[Ed. Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part series entitled “Remove, Rename and Much More”]
History is not taught on the streets. This is why we must remove those statues unworthy of serving as geographical landmarks for our societies, and “confine” them to the history books.
History will remember that it was in the wake of the appalling strangulation of George Floyd, 46, on May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, who died in unrelenting agony under the knee of a white police officer by the name of Derek Chauvin, that we have seen the removal of statues of historical figures responsible for slavery and colonization in the U.K., Belgium, the U.S. and other countries.
Throughout the world, statues and monuments depicting major figures of colonialism and the slave trade have become targets for protests against racism and discrimination. These are significant and powerful demonstrations that bring unresolved relationships between people and their histories into focus. At the same time, they mark an important moment in the fight against inequality and the various forms of racial oppression, past and present.
The debate about the removal of statues of historical figures who have fully contributed to, or benefited from, the colonial past is certainly nothing new. But it has been revived as the result of fractures across societies: in the glaring, race-based inequities in colonizing and slave countries; in the rise of extremism in those countries where xenophobic and openly racist movements have become not only visible and representative (even in institutions such as Parliament), but where they also tend to be trivialized.
Particularly in France, while citizens from colonized countries crumble under the weight of profuse, underhanded, degrading and dominating interactions, they are accused of participating in “communitarianism.“ It is pure hypocrisy when a republic blames immigrant citizens who openly express their anger about the discrimination toward them by the republic itself.
It comes as no surprise that these citizens are active in their own neighborhoods — where all the pathologies of society coalesce — and where they suffer from inequities based only on their racial identity. It is no coincidence!
What the removal of statues shows is that while historians are taking too long to rewrite history, protesters are presenting their own reading of their people’s history.
Removal of statues also shows that if those honored by the statues were present today, the demonstrators would have found a way to reach them, to attack them and bring them down. The people represented by the statues have blood on their hands and massacres on their conscience. Therefore, there is no place for them in the public spaces of our cities.
But where should those statues be raised so that the tragic part of our history with slave and colonizing countries is not hidden? The African American novelist Toni Morrison (1931-2019) brings us the answer. When asked about why she wrote her masterpiece “Beloved” (at the time of its publication in 1987), she said that it was because there was no place of national remembrance specifically dedicated to slavery in her country, the United States. That is why she wanted to create a book-monument, and, indeed, the novel has become a book-monument. It has been on the curricula of top American universities for several years. Morrison was canonized (in her lifetime, which, in itself, is extremely rare), her work Is now widely taught in school and university programs in the United States, and “Beloved” is recommended reading when teaching about slavery.
Thus, there is is clearly no risk that one will suffer amnesia if statues are removed, no risk of erasing the collective memory of swaths of history integral to a people’s identity. Rather, we could address a number of gaps, including the systematic integration of teaching about slavery (and colonization) in high school and university curricula and providing intellectual tools to historians called to teach it. Because in truth, history as an educational discipline lacks the objectivity it might be given. It is controversial and problematic.
For example, we all remember the lively controversy (the often subjective and biased dispute and questioning) that accompanied the writing of the history of our own country [Senegal] a few months ago. Here, as elsewhere, the writing of history always makes waves; it is never a long, quiet river. In fact, it will certainly be necessary to teach about historical national figures (political, religious, and cultural) who fought against slavery and colonization by restoring them — in their full dimension — in as objective and balanced a way as possible, without emotion. But it will also be necessary to teach about Louis Faidherbe, General Charles de Gaulle, Jules Ferry, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Adolphe Thiers, Andre Peytavin, etc., even about writers who incorporated the colonial enterprise into their texts, with the aim of better supporting the underpinnings of colonialism.*
*Translator’s Note: Louis Faidherbe was a French general and colonial administrator of Senegal. Charles de Gaulle was a French general and statesman, Jules Ferry was a French statesman who promoted colonial expansion. Jean-Baptiste Colbert was a French minister of the colonies under King Louis XIV. Adolphe Thiers was a French statesman and historian and second elected president of France, and Andre Peytavin was a Senegalese statesman of French origin who worked for the first president of Senegal.
Abou Bakr Moreau is a teacher-researcher of American Studies at the University Cheikh Anta Diop of Dakar (UCAD).
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