seconds short of nine minutes. Needless to say, Mr Floyd died. His offence? He tried to shop with an alleged counterfeit US$20. In the wake of his death, there has been a global outcry against police brutality.

Beyond the outcry of police brutality and the demands for policy changes regarding the use of force in policing, there is a growing distaste for colonial iconography in public spaces. Pressed by the #Blacklivesmatter campaign, communities and cities around the world are demanding their governments undo systematic racism and topple symbols of colonialism from public places. There is a growing distaste for colonial symbols and icons. I sense that feeling within me now more than before.

Some people argue that the symbols represent a historical context and depict historical facts as they unfolded. They say we should appreciate the importance and weight of history. We cannot edit or censor the past. The problem with that argument is that the colonial statues and the notations on the monuments on which they stand hardly tell a balanced story. The icons on such monuments are often depicted as virtuous, noble, wealthy, and wise. Most, if not all, of the colonial or white supremacy icons were actually controversial and racist figures in their own historical contexts.

One example of this idea is a statue of a French statesman, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who helped to write the Code Noir (or Black Code) in the 17th century. He was a statesman that served King Louis XIV. Colbert wrote the economic reforms to expand France’s colonial powers in the Caribbean, defining how slavery would work, and how to limit the freedoms of black people. Another example is the statue of Robert Milligan. He was a British slave owner of two plantations and 526 slaves in Jamaica (source: BBC News, June 10, 2020). The statues of both men are depicted as virtuous and noble characters. Protesters have since defaced them and demanded that they be removed.

Divisive and insensitive

Statues of Columbus and other colonial slave traders are being ousted from public spaces all across Europe, America, and Africa. At this point in history, colonial statues are now seen as divisive, insensitive, and racist. It is not just that the statues represent white supremacy, but their purpose and presence perpetuate the centrality and endurance of white supremacy.

This bring me to the insignia, The Star of the Order of St Michael and St George, worn by governors general across the British commonwealth, including Jamaica. The Order is a British order of chivalry that is given to diplomats, foreign service officers, and individuals who hold important positions in the Commonwealth. The medal is also bestowed upon and worn by governors general, who have been knighted by the queen.

It depicts a white angelic figure, standing triumphantly on the neck of a black man, which is likely a representation of Satan or a demon. The triumph of the white angel stems from the fact the he stands on the neck of his subdued man and he remains in position, totally indifferent to his survival. The image on the Order of St Michael and St George is practically similar to the way Derek Michael Chauvin knelt on the neck of George Floyd to subdue and ultimately kill him.

It is in the wake of the current climate that I join the call for us here in Jamaica to remove colonial iconographies from public places and review the use of symbols that subdue black existence. Monuments of white supremacy, colonial masters, and slave traders no longer belong in public spaces or on the chest of state figures. They are nothing but painful memorials. The statues of slavery supporting generals, black people enslaving, black rights denying, and black identity suppressing icons are outrageous to say the least.

It feels clear to me that there is a general awakening to the complexities and depths of colonial history. It is true, we cannot edit history as it unfolded, but we can at least be honest about how we tell it. There is nothing more offensive than a symbol whose time has passed, and whose purpose is no longer tolerated as ‘works of art’. Colonial iconography is polarising and plays into the underlying culture, symbols, and subtle metaphors of white superiority and black inferiority.

The unseating of such statues is a significant step towards the promise of emancipation. Their removal has to do with undoing the foundation laid by the men on those icons. If we desire to save these statues and place them elsewhere, it must be accompanied by a balanced and honest narrative of who stands there. I would love to see individuals of African descent directly participate in removing those icons. In doing so, a real feeling of upliftment and emancipation can arise out of this memorable moment. #Blacklivesmatter! What is going on around the world now is historical. Letting the statues fall is one way in which people of African descent can confront the evil of slavery and regain a slight measure of social justice. It is ‘for freedom we are set free’.

Rev Dr Ajilon Ferdinand is an adjunct lecturer and pastor of Papine New Testament Church of God. Email: (876) 434-6300 (cell)