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The British, so it seems, love a statue. Over the last few months we’ve seen Edward Colston’s toppled, Winston Churchill’s protected and Robert Baden-Powell’s moved to a place of safety. Much of the narrative around these particular statues (and others) has recently been contextualised in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement, as though nobody had ever criticised the subjects before. Colston, one time resident of Bristol and slave-trader was deemed worthy of commemoration some 174 years after his death and 62 years after the abolition of slavery. Likewise, one-time military man, accused of war crimes, homophobe and support for Nazism, Baden-Powell suddenly needed to be memorialised in 2008, almost 70 years after the second world world (and his death) and over 40 years since the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967. For both of these men profound problems were clear before the statues went up. Churchill, seen as a “hero” by many for his leadership in World War II has a very unsavoury history which is not difficult to locate in his own writings. His rehabilitation also ignores that his status for many of his contemporaries was as a warmonger. His passion for eugenics and his role in decisions to bomb Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki can be wilfully swept under the carpet. Hero-worship is a dangerous game, it is also anti-intellectual. Churchill, like all of us, was a complex human, thus his legacy needs to be explored deeply and contextualised and only then can we decide what his place in his history should be. His statues and soundbites from speeches on repeat, do not allow for this.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this debate is to witness the inflamed defence of individuals who have a clearly documented history as slave owners, or as enthusiastic proclaimers of eugenic ideology, racism, homophobia and so on. As long as they have been ascribed “hero” status, we can ignore the rest of the seedy detail. We are told we need these statues, these heroic men, to remind us of our history….strangely Germany is able to reflect on its history, without statues of Hitler.
It seems as a nation we far prefer these individuals, responsible for so much misery, harm and violence in their lifetimes, than to present Black Britons and British Asians on a plinth. When we are reliant on South African President, Nelson Mandela to take up two of those London plinths, it is evident we have a serious racial imbalance in those “we” choose to commemorate.
Furthermore, the British appear to love an argument about statues, for instance, the criticism levelled at the artist Maggi Hambling’s statue to “Mother of Feminism” Mary Wollstencraft and Martin Jenning’s artistic tribute to Nurse Mary Seacole. For Wollstencroft, much of the furore has been directed at the artist, rather than the subject. There appears to be no irony in women attacking other women, in this case, Hambling, all in the name of supposed defence of The feminism. In the case of Mary Seacole, racially infused arguments from The Nightingale Society have suggested that this statue should not be in sight of that of Florence Nightingale. It seems that even when all important parties are long dead, it is deemed appropriate to use barely disguised racism to protect the stone image of your heroine. Important to remember that patriarchy has no gender. It is evident that criticism revolves around women’s representation in statuary, as well as women’s involvement in sculpture. When statues of men are said to outnumber those of women by around 16 to 1 (and that’s only when Queen Victoria is counted) it is evident we have a serious gender imbalance in those “we” choose to commemorate.
If there’s one thing the British love more than statues, it’s war commemorations. Think of the Cenotaph, standing proud in Whitehall, a memorial to ‘The Glorious Dead’ of firstly, World War I and latterly, British and Commonwealth military personnel have died in all conflicts.
Close by in Park Lane, we even have the imagination to create a memorial to Animals in War. We love to worship at these altars to untold misery and suffering, as if we could learn something important from them. Unfortunately, the most important message of “Never Again” is lost as we continue to thrust our military personnel and their deadly arsenal all over the world.
There is a strong argument for commemorating the war dead of all nations in the two World Wars. All sides, both central powers/axis and allies were comprised in the main of conscripted personnel. These were men and women that did not join the armed forces voluntarily, but were compelled by legislation to take up arms. With little time to consider or prepare, these people, all over the world, were thrust into life-threatening situations, with little or no choice. The Cenotaph and other war memorials mark this sacrifice and to some degree, acknowledge the experiences of those who served in a uniform that they did not consent to, without the compulsion of legislation. Unfortunately, civilians don’t feature so heavily in memorialisation, yet we know they experienced life-changing events which have repercussions even today. From children who were evacuated, to families who experienced fathers and husbands with short fuses, to those whose fear of hunger has never really left them, those experiences leave a mark.
To me, as a nation it appears that we don’t want to engage seriously with our history, preferring instead a white-washed, heteronormative, male-dominated, war-infused, saccharine sweet, version of events. But British people, both historically and contemporaneously, are a diverse and disparate group, good, bad and indifferent, so surely our statues should reflect this?
I recognise the violence which runs throughout British history, I learnt it, not through statues, but through books and oral testimony, through documentary and discussion. I also recognise that I have only begun to explore a history that silences so very many, making any historical narrative, partial, poignant and heavy with the missing voices. I recognise the heavy burden left by slavery, discrimination, war and other myriad violences, understanding the desire to commemorate and celebrate and tear down and replace.
