Removing Racist Symbols Isn’t a Denial of History

Across the world, campus symbols from the epoch of avowed white supremacy have come under sharp criticism from students and their allies. At the University of Cape Town, academically the highest-ranked institution in Africa, a “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign last year compelled the removal of a monument to Cecil Rhodes, the diamond-mining baron, British imperialist, and progenitor of South Africa’s system of apartheid. Students splattered the statue with buckets of excrement and paint (…) Examples abound of demolitions widely taken as acts of liberation, not cultural boorishness. The Hungarian rebels who toppled statues of Stalin in 1956 are celebrated, not accused of desecrating history. Similarly, there has been no outcry against Ukraine’s recent dismantling of more than 800 statues of Lenin, a measure taken in response to the provocations of Putin’s Russia. (Most of the works were consigned to museums, it appears, although a clever artist converted one into Darth Vader.) Just as in certain contexts erasure is a sign of memory, so can memorials be a form of forgetting. Insofar as relics of the era of overt white supremacy may represent an institution’s failure to look itself in the mirror and adopt inclusive symbols so as to welcome all prospective students and academics, the symbols are indicators of an institutional blind spot. To remove them does not vitiate history; on the contrary, it represents a more thorough coming to terms with the past and its legacies, a refusal to forget.

Christopher Phelps in Removing Racist Symbols Isn’t a Denial of History (Chronicle)