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Of Statues and History, or, How do you deal with a problem like Cecil Rhodes?

Of Statues and History, or, How do you deal with a problem like Cecil Rhodes?

The current angry scuffle, over whether or not the University of Cape Town should continue to be host to a statue of Cecil Rhodes in light of his less than salubrious life, encourages J. BROOKS SPECTOR to contemplate how such a question has come up in other times and places – like Richmond, Virginia; the central Afghanistan region of Bamiyan; and the archaeological treasures of Iraq.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

— “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Back in 1995, in Richmond, Virginia – the city in the American South that was the capital of the rebellious Confederacy a century and a half ago was still enjoying its reputation as a repository of a kind of Gone with the Wind-style Southern myth and history, was being rocked by an angry controversy about a statue. A statue. The issue quickly blossomed into national news, both for the texture of the arguments, and because of the way it exposed the (still) unhealed wound in the national psyche. And that, of course, was the heritage of segregation and slavery before it.

Nearly a century earlier, along one of Richmond’s main drags, Monument Avenue, became an urban landscape populated by stately homes, architecturally significant apartment buildings and genteel park-lined streets, the city fathers decided to decorate this space with a statue of the famous commanding general of the Confederate’s Army of Virginia, Robert E Lee. At its unveiling in 1890, an estimated 100,000 people (almost certainly almost entirely white) gathered for the ceremonies. Later additions to this greensward included General JEB Stuart and Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, together in 1907. These were followed by a statue of General Stonewall Jackson a dozen years after that, and then, in a slight break in the traditional pattern, the city added a statue of oceanographer (and Confederate naval officer) Matthew Maury (this time not on a horse), a decade later still.

There things stood in the former capital of the Confederacy, until the man who was almost certainly the city’s most famous son, the international tennis star and sports activist Arthur Ashe, passed away due to an infection from AIDS contracted during a blood transfusion. In recognition of his contribution to American life and sports, as well as his position as a civil rights icon, Ashe’s friends and supporters proposed a statue of him be erected on that heretofore “holy ground” of Monument Avenue.

Almost instantly, this proposal took heat from critics who argued Ashe was not a Confederate war hero (obviously true) and that the space on that turf was reserved for the war heroes (certainly debatable). Not too surprisingly, the proposal for a statue honouring Ashe – and the opposition to it – inevitably turned into a racially charged issue, given the always-flammable texture of race relations in America. While the suburbs that surround Richmond remain substantially white, the city itself is now predominately black and so the issue became politically charged as well.

But there were also complaints from Richmond’s African American community about the nature of the statue as well. For some, its very design was unflattering, as it seemed to make Ashe look as if he was in rather desperate need of a decent meal. (Doesn’t that have echoes of a certain statue of King Shaka in the form of a herd boy rather than an all-conquering general and ruler?) Yet others took a careful look at the plans and were angered by the fact that it was going to be significantly smaller than all those equestrian generals already on the ground – coming in at around 4 metres tall, rather than around 20 metres for the generals. Moreover, Ashe’s memorial was going to be placed as far as possible from the main part of the grounds, where the other tributes had been erected, and he would be facing away from the centre of the city as if he was on his way out of there as fast as possible.

When all was finally calmed down, The New York Times reported that “After months of rancour over where to install a monument to Arthur Ashe here in his hometown, a bronze statue of him was set atop a stone column on Wednesday on a street dedicated to Confederate icons. Dozens of people watched as a huge crane lowered the 12-foot-tall figure – depicting Mr. Ashe with books aloft in his serving arm, a tennis racquet in his left hand and four children reaching up to him – onto a 44-ton stone column base along Monument Avenue. Statues eastward along the tree-lined boulevard honour Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, J. E. B. Stuart and Robert E. Lee, whose statue is about 60 feet tall…

“Mr. Ashe spent his early years in a segregated Richmond where he was denied permission to play on the city’s whites-only tennis courts. So instead he played at a park for blacks where his father was the caretaker. After leaving Richmond in 1961, at the age of 18, he went on to become the first black man to win the United States Open (1968), the Australian Open (1970) and Wimbledon (1975)…

“City residents argued for months over whether the statue should be placed on the avenue or another spot, like Byrd Park, where Mr. Ashe was turned away from the tennis courts. An arts group also tried to persuade City Council to put the statue elsewhere and hold an international competition to come up with a design with more artistic merit.”

