Toppling Historical Statues and Retrospective Morality: Just How Far Can We Go?

Toppling Historical Statues and Retrospective Morality: Just How Far Can We Go?

2020 has been the year of unimaginable upheavals in practically every sphere of human life. For one, extant coronavirus pandemic has challenged life as we know while questioning the very fiber of modern day capitalism and shaking the core of our global economy. Human relationships, workplace politics, governments and everything else in between has been repeatedly scrutinized. After the pandemic, the second largest outcry and public demand this year relates to the issue of racial discrimination against blacks everywhere, particularly in Western States.

Sparked by the wrongful killing of George Floyd in the United States, protests against the ills of racism and police brutality against blacks have been the rage for months. The outcry for the dignity of black lives and equal treatment of all races has gradually found its way across the globe, and has been supported by both celebrities and big brands alike. In fact, in these past few weeks alone, there has been an unprecedented reevaluation of the history of many Western nations in relation to slavery of blacks, and age long discrimination against the already struggling race.

These protests very quickly sparked a much wider conversation on all things race, discrimination and diversity. And seeing as our pasts are more often than not directly entwined with our present, the conversation found its way back to the history of the United States, a nation severely lopsided against the black race. This turn back to the past was made evident by the action of protesters in tearing down some statues and defacing a few others. Statues and monuments that have long honored historical racist figures were boxed-up, spray-painted or in some other cases, beheaded. 

Toppling Historical Statues and Retrospective Morality- Just How Far Can We Go?
Mount Rushmore National Memorial features the faces of U.S. presidents, some of who were slave owners. Photo: Josh Miller.

Memorials to the Confederacy have been among those specifically targeted. A 10-foot bronze statue of Columbus was toppled in Saint Paul, Minnesota and the Columbus statue in Boston, which stands on a plinth at the heart of town, was beheaded. These acts weren’t restricted to the US alone. In England, a 17th-century statue of a slave trader was dumped into Bristol harbor and in Antwerp; a Belgian King who brutalized Congo was burned and removed. 

Now these aren’t just the senseless actions of a mob, they are deliberate steps taken by a race that has been severely wronged for very many years. These statutes were tributes to racist figures from the past and so were constant reminders of the dehumanization of blacks and African Americans all through history. And as harmless as those monuments seem today, they continue to represent the visible obstacles against the fight for the dignity of and the equal treatment of black people everywhere.

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Aided by the tearing down of these statues, the actual protests for the dignity of black lives has very quickly devolved into a wholesome conversation on the issues of current and retrospective morality and reflections of our shared pasts alongside our present. With the statues as anchors, the debate began over how we should assess the past and whether it is right or not to impose our moralities today upon the dead, especially as we can all agree that their actions and beliefs were rooted in a different time; with different moral contexts.

This debate on whether we should tear down statues of ‘great men” has raged on with two opposing views. The first school here is quite naturally the aggrieved race, black people and other liberal-thinking individuals who believe that it is high time the statues came down. All over the world, periodic protests against various forms of racism are more than enough reminders of Western legacies of racial ills against blacks, so do the statues still need to be here? On the other side of this divide are the other group predominantly white people who claim that these statutes are an integral part of history. 


This group believe that the monuments represent their heritage, are markers of the progress of humankind and therefore should not be torn down. Isn’t it interesting how history should not be forgotten but the black man is expected to forgive and forget? Some solutions have been provided to lay this debate to rest. There are people who agree that these monuments are rightly offensive to blacks and suggest they be tucked away in museums instead. 

Others suggest an evaluation of past deeds to determine which statute should stand and which should be torn down. They believe that it is sometimes clear on what side to be on; slave traders should not have statues in their honor mounted in places of pride where people who still suffer from the results of their actions will see it every day. But then again, they advise caution because these things are not always clear. Things are never black and white, it is often beneficial to consider this before we act; Yale’s case provides a good example.

The world-renowned Ivy League college, Yale University, is one of the most popular supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement and has been vocal in advocating for the dignity of blacks. A few weeks ago, however, it came to light that the founder of Yale University Elihu Yale, a British-American merchant and President of the East India Company, had in fact been a slave owner. Put differently, the endowment of the university had come from the sweat of slaves. Now that we know about the school’s founder, what do we do? Do we tear down the university or rename it at the very least? 

In response to this, Yale University graduate John Witt (who had in fact led the committee to change the name of another college) stated that Elihu Yale was only a minor player in the slave trade. His point was that the activities of Yale, wrong though they may be, are not heinous enough to strip the school of his name. There is equal parts agreement and dissent here. Many started considering the magnitude of slavery that was acceptable and for its part, Yale University had to consider the implications (financial, emotional or otherwise) of changing its name and taking up another. 

Yale University was founded in 1701 by Elihu Yale, a British-American merchant and President of the East India Company who also owned slaves. Photo: Pixabay.

In all this back and forth though, here is the inconvenient truth: if we go back far enough, all civilizations, peoples and races have all sinned and fallen short of present-day morality in some form or other. From ownership rights and mode of choosing leaders down to slavery and everything in between. It is easy for us to hold on to the evils of the past as justifications for the future but if we do, who is spared really? A detailed assessment of the past will show that White European slave traders were not the only villains because instances of African participation in slave trade abound. 

Africans bought and sold each other as slaves long before the White man discovered our shores. Native Americans sold and owned black slaves and from which race do you think the middle men in these transactions came from? Sometimes, looking back means staying behind and so the pertinent question should be, “Will this historical introspection help in achieving the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement today?” Will tearing down a statue, changing a logo or renaming a military base bring us any closer to ending police brutality and achieving racial equality. If the answer is no, then what are we truly hoping to achieve here?

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As you might expect, governments quickly swung into action by either removing or relocating the offensive statues, all while the laws and systems in place which had sparked the protests in the first remains. The result is an illusion of action and progress, while in reality, nothing tangible is achieved. These perfunctory actions serve no purpose other than diverting attention from the main causes blacks are clamoring for and what’s worse, most of us are already mistaking them for actual results. Think about it for a moment; most people are now more conversant with the issue of statues than something like the core issue of qualified immunity which is something that can actually lead to reduced police brutality. 

A statue is defaced in New York City. Photo: Lemon Ruan.

Jurisprudential discussions on the moralities of the actions of dead people have no practical value today. I am a strong believer in the need to continuously reassess history but I’ve also learnt that this analysis should only be as far as it impacts the present or the future. History should be studied, mistakes of the past should be acknowledged. Does it advance the welfare of black people? The American founding father and slave owner Thomas Jefferson once said “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past”. It was easy for him to say of course, but I agree with him on this one. 

People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them. To truly escape, perhaps, the time has come to look past our past. Blacks have been horribly wronged but we can only blame the dead for so long. We have more pressing needs today and so we’d best apply our historical lessons to the present. 

Isn’t that a more positive way to clear our paths for a better collective future?

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Cover image of Black Lives Matter protest in Parliament Square in London. Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona.

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