A time of reckoning

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Olatunji Dare

See how they have been tumbling, like ninepins.

Across the United States and Europe, monuments erected often in mythic proportions over the centuries to men regarded as heroes not just of the epoch but of History have come tumbling down in the past three weeks, felled by those who had looked on them with indifference or had in silence felt taunted, haunted, cruelly violated even, by the presence of those images in those spaces.

Men who held other men, women and children as common property, yet composed some of the noblest literary monuments to human freedom. Generals who fought gallantly and tenaciously in epic battles to preserve the right to enslave fellow humans. Absentee kings who stole entire countries and drove the indigenous people to near extinction through brute labour

Merchants who built untold wealth through trafficking men and women and children of the darker races across the oceans to be traded like merchandise, with one half of the cargo  perished in the horrors of the so-called Middle Passage and dumped in the ocean.  The traffickers were nevertheless canonized as genuine philanthropists, for bequeathing a tiny portion of their profit from this pernicious trade to worthy causes.

Scholars and statesmen whose enduring fame rests in part on denying the humanity of others or rejecting the claims of such persons to being humans.

Washington DC. protesters pulled down and burned the statue of Confederate General Albert General Albert Pike. The police in the city had to intervene to save the statute of Andrew Jackson, the 8th president of the United States, who instituted policies that resulted in the forced migration of tens of thousands of Native Americans.

In Maryland, they brought down the statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis and dumped Christopher Columbus’s statute in the sea, perhaps so that his admirers would not feel neglected.

In Charleston, South Carolina, the statue John Calhoun, arch-defender of the plantation system of enslavement and former U. S.  Vice president, John Calhoun, was dismantled overnight and the pieces carted away to storage, following a vote by the City council.

Princeton’s Trustees said Wilson’s racism was “significant and consequential” even by the standards of his own time, adding that “his racist thinking and politics made him “an inappropriate namesake for an institution whose scholars, students and alumni must stand firmly against racism in all its forms.”

Across the Atlantic, the sun was about to set on Winston Churchill’s statute on Parliament Square in London when the police intervened. Protesters were set to tear it down and dump it in the Thames, on account of his blatant racism.

“I do not understand the squeamishness about the use of gas,” he said in 1937, in a speech before the House of Commons.  “I am strongly in favour of using poisonous gas against uncivilised tribes.”  No prizes for figuring out those the original British Bulldog he had in mind.

He was reviving a train of thought he had voiced some twenty years earlier as president the British Air Council.  “I do not admit… that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia… by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race… has come in and taken its place,” he had said then.

When British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan made his historic “wind of change” speech before South Africa’s parliament in 1964, Churchill criticized him roundly, saying he should not have gone to the apartheid bastion “to encourage those blackamoors.”

His coarse and ingrained racism came to the surface when he wondered aloud how black people could know that they had the measles.    They not only knew when they had the measles, it should be said for the benefit of Churchill’s fellow travelers, they devised long, long ago, an effective remedy for containing and curing it, 100 per cent local content, and no harmful side effects.  They should go check it out

Not since the collapse of the Soviet Union when jubilant citizens across the world tore down statues of Lenin and other leaders of the communist world and heaped all manner of indignities on them has the world witnessed the rejoicing of recent weeks.

Why now?

The contributory factors are legion, dating back from the enduring memories of the era of enslavement and time of Jim Crow, to the present age of systemic racism in which, according to the influential New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, who was reared in apartheid South Africa, in which “a black life is worth less than a white life,” and the calculus is so woven into the national consciousness that people hardly remark it.

I would argue, however, that more than anything else, the barbarous murder of George Floyd in police custody on suspicion of making a purchase with a fake $20 bill, in Minneapolis, in the American Midwest, was the fuse that lit this conflagration.

Even now, I can see him in my mind’s eye, both hands cuffed behind his back, the left side of his face grazing the tarmac and secured firmly there by the left knee of officer Derek Chauvin resting resolutely on his neck while two officers hold him down by force and a fourth, unperturbed, makes small talk with horrified bystanders.

The world literally heard Floyd begging for his life, summoning his waning strength to tell his executioners over and over that he cannot breathe, and to call out to his deceased mother.  The world saw his life snuffed out on that tarmac, just like that, as the Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo-Kuti would say.

Even for the generations that have grown used to seeing such casual barbarities and unconscionable cruelties visited on black persons, this was too much.  The revulsion was compounded by the release of videos showing a father-and-son team hunting down and killing Ahmaud Auberry for the atrocious crime of jogging while black. And of Rayshard Brooks, 27, who dozed off in the driveway of a fast-food restaurant only to end up dead, just like that, when the police moved to arrest him in the manner they know best.

It is undeniable that while much has changed in America, the essence has remained the same. Throughout American history, Roger Cohen wrote two weeks ago, “white cruelty in keeping blacks down has been backed only by white ingenuity in finding new ways to do so.” For the foreseeable future, America will continue to operate as it always has:  in the belief that a white life is worth much more than a black life.

It was no aberration that when they went to arrest the white supremacist Dylann Roof whose hand was literally dripping with the blood of nine black men and women he had just killed as they were studying the word of God in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, they didn’t rush him.  They didn’t shackle him.  They went about it with the utmost courtesy, even buying him lunch at a fast-food restaurant.

Smashing monuments here, renaming institutions elsewhere and consigning into disesteem, if not villainy, those who had for centuries enjoyed a gratuitous reputation for nobility, is not going to change in the condition of black people in America. But even it only serves to alert the public to alternative narratives, especially the narratives of victims, it would be an enduring turning point.

Not least among the likely consequences of the movement that has recently seized the global imagination is a heightened demand across nations for a re-examination and revaluation of those the public has been conditioned to regard as heroes and makers of history

Military president Ibrahim Babangida did more than any other person to destroy higher education in Nigeria.  Should the university named for him in Lapai, Niger State, get to keep its name? Should other Nigerian universities named for odious characters get to keep their soiled identities? Should the reputations of native monarchs of old who delivered their people into enslavement survive the critical interrogation already afoot elsewhere?

Should the sports stadium, the military barracks and a raft of other facilities named for Sani Abacha continue to be saddled with his loathsome identity? Let the debate begin.

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