When I saw that Bristol had torn down the statue of Edward Colston, it was a powerful event. An evil man of his time who made his fortune and built a city, lying at the feet of ancestors of the lives he ruined. It was a potent image, but I thought it could have been better.
You only need to walk out of our abandoned office in Somerset House, down The Strand to Westminster and you’ll see statues of this country’s great and the good. Men who pillaged continents, leaving millions of people destitute, starving and owned. A fifth of the world gave everything, while our great white men of history congratulated themselves on their so-called civilisation. It’s a story we all know. It’s a story we mustn’t forget.
So, when Edward Colston was ripped from his platform, I couldn’t help but think that that’s a bit too simple. Now what? An empty plinth, while we all congratulate ourselves on progress being made?
Yes, the statue was a symbol of something evil, but that’s all it was – a symbol. This wasn’t the pulling down of Saddam which signalled regime change. This didn’t symbolise the collapse of an evil power structure. The huge outrage machine kicking into gear the next day proved that beyond doubt.
Yes we are angry, but tomorrow we will be distracted. We are all so angry, but the danger is that we cannot sustain our anger enough to deliver on that righteous anger. That’s the curse of social media. That’s the huge challenge that awaits us all.
Not one inch of change has been made. This country is still as hard to black and brown people as it was when I worked for a brilliant generation of black playwrights, directors and actors at the beginning of my career.
I say let’s do something meaningful to redefine the statues. Let’s keep them where they are and surround them with powerful educational tools, or use them as props in art pieces about modern day slavery. Let’s instigate a discussion about what it means to be the latest generation of a country that is built on misery. What does that say about our heritage and our future? Let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about how we have vilified tyrants and sadists, how our history books are filled with the people who filled boots that trod on necks.
It’d be a trap if we hid them away at the bottom of rivers in a sugar rush of faux-progress. Let’s take them down and put them in places where we don’t ever forget them or the rivers of blood they were responsible for.