Blood and Bronze: Of Protest, Distance, Fiction and Statues

It has been strange watching the Black Lives Matter movement in Britain, my second country; or rather, refusing to consume too much of it from afar, as a spectacle. It should be known on its own grounds. Here in Trinidad and Tobago, the country of my birth, the numerical and cultural majority is non-white. (As for economic and political power, who holds that cannot be considered a national question anywhere). My inability to behave like a ‘minority’ – naturally, for I had not been brought up to feel like one – may have been why many English people seemed infuriated with me during the years before I became fluent in cultural self-translation and could hail buses with the appropriate gesture (though they might speed past if I were alone), shout “Oi” at the couple fighting in the bushes near my flat (an exotic exclamation learnt from television dramas), and answer with words instead of amusement when asked beseechingly how I could bear the cold weather (which I love).

The author Kei Miller, who grew up in Jamaica but lives in the UK, generously wasted his eloquence on a Facebook post exploring the question of the special pain of Black British people in this moment. It was recognizable to him yet not totally relatable. It excited empathy and shame but lacked the identity of long-shared experience. We do not have bad memories twisting in our vitals like those who grew up as a visible minority, stopped and searched, missed out or murdered, unreviewed or misconstrued, close to the heart of Empire.

And yes, this piece will work around to statues: looking at statues, what statues look like, who statues do not look like, statues looking at us…but these are plague times, and the mind wants to wander and look up close at several things.

For example, why say ‘non-white’? Well, it makes ironic sense to acknowledge whiteness as an unacknowledged norm. The non-white seldom have much in common other than being groupable by contrast with the default. I did not learn this from protests or postcolonial theory. I noticed the norming and grouping early, while reading children’s books like the teen series about the American ‘girl detective’ Nancy Drew, who had strawberry blonde hair. Scots, Irish, Afghans and others contributed red-haired DNA to Trinidad’s mixed population; people of all kinds of skin tones and hair textures have that glow. So, it took a while for me to imagine the girl detective racially.

It happened like this. In one of Nancy Drew’s adventures, a ‘coloured woman’ appears at a window, being loud. As a visual reader, I was perplexed. How could ‘coloured’ describe a human being? Should I imagine a woman with violently dyed hair? Rouge? A hot pink tunic? Brick-red lipstick? My mental picture coloured itself in. Then I asked someone who could explain. I silently realized that if this woman was marked in the story as ‘coloured’, everyone else I had been reading about must have been white.

You see, this island’s borders remain shut; I remain locked down among the bookshelves of my childhood, where the power of these fictional images to originate patterns of thought comes readily to my mind.

The question of statues hardly arose in my childhood. The nation’s small population is lifted by its visible overachievers. We eagerly named an aeroplane for the Olympic athlete Hasely Crawford and a plaza for the great politician and scholar Eric Williams. The statues we put up commemorated calypsonians, who were bright lights of language, fearless satirists, champions at wordplay.

Other features of the inhabited land loomed large: the windowless, yellowish-cream jail squatting near the capital’s ‘prestige schools’; rows of Royal Palm trees, lovable for their slender grace, but marking lost avenues where slaveowners with blood on their hands and virgins to marry would have cantered up to their mansions; variegation in the forest, showing where someone – Rastafari? indigenous? hippy? migrant from a smaller island? – was living sustainably or sustaining a life, interplanting fruit trees and maybe some flowering shrubs.

Again, it was not from a book that I knew History tended to be unwritten, or a monumental liar about itself, not communicable by anything built, not a story to fit on a plaque.

Nonetheless, the removal of English ‘merchant’ Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol got me thinking. Once more, Kei Miller lavished his genius on social media. He discussed the statue’s removal and tipping into sea water in terms of its reactivation as an art object – meaningful and symbolic public engagement for it, after so long standing doing nothing. I wondered: is it true that statues – even if existing mostly as pedestrian obstacles or guano depositories – do nothing?

I remembered how, on my first visit to Bristol, the aspirational terraced houses seemed like stale sugar paste entering me when I breathed, as if I were being force-fed. My throat kept closing. It was labour to form words, to talk to people who were showing me their best things to admire, these indigestible houses. Who had cut the thread of story between blood and land and sea and sweet teatime treats for a deceived, deceiving middle class?

If a row of dwellings could do that, what about a statue? We may not admire it or look up to it physically; but it stands as an object of admiration. Nor is it neutral. It actively looms, looks down upon us, measures our horizon. Our flesh is frail and soft. It is hard and perfected, with metal buttons or marble tailoring. Its face is its fortress, an ungodly icon. What does its gaze say? Not Do not kill me. Not I love you. Perhaps Let’s agree to move on. Perhaps You cannot meet me as an equal. Perhaps You may not know me, but I matter more than anything you know.

The presence of such statues compels us to count history out in great individuals, usually men. We are compelled to pattern our routes and routines by them; to step around them. They remain as an ordering principle, or a disorderly compulsion, in our bodily experience of everyday life.

And how about this? ‘In those days’, or ‘up till recently’, apparently ‘nobody’ considered involvement in the slave trade absolutely damning; not if it was balanced out with philanthropy. So, the millions massacred or abducted or raped or in any way made to live out their witness to a trade in institutionalized atrocity are ‘nobody’? If these dead could be raised and their opinions polled, what would they find to ‘balance’ the decisions of perpetrators or enablers? How can they be the most, yet remain the least? Statues are not intrinsically admirable. Those that enforce compromise cannot teach history. They freeze us into a genealogy of trauma, wilful ignorance and saccharine lies.

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