James Baldwin, who knew it so deeply, personally, wrote in Notes of a Native Son: “People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them”.
Still there are a group of mostly young people today who believe that they can rewrite the past and correct its iniquities and tragedies simply by destroying the monuments erected to yesteryear’s heroes. Their argument is that viewed from their high moral ground of the 21st century, these figures are now seen as less than heroic, and indeed, in some instances, participants in evil.
That’s not our view. We believe that history is a vast collection of the recollections of millions of people, sometimes even as faulty as individual recollections can be. We also know from carefully watching what is recorded of our own times what a small part of all the important nitty-gritty of life actually gets recorded or recorded accurately.
It was therefore with a little celebration that we saw that with the overwhelming backing of its alumni, the University of Oxford’s Oriel College has rejected a proposal to remove its statue of Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes was a British businessman, mining magnate and politician in Black Africa, who served as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, later to be part of the Union of South Africa, from 1890 to 1896. An ardent advocate of British imperialism, Rhodes’ British South Africa Company not only built the economy of South Africa, but he founded the southern African territory of Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe and Zambia]. He described their native populations as” largely in a state of barbarism”. To build African nationhood, he advocated Anglo-Saxons governing them as a “subject race”, and he succeeded in marginalizing them politically. But Rhodes left an enormous economic development behind in Africa and much of his personal fortune to Oxford, his alma mater, affording thousands of foreigners the opportunity to study there under the prestigious Rhodes Scholarships.
A “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign started in 2015 by students at the University of Cape Town in South Africa removed a statue dedicated to Rhodes there. In Britain, Oxford administrators agreed to remove a plaque in Rhodes’s honor as a preliminary step to considering removing the Rhodes statue on that campus when the movement spread to the U.K. But the University administrators backed off when alumni threatened to cancel donations to the university, worth more than £100 million. We would like to believe that more than money was involved here but good sense. Whatever the judgment – of his times and the one passing now – he was an important historical figure whose presence must be acknowledged if history of his times is to be honored.
Unfortunately, good sense has not always prevailed in our own country where there has been a campaign to remove symbols and tributes to the dead of the Confederacy in the “War Between the States”. One of the things that the enormous number of Confederate memorials across the South makes evident is that the conflict was a much more complicated affair than it is often presented in our own day. Certainly, the preservation of slavery of African-Americans was an important issue, perhaps the most important issue in the conflict. But there were others – some such as federal versus states rights still continue to be debated in our own day.. And the valor and sacrifice of the Confederate war dead is a cause worth remembering, however much it may have been for a misguided and lost cause.
We can only hope that the fanatics on this side of the Atlantic will spare a few moments to consider what their fellow “activists” have met on the other side.