Of course, aside from aesthetics, the arguments always had more than a touch of a racial edge to them. Reporting at the time of the fight over where or whether to place the Ashe statue on Monument Avenue, The Baltimore Sun had reported, “In a debate where symbols are the substance, the legacy of the War Between the States has made uneasy allies of white traditionalists and black leaders who deplore the Monument Avenue site. It has stirred passions among the majority black population in this capital of 200,000, where ‘integrating’ the heroes of Monument is a desired, if tricky, goal. ‘I would hope that the political and community leaders would not use the Ashe statue for political Ping-Pong,’ said Robin E. Reed, director of the Museum of the Confederacy here, who opposes the Monument Avenue site.

“But the volleying is well under way. Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the most prominent advocate of the Monument Avenue site, has criticised as ‘moronic’ a proposal by the mayor and others to create a downtown park for the statue. ‘Monument Avenue and Richmond were not good enough for Arthur Ashe when he had to leave them,’ Mr. Wilder told the Richmond-Times Dispatch. ‘There are some who are saying it is not good enough for him, even in his death.’… ‘Why put a winner on an avenue of losers?’ said Raymond H. Boone, publisher of the Richmond Free Press.” Is any of this beginning to sound remotely familiar to South African readers?

Four years after the Ashe statue was finally installed, criticism of Monument Avenue’s role in historical memory making continued onward. The Baltimore Sun reported on the defacement of a mural featuring General Lee as part of a larger struggle, “that heritage groups say embodies a resolve by civil rights leaders to rid the South of Confederate symbols. But here in Richmond, a bastion of Confederate relics and remembrances, a growing chorus, including Mayor Timothy Kaine, says it’s time for the majority black city to honour African-Americans. ‘Not one more dime should be spent on another Confederate rendering until African-American personalities and heroes are included in some kind of plan to accurately and fairly present history on public property,’ Chambliss [chairman of the city’s ad hoc historical interpretation committee created by the City Council to deal with such questions] said.”

Chambliss had been a long-time supporter of the Ashe memorial statue and he had also led the fight in Richmond to rename two city bridges to honour local civil rights leaders. As the great novelist of the South’s tortured history and emotions, William Faulkner, had famously noted, The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” Is all of this sounding ever more familiar to South Africans?

But is the situation with regard to the Cecil Rhodes statue or even the name of Rhodes University – let alone the memories and memorials of the slave-owning Confederacy in the US South a century and a half ago – really black and white? Or are there other unsettling complexities lurking about? In discussing this question with the writer’s spouse (a student at the U. of Cape Town over forty years ago when her fellow black students could almost literally be counted on the fingers and toes of the players in a bridge game), she had mulled over whether there wasn’t some element of overlap with the kinds of dreadful destruction of historic statuary in the Middle East and South Asia in recent years. The now despised statue of Cecil Rhodes figured barely in imaginations back then – black students were too busy concentrating on their studies or trying to find any possible chinks in the armour of Apartheid to begin to spend time on a statue.

And so should thoughts now turn to a contemplation of the destruction in Afghanistan by Taliban extremists of those ancient Buddhist statues in Bamiyan, as well as the recent desecration of statuary in northern Iraq by the Islamic State, in museums as well as at the sites of ancient cities like Nineveh? In centuries gone by, there have been so many other desecrations – the Spanish conquistadores’ burning of hundreds of Aztec written records, the angry chiselling away of the Sphinx’ beard and nose, or the diligent removal of Akhenaten’s very name from every monument throughout ancient Egypt, as if to remove every trace of a cursed name. And such a litany would not include the staged destruction of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad for global television – with the idea of cementing in the view that Iraqis had risen up spontaneously to dispatch the very representation of a hated figure.

