KT edit: Past pangs and new perspectives

What makes history ambiguous are the historical figures that populate it

Published: Tue 30 Jun 2020, 9:16 AM

Last updated: Tue 30 Jun 2020, 11:35 AM

No history can claim absolute objectivity. A reason why our engagement with our past cannot stop at resigned acceptance. Revisiting and revising history is important to understand and accept our failures. Today, Black Lives Matter (BLM) has afforded us one such opportunity. In the time BLM has exploded into our consciousness, we are forced to examine our individual place in history from the point of view of privilege or periphery. The toppling of public monuments in the US isn't simply a case of looking back in anger, but the marginalised taking charge of the very narrative they were omitted from. But even as these structures vanish from our collective gaze, the question remains - does it help us in having a nuanced perspective on history?
On June 18, as a protest sought to topple the statue of Christopher Columbus from its pedestal in San Francisco, the art commission of the city announced that they were planning to remove it themselves because it did not fit in with their idea of racial equality. The statue of 18th century Roman Catholic priest Junipero Serra, who is said to have been responsible for the destruction of several indigenous tribes in California, is set to meet the same fate.  Public monuments are not simple works of art, they offer spectacle, reminding us of a legacy the powerful think is worth preserving. That legacy can be questionable, but it is important for it to be visible for us to engage with its problematic nature. Wiping it off further complicates our relationship with our past, substituting a problem with a void.
What makes history ambiguous are the historical figures that populate it. In scrutinising Churchill's legacy, for instance, historians have dissected strands that his conventional legacy rarely speaks of. But rather than letting one aspect of the legacy obscure the other, we could come to look at our historical heroes as more complex beings with their own prejudices, who need to be called out without being banished from our history altogether. Holding two opposite thoughts on a person also gives us a perspective on how we reached where we did.
The anger among BLM protesters is palpable, a collective resentment against a history that's denied them agency. But anger, too, needs direction and perspective. Today, one of the many statues toppled has been that of Col Hans Christian Heg, who had been a vocal critic of slavery and had introduced important reforms in the state prison of Wapun when he served as its commissioner. If toppling a statue is a political act, then it is difficult to rationalise the removal of Heg's statue. Despite our discomfort, the past ought to exist for a present we can make better sense of.

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