‘We don’t need Rhodes’, ‘Decolonise Oxford’, ‘Don’t diversify. Decolonise’ are just some of the messages that continue to encapsulate the Rhodes Must Fall campaign (RMF).
Allied with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement, the RMF campaign aims to speak out against epistemic violence and the marginalisation of black history. As Dr Jeater (Lecturer of African History at Liverpool University) explains, this is the idea that the experience of colonialism has affected what it is to know things and the violence against knowledge itself.
Recently, the statues of Edward Colston and Robert Milligan have been torn down due to a newly energised anguish against racism stemming from slavery and its abolition. Catalysed by the murder of George Floyd and the associated problem of police brutality, the global conversation of anti-racism has emerged with the question of how we define our past and what its implications are on the present day.
The statue of Cecil Rhodes, deemed as next to fall by protestors, also symbolises a version of the past that has been manufactured by imperial amnesia and the glorification of empire. However, this is a one sided fictitious past, one encouraged by Neil Ferguson who in 2010 stated he was ‘fundamentally in favour of empire.’ This is also the same man who was responsible for re-writing the curriculum. Therefore, the question of ‘if Rhodes falls’ is one that will trigger and set the standard for other statues in Britain. Yes these men may have made considerable charitable donations, but this was only possible due to their role in the slave trade. That is to say, the forced labour of millions of people, robbed from their home, beaten, raped and forced to work for nothing. This is not to be glossed over so flippantly as displayed in many textbooks and people’s attitudes today.
However, Oriel College (finally) expressed their wish to have the statue removed and issued an Independent Commission of Inquiry into the issues surrounding the statue. This is after years of continually denying the problem and deeming the issue as one of College property and not one of freedom of speech. Here we must ask why the RMF movement has been ignored and supressed for so long. Even the Oxford Union concluded the statue should be taken down, and the university claimed if they removed it Oriel College claimed they would lose about £100 million suggesting they placed their financial interests above those of the students and the values of a University.
Refuting this issue of epistemic violence not only instils the white supremacy embedded in our education but also silences people who need representing. Indeed, in the 2013 publication of the Oxford Handbook of Modern African History not a single African contributor is seen which reinforces those same imperial power relationships. How are we to know the true experience of Black Africans if the people teaching it are white privileged men who have never experienced any of what they teach? This explicitly appropriates a version of African History without actually engaging with those who have lived through it. Is this what a university is supposed to represent? Shouldn’t it be African scholars who contribute to their own area of study?
Therefore, encouraging a diverse university community is the least we should be doing, but we need to go beyond this, and rid modern higher institutions of the same whitewashed curriculum that continually ignores the reality of the past and promotes the same colonial hierarchies. How are we to move forward in our understanding of the world if we don’t?
In an interview of Simakai Chigudu, a former Oxford student now professor, suggested that “RMF invites us to ask questions on how we memorialise the past and whose narratives we privilege in doing so”. He challenges “the idea that the RMF movement is trying to shut down debate or efface history’ and says this “entirely misses the point”. He suggests that “attacks on RMF endangers an open debate about the past and its role in the present”. This is certainly true and self-evident when we ask who is silencing whom, and whose freedom of speech is seen as more important?
Do we continue to prioritise white people defending their nationalism and ‘protecting their heritage’, or the people whose lives are directly affected by the people we glorify in statues? Here I am not referring to damage to war memorials but the imperial statues that are constant reminders of oppression and the myth of white supremacy. Removing them doesn’t ‘erase’ history at all, this view only ignores what they symbolise and actually aims to replace the full history with the ‘good’ parts and erase the rest.
Therefore to dismiss the problem only accentuates the harmful Eurocentric narrative of glorifying our history. Raising these questions and criticising how we view the past is not a manifestation of a ‘snowflake’ or ‘woke’ generation or one that is overly sensitive or easily offended. It is clear that these questions have been ignored for generations, and now we should feel duty bound to have them answered. It is only then that we can look for reparatory justice.