Writing by Isabelle Woodhouse. Illustration by Polly Burnay.
We tend to instinctively envisage the past as a linear timeline, dotted with key dates, names and events. If we look deeper, however, the past is an elusive concept which is frequently complicated by issues of identity, politics, idealisation and romanticisation.
We look to the past not just to learn and understand how the world we live in came to be, but also for a form of human connection. We seek some reflection of ourselves in the peoples of the past who could have shared similar ideas, beliefs or pleasures. Accordingly, it is easy to see why the past is so important for both individuals and communities.
Recollections of the past occur in a variety of forms, ranging from active celebrations such as memorial days and parades to more authoritative commemoration in museums, monuments and media. An increasingly visible issue, however, is how these narratives frequently depict a restrictive nationalism; an image often in line with the interests of governments or dominant groups atop societal power structures. The histories of marginalised or minority groups can be systematically ignored, unrepresented or explicitly censored in visions of the past that claim to speak for an entire nation.
If we take the example of the United Kingdom, memorials especially related to Britain’s imperial past and wartime efforts can at surface level focus solely on the dominant white English historical presence. Statues and plaques for (predominantly white, male) politicians, military leaders and traders frame brutal military efforts and policies of subjugation as successes. In the US, public monuments and methods of commemoration are tied to the foundation of America as a so-called land of opportunity, but hide the reality of its basis on slavery and Native American genocide.
Progress in increasing the freedom of expression of minority communities has been made. We have seen some increases in BAME representation in entertainment, and spaces for BAME voices to be published or broadcast. However, it was the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 that sparked the global Black Lives Matter protests, during which many urged on the removal of statues. It is not difficult to understand why: how can one feel truly free when living in the shadow of monuments celebrating unchallenged oppression and abuse?
The greatest response occurred in the US, as dozens of Confederate monuments were removed by protesters themselves or as voted for by city representatives. The UK also removed numbers of statues of men who supported the Atlantic Slave Trade, and the gesture was likewise repeated across the world - from South Africa to Belgium, from India to Colombia. The movement has also raised the voices of indigenous communities. President Ulysses Grant in the US, for instance, provoked violence against the Plains Indians, and his statue in San Francisco was toppled by protestors last June. In New Mexico, Native Americans held protests demanding the removal of statues monumentalising conquistadors who also committed acts of horrific violence and enslavement against indigenous populations. The entire premise of Columbus Day was brought into question, marked by the destruction of the explorer and coloniser’s statue, and across the Pacific Ocean, similar questions about the appropriateness of Australia Day have been raised.
Speaking in broad terms, predominantly right-wing individuals have been threatened by the removal of such monuments, claiming it to be ‘erasure’ of history. However, it is not history being erased, but history being fully accounted for. The figures memorialised through statues are depicted as heroic leaders, almost legendised, who provide proof of a highly exclusive power and superiority, so it would be inconvenient to acknowledge the truth behind these narratives. But the truth is being voiced. The only thing being ‘erased’ is an ideal that preserves patriarchal, nationalistic ideas about society upheld from times of empire, benefitting only a minority of the population. Without these ideals there comes a radical power shift.
Alternatively, monuments or the narratives surrounding them can come into being as a result of marginalisation, acting as a reminder of a fading past or of a culture that has not been visible at the forefront of society.
Close to home, in the Republic of Ireland, there is a statue outside Dublin’s General Post Office depicting the mythological hero Cú Chulainn as he dies. A character dating from early medieval times and first appearing in manuscripts in the 12th century, the powerful, infamous defender of Ireland took on a new political significance as an embodiment of the last, determined stand of the nation as native culture was lost or Anglicised over the centuries.
Mythological narratives alone can be a powerful form of cultural reclamation. Eagle-eyed Beyoncé viewers pointed out the similarities of her yellow dress in the ‘Hold Up’ music video to the aesthetic of Oshun, the Yoruba goddess of femininity and love: the same deity she referenced in her song ‘Black Parade.’ This is just one contemporary example of the reclamation of native religion and mythology as a way to assert identity and form a connection to the past, a rich form often combining history with ideas of the self.
The reclamation of the past is about asking questions about what and who should be commemorated, what the value of this commemoration is, and the connection between history and identity. The recovery of historical and legendary narratives undoubtedly acts as a form of social justice and promotes shared cultural identification and empowerment. Despite this, while removing or replacing statues and re-telling lost narratives can reform the public image of historical events, it does not directly tackle the causes of prejudice that continue into the present. Even if statues of slave traders are removed, we gain the freedom to publish marginalized stories and the ability to meaningfully connect through media, problems will remain. Damaging ideologies will still flourish behind the closed doors of the criminal justice system, institutions like education and healthcare, or remain unchallenged in parliament.
While vital, recovering the past should also act as a prompt for activism in the present. Working towards cultural-linguistic preservation, the elimination of systemic racism and reform of the ways in which key historical events are taught in schools could develop out of this newly created space.
Recovering the past can be fraught with issues of bias, self-interest and the censoring of voices. Even when historical truths are recovered, they are still imperfect - it is clear that one symbol or one story can never represent everyone. But this is precisely why recovering a diversity of voices from the past is so vital. Only by doing this can history be discussed with accuracy and accountability. Only when recalled in this way can it become a tool for community, empowerment and change in the present.