More than just a statue: why removing Rhodes matters

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nger is a potent, if volatile, political force. It can be channelled toward many ends. It’s often dismissed as counterproductive, but Audre Lorde, the African American writer and civil rights activist, reminds us that anger can be a powerful source of energy. It can serve progress and change, it can be liberating and clarifying.

I remember so viscerally my own anger this time last year as I screamed Black Lives Matter in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. And I was not alone. The world witnessed a prolonged outpouring of rage. Global protests with emotionally charged testimonies and determined calls for justice abounded. These protests soon extended beyond the immediate circumstances of Floyd’s death at the knee of Derek Chauvin to challenging an array of institutions that are built on or propagate anti-Black racism. Anger had made it abundantly clear that, despite all the promises of liberal democracy, western society still has a problem with race.

At first the message appeared to be getting across. If we were to believe the black squares on Instagram, or the spike in sales of anti-racism books, or the spread of a new mantra among white people (“I need to educate myself”), then change of some kind was afoot.

In Oxford, the Black Lives Matter protests folded into the anti-colonial activism of Rhodes Must Fall. This is not surprising. Colonialism and racism are entwined like the strands of a double helix. In modern Britain, colonialism has transcended its historical epoch. It exists in the present as a kind of nostalgia for the country’s hegemony on the world stage, while fuelling nationalism, buttressing white supremacy and generating anxieties about immigration and cultural change. The statue of Cecil John Rhodes at Oriel College in Oxford perfectly distils this imperial nostalgia into a concrete object.

The charge sheet against Rhodes is well documented. Rhodes’s imperial philosophy was unabashedly supremacist, and he detested Africans (“If the whites maintain their position as the supreme race, the day may come when we shall be thankful that we have the natives with us in their proper position”). At the end of the 19th century, Rhodes invaded the Ndebele kingdom in what is now Zimbabwe. His British South Africa Company mowed down soldiers, women and children with Maxim guns; it looted cattle and destroyed grain stores and crops, leaving the local population destitute; and it went on to establish the apartheid state of Rhodesia. Rhodes was often present while these atrocities were taking place, and he was involved in strategic discussions about the wars he waged against Black people in southern Africa.

I have been part of the campaign to take down the statue of Rhodes at Oxford since 2015. In the last six years, I have seen the history of Rhodes – and indeed colonialism – sanitised, ignored, denied and distorted by critics of the campaign. Some claim that Rhodes was not a racist, others who know little of Africa have the gall to accuse people like me of erasing history. George Orwell was right when he wrote: “It is quite true that the English are hypocritical about their Empire.”

In response to the anti-racism protests last June, Oriel College’s governing body expressed its desire to remove the statue of Rhodes subject to review by an independent commission composed of academics, city councillors, Oriel alumni, university administrators and journalists. This was the second time the college had made such a pledge. In 2016, the college had stated that it would launch a six-month “listening exercise” on the Rhodes statue, only to renege on this commitment within six weeks because it feared losing donor gifts from the college’s old boys’ network.

I wanted to believe that the independent commission would be taken seriously this time round. The commissioners worked hard. They gathered evidence and testimonies from a wide range of perspectives for nearly a year before producing a detailed, heavily footnoted report. Ultimately, they recommended the removal of the statue and offered several other suggestions for advancing academic and public understanding of the Rhodes legacy.

On 20 May, Oriel College finally announced its decision: it would retain the statue despite the apparent wishes of the college’s governing body and the recommendations of the independent commission. Why? The college’s website states that the governing body has “carefully considered the regulatory and financial challenges, including the expected time frame for removal, which could run into years with no certainty of outcome, together with the total cost of removal”. Like dowdy clothing, such statements conceal more than they reveal. What are these regulatory and financial challenges exactly? What is meant by “no certainty of outcome”? Even Oxford City Council was baffled.

The statement goes on to say that “instead” of taking down the statue, the governing body will focus on contextualising Rhodes’s relationship to the college and “improving educational equality, diversity, and inclusion”. The word “instead” is doing a lot of work here: it is dissipating the core demand of the protests into an array of tiny initiatives that the college should be taking anyway. As educators, I think part of our professional mandate is to constantly improve equality, diversity and inclusion among students and colleagues. Oriel deserves no special credit for committing to this.

Taking down the Rhodes statue might seem symbolic, but it actually represents real change. At the very least, it would demonstrate that the university is not only beholden to a group of wealthy alumni and political patrons. The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, lauded Oriel’s decision as “sensible”. More generally, arguments over statues are always about the present and not the past. They are about which aspects of our cultural heritage we choose to honour in public space and why. They are about what values we wish to promote and who has a voice in these matters.

There is another salient lesson here. Public outrage can mobilise impassioned calls for change like an all-consuming fire, but this is difficult to sustain. Anger is potent but it is exhausting. When the temperature cools down, when energy is depleted, those opposed to change can extinguish the urgency of anti-racism agendas using bureaucracy, platitudes and obfuscation.

Still, I don’t think the story will end here. The anger that was activated last summer has shifted the public conversation about race and colonialism. If history has taught us anything, it’s that social change is often slow and difficult. It rarely unfolds through absolute victories but through partial gains and subtle shifts in collective consciousness. It’s a matter of time before anger erupts again. The question of how that anger will ultimately be used is an open one.

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