Of course the demonstrators and protestors in Cape Town (and potentially Grahamstown) obviously have very different motives than extremist vandals smashing the world’s artistic patrimony for their so-called religious reasons. Still, all such actions do share one specific thing in common. All are trying to root out (by their lights uncomfortable, or even blasphemous) reminders of their world’s actual past, and by that action, deny that very history from going forward for future generations. Perhaps the intellectual violence of Winston Smith’s act of tossing actual history down the memory hole in Orwell’s 1984 is starting to swim into mind right about now.

There are, of course, other, perhaps equally compelling and competing visions and arguments. Readers may recall that wry German film, Good-bye Lenin. Taking place just after the demise of communist East Germany, the plot concerns a dutiful son’s increasingly frantic efforts to keep his mother, who had been in a coma when East Germany ceased to exist, from being perplexed and troubled by the new world of a united Germany. Things go well enough with his video tapes of old news broadcasts and pilfered, old pickle jars, until the day when she sees a helicopter carrying off yet another one of those massive bronzes of Lenin’s head from downtown East Berlin to one of those statue graveyards. And the balloon pops.

That statue’s destination is the resting place where all the busts and heroic poses of Lenin, Stalin, Marx, Engels and the related political statuary are to be deposited until someone figures out what to do with all of these statues: Will it be a kind of Disneyland for discarded ideologies, or is it to be the furnace for recycling? Despite an ambivalent nostalgia for last fond looks at gigantic bronzes of Lenin’s head, the country has moved on and the protagonist’s mother must also get in step like everyone else.

And so, is it too much to ask for a more all-encompassing debate about how one must remember the past; how one must engage with it and debate it; how one must reckon with the artefacts of that past; and how these older ones – representing a more odious moment in time – can be used to teach for the future?

But then there is also a certain memory of events at the State Theatre in Pretoria. In years gone by, the theatre had hosted a giant, and rather ugly, bust of former Prime Minister JG Strydom, placed in the plaza adjacent to the building, and over the theatre’s underground parking garage. Some years after the collapse of Apartheid, because of some structural weakness in the plaza’s construction, or perhaps due to a lack of maintenance, or maybe even just bad drainage that had fatally weakened the plaza; one night, Strydom’s head went crashing through the plaza floor and down into the garage below, where he came to an ignominious end. The imp of the perverse insists that here was an absolutely perfect response to history. Problem solved.

Still, that nagging question remains: what is to be done about Mr Rhodes on his chair, glowering over the university? Should the final decision just be left to the demonstrators, whoever they are and whomever they represent, on the grounds that they truly represent the people, and their view Rhodes’s visage is so terrible means it must be banished? Or, should there be some kind of referendum – asking if the university should keep Rhodes where he is but paint him some ghastly colour, move him to some less prominent spot, or just send him off to the cauldron?

Or, just perhaps, can Rhodes’s image become the perfect centrepiece for a larger garden of statuary that will help instruct the campus, the city and the country about a difficult history – in the kind of all-inclusive way any democratic revolution should insist on for the education of its future generations? DM

Photo: Cecil John Rhodes.

Read more:

  • Confederate capital debates black heritage in The Baltimore Sun

  • Arthur Ashe Statue Set Up in Richmond at Last in the New York Times

  • Plans for Arthur Ashe statue bring fighting words to Richmond in The Baltimore Sun

  • Sign me up to fight Islamic State’s demolition of the past in The Telegraph

  • The men who uncovered Assyria at the BBC

  • Arthur Ashe: A Civil Right Activist off the Court at the NPR website


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