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BLM protests have struck a blow for us all, may it last

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police have prompted a reckoning on the history of oppression.

They have seen statues of historically controversial figures defaced or toppled, and had ramifications in sports and the movies. The protests in America and worldwide including in Africa have been a major statement against racism and the colonial past that bore it.

 

The pulling down of the statue of the British slave trader Edward Colston that was thrown into the Bristol Harbour by anti-racism protestors is representative of the spate of historical sculptures thus felled.

 

Public sculpture expert Claudine van Hensbergen writing in The Conversation captured the moment best. After the protesters tore down Colston’s figure, they lay him prostrate on the ground and leaned on his neck.

 

In the very act of mirroring George Floyd’s death, she wrote, the statue was brought to life and is now speaking, very loudly, to us.

At last, the significance of Colston’s statue has been publicly redirected, with the energies of protest ushering in the next phase in the life of this monument.

It was one among moments in the protests that have provoked introspection. In sports, one may not forget the San Francisco 49ers player Colin Kaepernick who was kicked out of the US National Football League (NFL) in 2016 after kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial inequality in the United States.

The NFL now admits it was “wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest.”

Other leagues have followed suit, including FIFA among major sports organisations that have now removed sanctions for the peaceful protest.

Also to attract much attention was the pulling of the movie, Gone With the Wind, by HBO Max from its streaming platform.

It is somewhat surprising that a movie made in 1939 – almost 80 years ago – should still raise a buzz in the year 2020. But it has raised quite some uproar.

“It is a film that, when it is not ignoring the horrors of slavery, pauses only to perpetuate some of the most painful stereotypes of people of colour,” railed an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times.

The American Civil War-era romantic drama is considered a great classic. In addition to receiving a record 10 Oscars, it is considered one of the most landmark films in Hollywood history.

One of the actors, Hattie McDaniel, became the first black actress to be nominated for, and win, an Academy Award for her role as domestic servant Mammy. The movie remains the highest-grossing movie of all time when its takings are converted to today’s currency.         

It however earns deep criticism for its portrayal of slave characters as contented with their lot, and that they remained loyal to their former owners after slavery’s abolition. The accusations of justifying a culture of oppression were heightened by the Black Lives Matter protests leading to its being taken off HBO Max.

The issue at stake nonetheless isn’t about the film, as analysed on BBC. It’s about a much broader issue of whether we judge history by modern standards, even while recognising that what we consider to be modern standards are fluid, contested and will someday themselves be consigned to history.

WarnerMedia, the company that owns HBO, released a statement indicating the movie will be back on its platform, albeit with an introduction addressing its accuracy and the problems in its depictions.

It reads, in part: “Gone With the Wind is a product of its time and depicts some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that have, unfortunately, been commonplace in American society. These racist depictions were wrong then and are wrong today, and we felt that to keep this title up without an explanation and a denouncement of those depictions would be irresponsible.”

In the meantime, the Colston statue has since been fished out of Bristol Harbour. It will now be moved to a museum.

“The ropes that were tied around him, the spray paint added to him, is still there so we’ll keep him like that,” said the Bristol City Council.

This ensures the protests will never be forgotten, becoming part of the statue’s history hence. This is important and is what the public sculpture experts had hoped would happen.

To paraphrase her, Colston is not a figure who should be forgotten, and pretending he didn’t exist won’t help in “the massive re-education project” that the world needs now and, lest we forget, with each new generation.

Twitter: @gituram

The views expressed in this article are of the author

editor@newtimesrwanda.com

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