Pesky statues where ghosts reside and hide

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Garrick Cooper takes a selfie in front of a statue beside Notre Dame, Paris

Slave traders, confederate leaders, and statues of old colonials are tumbling on the back of the groundswell of opposition to police brutality and anti-black racism that are the George Floyd protests.

A new social norm and consensus is emerging in the U.S. and U.K. around symbols of white supremacy, colonialism and racism – they are no longer acceptable in public spaces. That statues of historical figures who represent some of the most vile but all too human aspects of humanity could stand venerated in public spaces as long as they have, is evidence of the patience and restraint of black, indigenous and minority communities.

The protests have reignited our local conversation about pesky colonial statues.  The conversation has resumed in a typically Kiwi way: subdued, understated, a little but not too much emotion.  As far as I can tell there are two main arguments against the removal of these statues.  The first claims that by removing such statues we are on a slippery slope to trying to erase our history, a tactic of fascist and autocratic regimes.  This is a weaker but more direct argument. Demanding the removal of statues is demanding just that, the removal of statues: not the removal of historical events from our literature, collective memory and cultural archives, if that was even possible.  Of all people, Maori would be the last to advocate such action.  We have a prodigious capacity for, and mnemonic devices to retain historical details, particularly where we have been wronged!  From a very young age my grandmother made sure I knew never to marry a woman from a particular tribe north of where we are from.  The reason being an ‘interaction’ with that tribe some five to six generations before her time.

The second, from National MP Judith “Crusher” Collins, is a passive aggressive argument. She asks where do we stop taking down statues because lots of historical figures have carried out horrible and unsavoury acts. It is a nothing argument. An argument to do nothing, is in effect an argument to continue reifying these figures.  By the Crusher’s logic, if she had any, her R Kelly CDs wouldn’t be trapped in the closet gathering dust, she would be making sure the radio stations played his hits regularly.

The presence of colonial statues are much more than some benign presence in public spaces, they are a constant invocation of our colonial present, that is to say, more than merely being present, their malevolent presence is being constantly made present. And present. And present…  Now, perhaps it depends on which side of the colonialism coin you make your case as to how you view those statues.  The side that says colonialism was only a force for good that civilised, what Frantz Fanon refers to as, the damnés? Or the side that argues colonialism had overwhelmingly disastrous consequences for Maori?

What side of the coin you make your case and therefore what colonialism means to you perhaps intersects with whether you are from this land or your ancestors arrived to this land in the last few centuries.

Words like colonialism have their own genealogies and histories that we are not always consciously aware of, but they are indeed invoked when we utter those words.  I remember at a conference years ago hearing an archaeologist talking about the “colonisation” of the Pacific.  I initially thought that he was talking about Abel Tasman and James Cook et al. No, he was talking about so-called “Polynesian colonisation” of the Pacific.  Surely he wasn’t implying European colonisation of the Pacific was the same as Polynesian settlement of the Pacific I thought to myself?! Now technically and etymologically speaking his use of the word is not incorrect as the word colonisation is derived from Latin words meaning to cultivate and establish a farm.  However, the meaning of colonisation in its more recent definition recognises that these lands were occupied by people whose existence was effectively erased in the original definition: the indigenous peoples who live on that land.

But this is about much more than some sort of linguistic and semantic tap dance.  Words are powerful and mystical, slippery but have form, and often awaken ghosts residing in our minds and our collective imagination.  Just like words, statues of colonial figures hide ghosts. They are not in the so called past and we cannot wish them to the past.  Colonialism is and is constantly being made emphatically present by these statues.   Colonisation has very real deleterious consequences for indigenous peoples and for those who, in the case of the Americas were enslaved to work on stolen lands. It is an ongoing source of profound, enduring injustice. The colonial figures brought to life by these statues cannot be disentangled from our history, but nor can they be assigned to history by ignoring their presence so long as they continue to be venerated in public spaces today.

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