What we need is a statue that recognises all of us, in all shapes and sizes, warts and all? We are living in a global pandemic, the death toll is currently standing at over 2.5 million. In the UK alone, the death toll stands at close to 100,000. Why not have a memorial with all those names; men, women, children, Black, white, Asian, mixed heritage, Muslim, Catholic, Buddhist, Christian, atheists, gay, straight, trans, lesbian, young, old and all those in between. People that have been coerced, through financial impetus, caring responsibility, career or vocation into dangerous spaces, who have not chosen to sacrifice their lives on the altar of bad decisions taken by governments and institutions (reminiscent of the world wars). Such a commemoration would be a way to recognise the profound impact on all of our lives, as drastic as any world war. It will recognise that you don’t have to wear a uniform or conform to a particular ideal to be of value to Britain and every person counts.
* Title borrowed from ‘Our sheroes and heroes’ (Maya Angelou ; interviewed by Susan Anderson in 1976)
One of the first casualties of Corona was travel. Nations immediately began controlling the flow of people in and out of ever-broader borders. First neighborhoods, then cities, regions, and countries all closed. As fear of the virus spreading spread, different parts of the world became associated with Corona, though bullheaded public figures even continued to call it “Chinese”
A few years ago, I got a 10 -year visa to China through work and had planned to travel there much more than time has allowed. Now, I am fearful of ever traveling there before my visa expires. I am unable to accept the many invitations to connect with my previous students who’ve returned to China and know of my interest in the region’s cultures. I have been to southern China on several study trips with students. We finally ventured to Beijing and its wonders on a later trip. Naturally, I did my happy dance when I reached a peak on the Great Wall just a few years ago. I am now on sabbatical in Hanoi, just released from lockdown.
It was a lifelong dream to visit China, I was raised on my godmother’s stories about growing up in Hong Kong, savoring the flavors of her homeland in her kitchen in Kentucky. I knew I had to see for myself. As a kid, she and I would go on shopping day-trips to Chicago’s Chinatown, a 7-hour drive each way. For those few hours in Chi-town, we’d be transported to a world where finally she was the insider. She spoke for hours in several dialects with all the people around that I didn’t understand, and we even browsed restaurants that resembled what she’d told me home was like. We’d go in and eat not from the tourist but from the Chinese menus – foods that were not nearly available in Kentucky.
Kentucky is pretty black and white, but there, in the heart of Chinatown, in the heartland of America, smack in the middle of the 80’s, I got to experience my godmother being in the majority. Growing up close to my godmother confirmed I could experience more freedom through travel. This was a key insight into the world for a gay kid growing up in the Bible Belt; I could just go away. Travel has always exposed me to new ways of being in the world.
“You’ve got to go to the city/They’re going to find you there…” -Flawless, George Michael
Travel is essential for the development of a healthy self-identity as a queer person. ‘Travel’ is, in fact, inseparable from the notion of a gay community. This is exemplified by having to leave our homes and communities to commune with others queers, and certainly the richness of gay tourism. One might also consider how gay identity uniquely depends on the very idea of gayness traveling far and wide to enter the minds of gays isolated everywhere.
Knowing gay people is a primal impetus for me to travel. Rather than just seeking to know ‘different’ people, places and cultures, I crave knowing how people like me thrive in those places. We’re everywhere.
It has always struck me that as queer people of color, we too often must venture outside our ethno-cultural communities to meet gay people. I came out at 16 and by then only knew gays within my age-group. Fortunately, in that era of grand community building, a local charity had organized a gay youth group. There, in addition to comradery, the adult facilitation and guest speakers provided mentorship and what we now understand as inter-generational knowledge. They also alerted me to queer writers: Through Sister Outsider, I’d traveled around the world with Audre Lorde long before I stepped foot outside of north-America. This is a powerful glue that can sustain solidarity within any community.
By attempting to transport certain functions of the gay club scene into the virtual world, we have certainly lost a core opportunity for inter-generational bonding. The ominous gay club also functions as a platform for the exchange of knowledge and experience. This phenomenon is sustained by travel, particularly tourism, migration, immigration. Or, how long did it take for nations to consider asylum for queers fleeing in deadly homophobic regimes? Flawless:
Don’t you know, you’ve got to go to the city
You’ve got to reach the other side of the glass
I think you’ll make it in the city baby
I think you know that you are more than just
Some F-ed up piece of ass
Pride – both metaphorically and literally – has circulated the globe, first and foremost through travel and tourism, then through globalizing the fight against AIDS. By the mid-90’s, the attention of gay rights advocates had widened to confronting homophobia. If health was a human right, then surely freedom from stigma is, too. Mind you, this same argument fueled the successful campaign in India to decriminalize same-sex sex, which was based on colonial legislation. Rights advocates in India had successfully used case law to articulate access to healthcare as a civil right, showing how stigma impeded this for queers.
Sadly, the exact same Victoria-era law has been strengthened and extended in many African nations, legitimizing jungle justice! For many, travel is a lifeline, including asylum. For queers in the African Diaspora, this is yet another form of exile – banishment from the motherland.
