We’ve previously discussed the horrible trolling of historians simply for researching the links between National Trust properties and slavery. (At the request of, and in collaboration with, that organisation.) Recent months have seen the rise of other right-wing warriors willing to engage in full-blooded culture wars. Siobhan Baillie, the conservative MP for Stroud, a market town in Gloucestershire, has attacked activists calling for the removal of an 18th century statue of a black boy that stands above a clock on a listed building. (see bbc.co.uk/news: Racism Debate MP Says Controversial Statue Should Stay, 19/08/23)
The statue is clearly a racist, colonial stereotype of a slave boy, and the organisation Stroud Against Racism wants it put in a museum, because it is offensive to people of colour, such as Dan Guthrie, a local artist, who “plucked up the courage to complain” after Black Lives Matters activists threw the statue of the slaver Edward Colston in the harbour at Bristol. (The Guardian, Is Time Up for the ‘Blackboy’ Clock? Racism Row Divides Cotswold Town, 15/08/21)
This statue seems relatively inoffensive. It is small and above eye-level, and probably not noticed by most people. Nobody now holds the attitudes embodied in it, so it is a relic of an embarrassing bygone age.
But it is also a piece of Stroud’s history, and to remove and sequester it in a museum would be to erode that history as a publicly owned property. That would be a pity. In a grumpy and unfairly critical mood I might wonder if Mr Guthrie truly needed to “pluck up courage” to complain to the council, or if his grievance only occurred to him after the publicity surrounding Edward Colston’s demise. He is, after all, a successful artist with a string of works that address “aspects of Black Britishness”, according to his website: not the sort to be intimidated by local council officers. I might wonder, also, if his supporters, in this affluent and overwhelmingly white town, are furiously virtue-signalling to dodge responsibility for, or complicity in, their racist heritage.
HOWEVER, once Mr Guthrie and others had claimed to be upset by it, it is difficult to support fighting to retain this figure, and the activists do not want it destroyed, merely moved out of public sight – a reasonable request.
Defenders of the statue’s current position need to ask what they are fighting for. Are they celebrating Britain’s colonial, slave-trading past? Are they standing up for their right to upset people and make them feel unwelcome and thus denied their British identity?
Being noticeably different and sometimes singled out is a burden that minority groups have to live with. It is unfair and tiresome and upsetting, but life isn’t fair. Yet the same could be said of Britain’s imperial history: while we are personally innocent, we must live with the burden of our colonial heritage. Whenever a member of a minority group voices an objection to some aspect of our heritage, history or culture, it is difficult for us to defend it, morally, no matter how precious or beneficial to our lives or sense of identity, no matter how much you suspect the objectors are destructive, self-righteous busy-bodies. That is our cross to bear. It’s like the wind turbines you see in areas of natural beauty. They look terribly out of place, all angular and mechanical and man-made, disrupting the landscape, but, in the wake of our wanton destruction of our own atmosphere and climate, what else can we do?