As calls to remove statues of Belgium's controversial monarch, Leopold II, grow louder, Assita Kanko warns of the dangers of having a curated and sanitised version of history.
I was born in Burkina Faso. My grandparents told me stories of living under colonialism, and my young parents told me the stories their parents had told them. I grew up in a soci-ety where the weak grip upon democracy was created by the legacy of a struggling politi-cal system left in the wake of the French retreat.
The tragic death of George Floyd has prompted all of us to ask some difficult questions about who we are, and how the society around us was formed. Topics that were once confined to awkward conversations at the dinner table or debates within the corners of the academic world, have flooded the public consciousness in a way not seen since the civil rights protests of the 1960s.
The death of George Floyd has lit a powder keg of decades of social and economic ine-qualities and frustrations. The movement rose from grief and injustice like a phoenix from the ashes. It prompted much-needed conversations on societal bias, abuse of power, fail-ings in healthcare, education and policing. It took an issue that had impatiently waited generations to be discussed, and placed it on every newsfeed, every social media platform and in newspaper.
Debates over how best to forge equality have always had the potential to divide rather than unite. While the vast majority of people have protested peacefully, there are those that seek to create a narrative of all black people are oppressed and all whites people are privileged. As grief morphed into protest, and protest morphed into anger and retribution, it’s been decided by some that heads should roll; stone heads that is.
It has been decided by some that certain historical figures no longer have a place in a vi-sion of a curated and sanitised version of our history. The problem with that is that it makes cartoon heroes and villains of people. It places Churchill in the same category as a slave trader and Leopold II in the same column as Pol Pot. As I sit and write this, dozens of police officers surround a statue of Churchill in order to prevent its destruction. Yet, it wasn’t Churchill that caused the biggest genocide in human history, or ensured that black people living in Nazi Germany were persecuted, alienated and murdered. No, Churchill helped bring that to an end.
In January this year, I visited Auschwitz. Its power will always haunt me; the hair, the shoes, the bitter cold. It taught me more about loss, sacrifice, and human dignity that no text book ever could. Although I knew its history, it was another thing to see it. It showed me that although parts of our history will make us uncomfortable and horrified, and at times make us question the very humanity that lives within us; their presence is needed.
After the atomic bomb hit the domed Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition Hall, it somehow retained some of its walls and the steel frame of the dome. This structure quickly became a symbol of destruction, survival and rebuilding. The building is now the main attraction at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but not only must we remember our history, we need to see it.
When it comes to the statues of figures like Leopold II, I understand the frustrations and the anger at their daily presence. I understand the desire to avoid their glorification, and instead offer condemnation. But there is danger in cleansing our history to reflect who we wished we were, rather than who we actually have been.
It should never be the place of mob rule to decide who makes the cut and doesn’t of our age-old story. In a democratic society, those decisions are a consequence of debate and collective decision-making. To destroy our history rather than contextualise it, would be a mistake. In a 280-character world, the debate on black lives matter, requires nuance.
History is complicated. Our attitudes towards it will change and evolve with time. Through the prism of the present, with all of its progress and political correctness, many of our historical figures - and even our heroes - will be found to be flawed. Do we cease to read Voltaire, Shakespeare, Dickens or Melati van Java? With every passing day, we seek to argue over the merits of the past rather than try to understand its impact on the present, missing an opportunity to move forward.
Instead of throwing a can of red paint over a statue of a man most people probably didn’t know the name of a week ago, we should do more as a society to understand who these people are. We need to talk about how King Leopold drew some 220 million francs from the Congo during his lifetime, and how at the Expo 58 in Brussels, Congolese men, women and children were put on show in “traditional” dress behind a fence like a human zoo. Genocide, war and slavery are the dark shadows of our world history. It is a history that should never be forgotten, but one which mustn’t define us.
As a black woman, I have never been defined by words like diversity, inclusion and quotas. I am not the product of inadequate government policy, historical ignorance or online hate. I am the product of my own hard work and ambition, and my parents’ belief that the sky was the limit. If we wait for others to change in order to change our own lives, we are doomed to give away our own power and fall short of fulfilling our dreams.
We must teach our children that aspiration and tolerance are the weapons of choice when it comes to making your mark on the quest for change. We all need to show up, fight for what’s right, speak up against what is wrong, and play our part in creating a better world through the power of positivity and progress. So, how can we best honour George Floyd? By all of us being a better version of ourselves.
- Assita Kanko is a Belgian Member of the European Parliament for the New Flemish Alliance
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