“Their history has erased us”: on toppling the statues of slave owners

The Book of Echoes author Rosanna Amaka on the generation rewriting the present and pushing society forward.

Rosanna Amaka
Rosanna Amaka, author of The Book of Echoes. Photo: Mark Grey
Rosanna Amaka, author of The Book of Echoes. Photo: Mark Grey

I am proud of many young people in this country, and the world, for theirs have become the shoulders we stand on. They decided that enough is enough, and I watched as mainly young white people, in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, took matters into their own hands and rolled the statue of Edward Colston to the harbour.

They provided an opportunity for debate; without their actions, there would be no reaction. The platitudes and discussions would have continued for many years to come, but as the statues come down, whether it be for safe keeping, or because of a genuine belief that it is the right thing to do, they are furthering a meaningful discussion.

I watched the Colston statue being rolled, and little did I know that Robert Milligan was to follow – which reminded me of what I wrote in The Book of Echoes about that very statue, spoken by the spirit of an African woman enslaved 200 years ago as she looked at the statue:

As the statues come down, the youth are furthering a meaningful discussion

“I often wonder if – no I don’t, I believe that history was truly invented for the rich and the learned. I look back at the group gathered around the statue, their faces expectant. They are young. They will never know they stand on the very spot where I drew my last breaths. Their history has erased us.”

This quote points to the fact that history was written and controlled by the wealthy and the learned, although many learned were also wealthy. Many poor people were uneducated so were unable to fully tell or pass on their truths. So much of history taught has been through this lens.

It is not only the history of Black people that has been ignored and hidden, but that of the white poor and working class, although to a lesser extent. These statues also do not speak to the many poor white lives that were lost in this system – in the workhouses, to indentured servitude and more.

Change is difficult, but in the removal of these statues is an opportunity for real healing. A chance to tell a more inclusive history, for both black and white, and leave behind a message for future generations of who we are at this point in time and who we hope to be.  

Protestors with the toppled statue of Edward Colston in Bristol. Image: Giulia Spadafora/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Protestors with the toppled statue of Edward Colston in Bristol. Image: Giulia Spadafora/NurPhoto via Getty Images

As these statues come down, it’s crucial they are repurposed, or something else is erected in its place, to record the historical truth and what took place. To serve as a reminder to future generations, to make it harder to forget, and to help ensure it is not repeated.

As part of the healing process, it would be wonderful to see ceremonies conducted when new monuments are erected, to honour the souls of ancestors that were lost to the brutal system of slavery, and renew our commitment to a fairer society.

George Floyd’s death, may he rest in peace, has been a catalyst for change and hope, but only time and a willingness to truly embrace these opportunities and changes, not merely give it lip service, will tell us and prove whether this is a truly sustainable change.

We cannot change the past, but we can contribute to help shape our future.

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