Under the bridge downtown…
If there were ever a community consumed with travel, it would be LGBTQ+ folk. Our folk knowledge is transmitted in myth and music, for example, lyrics urging gays to head to the shelter of the city. Whether chants about finding a YMCA, or told to Go West to be “together” in the sanctuary, mythical San Francisco, for gays to achieve self-realization, we needed to ‘know’ urban life to counter traditional values in the homestead. “I think you’ll make it in the city, baby.” There -away- we’re promised a new beginning with freedom. I’m very proud to have seen this through.
Gay civil rights have advanced globally far faster than those of any other recognized minority group, and certainly, one factor is… (drumroll) …we’re everywhere, even where there’s no Pride! Like ether, our pride travels through the stratosphere.
A song for Terry.
Terry was just six when he died.
Not a long time spent on this Earth,
But enough to make himself known to the universe.
There were many obstacles in life waiting for boys like Terry.
If life is a vast ocean, then he only sailed a meager ferry.
Terry was born in a place, in a time and
In a body that didn’t count much –
A poor, southern Black boy and such.
He was loved, for sure,
I’d see his grandmother kiss him every morning,
As she sent Terry off to school.
Terry’s household didn’t look like those on TV.
None of ours did.
There weren’t any of those Cosby kids.
But Terry was like my brother, my dear friend.
I looked forward to walking to school with Terry each day.
He always had something interesting to say.
Terry and I were in the same class.
He lived across the street,
And our school was just a few blocks away.
There and back,
I wanted to be by his side.
Sometimes I would walk to my grandparents’ after school,
And momma would pick me up after work.
No sooner did we get home and settled did I ask to go outside and play,
Our story was short-lived.
Two kids on the block,
On the poor side of town,
We lived cocooned in a world of luxury:
We were cared for and we were safe.
Everyone on the block looked out for all the kids;
There were no strangers around home base.
But, we also lived
In a time and place of misery,
Where things like poverty,
Would determine your destiny,
And all the dreams we would dream,
Would have to fight the sun to live.
A handsome little brown boy,
And a finely picked mini ‘Fro.
An easy smile,
And an easy-going way about him.
Terry was a nice guy.
And did I mention he was loved?
He was not the most popular kid in class –
Naw, everybody feared that guy!
Terry was the one everyone liked.
For Valentine’s day,
The whole class exchanged heart-shaped candies and notes with one another-
All in pink, my favorite color.
My one time of year to shine!
I was so excited to choose one especially for Terry, my brother:
Will you be my Valentine?
Even the teacher got along with him.
Terry never got in trouble.
He got sad-eyed when any of us got marched off to get paddled.
At lunch, I’d always sit with Terry.
Terry got free lunch, and
Peanut butter and jelly is what I got when momma packed mine!
We’d hurry to the front of the line,
And finish our food quickly,
So we could go to the play area the rest of the time.
I didn’t like milk, but Terry did.
And he didn’t care for apple sauce, but I did.
Sometimes we’d split:
Half a piece of pizza for half my sandwich.
We didn’t keep score, but
We were always even.
There, right in the middle of the cafeteria,
Smack in the middle of the school,
Was a large, carpeted recreational area.
There, we’d play and everything was cool.
After lunch, but also before and after school,
We could climb and crawl,
Spin and jump,
Run and hide,
Seek and find,
And holler as loud as we’d want.
Teachers would monitor from nearby, but
They left us alone and took their break-time.
Our teachers would even rotate who had this monitoring job to do.
We weren’t a rowdy bunch,
So, there were no fights to break-up.
There were neither hoops nor balls to tussle over.
No nets, no bats –
No competition and all that.
Just a space…
Where us kids could be free.
We were free.
Terry died in the middle of first grade.
We had found out from our teacher that Terry was sick,
We’d all heard of sickle cell, many in our own families, like mine.
But none of us knew what it means.
We knew Terry was not always sturdy.
One time he’d had a bad bout with asthma.
Our teacher helped him take his inhaler,
That she’d showed us where it was kept in her desk drawer.
Now, she was telling us that Terry was just spending a few days in the hospital.
The whole class avidly awaited Terry’s return.
She didn’t know more than that,
I needed to know when Terry’d be back.
I knocked on his door, one day
On the way home from school,
To tell his grandmother I hoped Terry’d be ok.
I knew my grandmother would be heartbroken if anything like that happened to one of us.
Kids that little aren’t supposed to die.
Not here, and not of diseases we can’t even see.
Even at that age, I knew this just shouldn’t be.
And yet turn on the TV,
Every day we see signs and symptoms of little Black boys’ morbidity.
Whether from war or starvation in distant lands, or
Dilapidation and disease on these burning sands.
Just like what was happening to Terry:
A casualty of a neglectful society.
I didn’t get to mourn Terry,
Didn’t have some cathartic corral with our classmates about
The fun times we had or how much we missed him.
There was no school counselor coming to our class –
No one explaining the cycle of life, nor
Asking us about our feelings.
I knew how I felt.
I loved Terry, and knew the way I loved him was seen as peculiar;
I couldn’t let anyone know about this one-sided affair.
I was sad, and all this was unfair.
What would I say?
We were only 6 years old, and
Terry was the first boy I ever loved.
In memory of Muhammed Ali, another Black boy who survived those same streets and corridors.