No, Removing Racist and Colonial Statues is not Erasing History

Statue of Christopher Columbus toppled in St. Paul, MN, USA on June 10, 2020
Cover Photo: Tony Webster, 2020

2nd-year Student in the Middle East-Mediterranean Campus of MENTON

Over the past summer, the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by the Minneapolis Police sparked international outrage, leading to protests not only across the United States, but around the world. Floyd’s murder brought to surface a reckoning of issues related to race, white supremacy and beyond, to the mainstream consciousness in the US and throughout Europe. 

Public statues in particular received a renewed spotlight in the aftermath of Floyd’s murder leading to countless protests both in and outside of the United States. Many protestors and activists in the United States have called on various city, state and federal governments to remove statues related to the Confederate States of America that seceded from the US during the Civil War as the statues are tied up in racism, white supremacy and slavery. Over the summer, the conversation expanded to include statues not only pertaining to the Confederacy but also colonization and the genocide of Indigenous Americans. In July, two statues of Christopher Columbus, the man many see as a symbol of the genocide of millions of Indigenous people but who is credited for “discovering America”, were removed from parks in Chicago by the local government. Protestors have also torn down statues of Columbus in Richmond, VA, USA and St. Paul, MN, USA not far from where Floyd was murdered.  

Head of Christopher Columbus state on the ground after being toppled over
Tony Webster, 2020

Although the removal of such statues have long been debated in the United States, the conversation took on a new aspect in Europe, as protestors in many countries called for the removal of statues tied to slavery and European colonization. On June 7, in Bristol, the United Kingdom, a statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader during the 17th century was removed by protestors and thrown into the local harbor. A few days later in Antwerp, Belgium, a statue of the former Belgian King, Leopold II, was removed after having been set on fire. Leopold was known for his brutal rule of the Congo leading to the deaths of millions. In Paris, France, a statue of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, a man responsible for authoring the Code Noir which regulated slavery in the French colonies, was targeted by protestors who painted on the statue and called for its removal. The statue was not removed, but did provoke strong reactions from many sides of French politics including President Emmanuel Macron who in a live-televised address said “the Republic will not erase any trace or name from its history. It will not forget any of its deeds or take down any statue.” 

Statues are not objective historical facts, each statue erected holds a certain narrative and it is critical to analyze which narratives are being honored in which public spaces.

The conversation around these statues and symbols is unlikely to go away, no matter how strict of a stance governments take. Key to understanding why these statues are such major issues for those protesting racism, white supremacy and the legacies of colonization and slavery is understanding what these statues represent. Statues are not objective historical facts, each statue erected holds a certain narrative and it is critical to analyze which narratives are being honored in which public spaces. 

In the United States for example, many of the statues honoring Confederate soldiers were built across the American South in the early 1900s by groups looking to preserve the South’s tradition of white supremacy. One such group was the Daughters of the Confederacy, who successfully erected statues across the South in remembrance of the confederate soldiers who died during the war. Although these statues may on the surface level seem like commemorative pieces for those who died, they were part of a larger effort of white supremacists to reconstruct the narrative of the American Civil War. Instead of being considered as soldiers who fought against the United States in order to protect the institution of slavery, Confederate soldiers were successfully repositioned in white American society as heros who fought valiantly for their freedom. Although, it was not statues alone that repositioned the historical narrative of the American Civil War but also a nationwide campaign from groups like the Daughters of the Confederacy which included censoring textbooks in schools that had anti-Confederate bias. Through their work in the public sphere, the Daughters of the Confederacy were able to change the historical narrative surrounding the civil war, which continues to be the dominant narrative in parts of the United States today. Confederate statues are symbols of how effective their tactics were as there is still resistance to removing these monuments for white supremacy today.

Statues of Christopher Columbus also portray a certain historical narrative, often of Columbus, as mentioned earlier, being a great explorer and navigator who successfully “discovered” the American continent. The statue of Columbus which was torn down in St. Paul, MN featured Columbus with maps in his hand, looking to the horizon. Creating statues of Columbus depicted as a great adventurer and navigator ignores the true and brutal role that Columbus played in the colonization and genocide of Indigenous Americans. Instead, the narrative that he successfully and admirably “discovered” the American continent is continued. 

The histories of Europe and the United States as they pertain to colonialism, white supremacy and slavery are simultaneously intertwined and separate. The role of the Confederacy and Civil War is distinct to the United States, but the United States would not exist without the settlement, colonization and imperialist policies of Europe. The statues under attack in Europe such as Edward Colston, King Leopold II and Jean-Baptiste Colbert represent Europe’s colonial past and it’s racist and most brutal policies. Although the subjects may be different, such European statues are deeply related to and rooted in colonization, genocide and white supremacy—same as their American counterparts. 

The removal of these statues is not historical revisionism, it is the rejection of the harmful narratives…that have pervaded our societies for years.

When statues are placed in our public spaces, they make a statement, they honor and immortalize certain people, places and events. When statues and monuments are erected, it is publicly declared that the symbols present in the statue are important along with the historical narratives those symbols depict. A statue of Christopher Columbus is not just a statue of a famous explorer, but a symbol of colonization, white supremacy and the softening of Columbus’ role in genocide. 

The removal of these statues is not historical revisionism as some may claim, instead it is the rejection of the harmful traditional narratives of colonization, slavery and white supremacy that have pervaded our societies for years. Calls for removal of such statutes should not be met with outright dismissal but instead open a conversation on the historical narratives that permeated deep into our public spaces. Both the United States and Europe to reckon with their racist, brutal, colonial pasts and rejecting symbols that honor these pasts represent a forward movement in our societies. 

Re-examination of historical narratives should not be limited to who is honored in public spaces with statues and street names, but move beyond to include which narratives are taught in classes and written in textbooks. These issues of white supremacy, colonization and slavery are not in the past, their effects are prevalent throught our societies today. Removing symbols of these issues will not mean that history is to be forgotten but rather that society is choosing to no longer honor those who represent genocide and hatred. ▣

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