I have followed over the years, with growing trepidation, not only in this society but in many others, the arguments for the removal of statues and renaming of streets to reflect current ideologies and sentiments, and have contemplated about where this will end. I have also written extensively about this on my work on Caribbean iconography.
It is understandable and fitting that each new generation commits to reinventing a better world, free of corruption, inequity and discrimination. Perhaps it will achieve this in its time. But we cannot assume a current consciousness onto those who have lived in the past. What will coming generations make of what we are doing now? Will they rename all the streets and buildings again? What we can do is to construct a landscape that allows itself to tell the story of different regimes of thought.
My primary point is that rather than destruction and defacement, we can see these social upheavals and discredited sites as opportunities for reconstruction that allow for different stories to be told. We can recast inscriptions to reflect current thinking and add other characters to the making of history. Why not erect fitting monuments to those who were affected, especially our Amerindian First Peoples, around the Columbus statue so the space allows for the education of new generations rather than perpetuating an amnesia about historical precedents and characters.
Removing a statue does not rewrite history. A more effective and creative approach might be to create different visual narratives around these sites that are more empowering and to which each generation might add their own acts of heroism. Why is removal, defacing or destroying the only means of redress? We have now lived many decades of cultural and political advancements that can be celebrated as a society’s contribution to independent nationhood. How is this currently reflected on the landscape?
Let us use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. We should have been erecting other monuments, lining Independence Square and other towns and villages with monuments or statues that celebrate the incidents or heroes who have emerged. We need not only think in terms of statues and figureheads as these are often very contentious subjects as exemplars, but we can erect sculptural forms that recognise other valuable moments in our history and cultural growth.
Iconoclastic acts of destruction that continue to erase layers of histories in other societies should admonish us to maintain and preserve for further generations some traces of our history and trails to the past.
Professor Emerita, Gender and Cultural Studies, The University of the West Indies, St Augustine