Beyond offensive memorials being removed, real progress will come when we talk to each other and make it our focus to understand the other side, writes Bonnie Greer

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In re-reading the former Mayor of New Orleans Mitch Landrieu’s 2014 speech on why Confederate monuments in his hometown were coming down, I was reminded again of a curious British trait that I’ve observed: people don’t often talk to one another. 

I have lived in the UK for almost as long as I lived in my native land and it has always struck me that folks too often just plain don’t sit down and talk. Sure, there are chat shows galore, plenty of performative radio, comedians on TV yakking with each other. But, to my mind, there is very little real talk – very little reaching out to reach into another person. Perhaps talking to an opponent is felt as a kind of surrender. I don’t know.       

In his speech, Landrieu lays out the idea that, in talking to other people – all of the stakeholders in the matter of the Confederate statues – he learned a few things. He learned that the statues of Confederate heroes offended African Americans. Black parents wanted to take their kids to show them heroes – how could they show them a statue of a man who led an insurrection against the United States based on the enslavement of African Americans? How could that make a black child proud? He talked to those who honoured the statues. What he discovered is that the monuments held a great deal of emotional currency for them. These people saw the American Civil War as a war for individual freedom; for individual choice.

I was taught by an order of African American nuns, based in Baltimore. Baltimore is called a ‘borderline city’ because it rests on the old Mason Dixon Line that divided the North from the South. The term “sold down the river” comes from the fact that, if you were black, you could be taken by anybody across the river into the South – where you could be, and often were, enslaved. The Oblate Sisters Of Providence, the African American sisters who taught me, were – at their founding – breaking the law in teaching a black child. But even they, with a proud history of resistance, called the American Civil War “the war of Northern aggression”.

If we do not talk to one another, are not determined through dialogue to find a way together to rectify history, we will be doomed to repeat it.

Landrieu, by talking to people, found out then that this is what people felt and why they wanted the statues to stay. He never brought those people around to his side, but he began to understand them. They offered suggestions as to what should happen to the statues.

The statues came down but, as far as I know, none were broken up.

In the version of this story happening now in the UK, neither side seems to want to find a way – because to find a way might reveal a bit of history; might bring a community at least to the point where they can see the other side.

The statue in Bristol of slave trader Edward Colston had to come down because its presence there was absurd. People had been petitioning for years to have it removed. So why not now put it in a museum, where it can be taught? Because, otherwise, Colston could be forgotten – because people forget. But to do this would involve people talking to one another.

The UK, as we know it, was built on the transatlantic slave trade. The Royal Navy abolished the trade on the high seas in the early 19th Century, which aided the ascendancy of the Navy. It took it upon itself to patrol the waters – all of the waters. The recently fashionable Victorian Era rested not only on industrialisation but colonisation.

So nothing in this country is untouched by this. Those who clamour about the collections of the British Museum, the British Library, the Natural History Museum – the origins of which are from the bequest of Hans Sloane, the husband of an heiress whose fortune was built on slavery – forget or do not know a few things.

Like the fact that Sloane also invented hot chocolate and that he owned whole swathes of London. What do we do about Sloane Street or Sloane Square? For that matter, what do we do about Liverpool, Manchester and Edinburgh? And these places are just the start.

If we do not talk to one another, are not determined through dialogue to find a way together to rectify history, we will be doomed to repeat it.

We must tell the whole story. And know too, that there will always be a statue taken down and somebody to oppose it.

If we don’t talk to each other and maybe learn a little bit of history in the bargain, the issue of Colston will be back. Not in our lifetimes – but he will return to the public square because it will then be all about power. With no possibility of reconciliation. With no possibility of reclamation – because we failed to talk to the other side. 

And, once again, history becomes the tale of the victors. 


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