This is a mural dedicated to George Floyd, the man who was murdered by an arresting police officer a few weeks ago. The creators of the mural and the millions of protestors around the world would tell you the artwork is designed to portray a victim of systemic racism and not to celebrate Floyd’s crimes that include armed robbery and drug possession. Commentators who mention Floyd’s past have naturally been condemned for being in extremely poor taste.
This is the statue of Edward Colston, erected in 1895 in Bristol, England, to commemorate his philanthropic works and not to celebrate his involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. Until recent years, to suggest that it was would generally be considered in poor taste.
Can I really draw a comparison between these two men? Floyd’s crimes affected a few people and were possibly perpetrated under desperation or motivated by psychological issues formed from a young age. Maybe, like the pusher in Foxy Brown, he saw crime as the only way for a black man to fulfil his ambitions in America. While others, like Foxy herself, might call that a cop out.
Speaking of cop outs, on the subject of slavery in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, I’ve never quite accepted the argument that the English simply didn’t understand how reprehensible slavery was. It was illegal to possess slaves on English soil, despite the profits made in England on the slave trade. The very fact that such a law was evidently debated and enforced suggests that people were thinking about the moral implications. On the other hand, Samuel Pepys, one of the historical figures whose legacy is supposedly on the chopping block, believed sailors who told him black people changed colour when submerged in water. It’s not as though he had a greater authority to turn to on the subject (he might have asked one of the few black people in England, I suppose, but “do you change colour underwater?” is a weird icebreaker). It’s difficult for people now to imagine a world where information was so slowly proliferated and so frequently unreliable. On the other hand, Wikipedia informs me that in 2018, an art installation in front of the statue informed people about the victims of modern forms of slavery, like fruit pickers or factory labourers. Do you suppose it unlikely any of the protestors who destroyed Colston’s statue is a beneficiary of modern slavery?
It’s hard to convey complexity in a statue, it’s up to the viewer to discern what is being commemorated. Though perhaps memorials of George Floyd and Edward Colston would be better viewed as reflections of the viewer than as symbols of race or institution. Otherwise, surely Mount Rushmore will have to come down. We all know about Thomas Jefferson.
Should there be no statues at all, at least of real people? An interesting aspect of George Floyd is that he is being remembered for what was done to him and not for what he accomplished himself. In the past twenty years, has anyone achieved real status as a civil rights thinker or leader? Michael Moore? George Takei? No-one I can think of is on the level of Martin Luther King, Jr. And MLK’s legacy is of course in question, not because of his personal life, but for the reasons that he was long considered great—because he promoted peace and understanding instead of violence and zealotry. This seems to have become a dangerous way of thinking.
How can we commemorate the achievements of individuals when every individual must be a symbol of a group?
Statues are easy for a movement to take possession of. After the English Civil Wars, Oliver Cromwell’s government ordered a statue of Charles I destroyed. The statue, which hadn’t even been erected yet, having just recently been finished, was, by pure luck, not destroyed but kept in storage. It was finally installed after the Restoration and it still stands to-day at Charing Cross in London. However, in his novel, 1984, George Orwell made a subtle point by referring to it as a statue of Oliver Cromwell.
Twitter Sonnet #1364
Contentious dots combined to make a tie.
The Polka brings the spirit smile home.
Repeated cakes suggest the extra pie.
A marble game could raze the whole of Rome.
An itchy chin detects a windy day.
The noodle knots inform the pasta lump.
With sailing thoughts the dreams invade the bay.
The water stopped inside the rusty pump.
Completed arms extend to eyes and ears.
The pencil rose to swap the pen and ink.
And after class, utensils broke for beer.
We left the salt around the glossy sink.
The stone became a fluid thing at dawn.
The metal falls before the dizzy brawn.