In this personal and poignant essay, Marie Kawthar Daouda writes evocatively why, having come from a land without statues, she loves Oxford University:
I come from a country with no statues.
It is not that it never had statues. It must have had, not that long ago, statues of French officials; of which only one remains, hidden in a consulate garden. A bit earlier, there were statues of Christian saints of which none remain. Before that, the country must have had statues of Roman or Phoenician deities. All that can testify for it, in my own memory, is that somewhere, among the ruins of Chellah where I used to play as a child, stood the lower part of a statue draped in a marble tunic. We will never know. Statues there have all been destroyed and North Africa has nothing to show for its history from Antiquity until the Muslim invasion.
There is nothing new in judging statues and submitting them to the trial which those they represent escaped. In the Roman Empire, when a Caesar would fall out of public grace and be murdered, his successor’s first thought was about statues – their faces were erased, then redrawn to look like the semblance of the new Emperor.
Iconoclasm is nothing new either. The idea that no one is worthy of being represented was at the core of the Byzantine First and Second Iconoclasms’ ideology. Throughout the 8th and 9th centuries, statues were smashed, mosaics were crushed, bishops were « cancelled » for holding one view or the other about statues. This was taking place in a heated context: the Ottoman Empire, fiercely iconoclastic, looked down on Christians for being almost pagan. Muslims assumed that the presence of statues, religious or secular, was a sign of worship.
There is a strong truth in the iconoclast idea that no one is good enough to deserve a statue. This is all the more true because general views change over time. People re-evaluate the past. When it comes to re-evaluating an individual, things get trickier. How much did this person’s representation owe to its times? Let us be frank, almost everything. A statue represents a person who was thought to be good in a specific time. This did not mean that such person was perfect, but that at least something in what that person did deserved a form of acknowledgement. Then other times come.
When we choose to remove a representation, what we do seldom has any connexion with the material object we judge anew. In the last days of Lent, Catholics cover statues representing saints to embody a form of mourning; a separation from the objects one would usually get solace from. Statues have an emblematic power very few artefacts have. They tap deeply in two natural human tendencies, adoration and self-representation.
To destroy a statue means to smash the inner side of us it represents. When members of the Taliban smashed Buddhas in Bamyan in 2001, they genuinely believed, following Islam’s teaching on the matter, that they were purging the world from idols of a past time of darkness. This was my first political shock as a teenager. I remember my shaking hands as I wrote in my diary: « They have destroyed the statues. » The second political shock, a few months later, was 9/11.
Since the murder of George Floyd, statues of a problematic past rose as our reflection judging us. This is reminiscent of Don Juan, falling dead under the statue of the Comodore who reminded the philanderer of his past sins. We cannot, it seems, walk under a statue without wondering: « What am I guilty of? »
I write « We »; I should much rather write « You ». I am ethnically closer to the oppressed side of the colonial past than to the oppressor. However, my native language is French. Supposing there had been no French presence in Morocco, I doubt I would have had any chance to enjoy an international academic career. Let alone as a woman. My mother insisted I would be educated in the French system. My grandmother’s pride was that I ended up teaching French to French kids. Could I decolonize myself? I could not, nor do I wish to. I am proud of what the complicated past of colonialism made me. I feel no guilt about it, and the last thing I would need would be the apologies of a French person feeling sorry for me. White guilt is awfully condescending. My first tongue-in-cheek answer to it is: « Well, you know, my ancestors were in the slave trade too ».
Of course Muslims colonized North Africa, wiped out all its Christian and Jewish heritage and thrived on slave-trade. And they had black slaves. And white slaves too. Oppression is a matter of military, political and economic power, not of race; any neutral look on history would prove it.
Now, some argue that removing problematic statues will purify society from the guilt of the white western imperialist man. The white western imperialist man is guilty of absolutely everything. He despises women. He is entitled through money. He is a racist. He bullied his way through the centuries until reaching a certain level of immunity.
The white western imperialist man is dreadful.
Therefore, he is the ideal scapegoat.
Cecil Rhodes was not loved in his own time. You, dear reader, might have found him a dreadful person after sitting next to him at dinner; then forgot about him altogether. If anything, in his days, he would have been despised and judged for his half-avowed homosexuality.
He might have been too progressive. What business of his was it to create a scholarship that could be awarded regardless of race ? Section 24 of Rhodes’s will reads: « No student shall be qualified or disqualified for election to a Scholarship on account of his race or religious opinions. » The language is clear and obvious. If Rhodes was the racist we assume he is, then surely he knew what « race » meant. Yet, in 1907, five years after Rhodes’s death, the Rhodes Trustees challenged Alain LeRoy Locke, the first black recipient of the Rhodes Scholarship, and Secretary Boyd argued: « this language might not mean what it said—that when Cecil Rhodes used the term, “race,” he might have meant “Dutch, English, Jew, and the rest.” » Or maybe Rhodes was simply more progressive than his trustees or most people of his time ?
It happens that he played an important part in the college I live in. It happens he endowed us, as a community, with means to carry on our own research and fulfill our vocation as « Provost and Scholars of the House of the Blessed Mary the Virgin in Oxford ». We do give thanks to God after dinner for our benefactors – including Cecil Rhodes, and his name is mentioned in the yearly Benefactors’ service. Does that mean that we, as a community, condone what he and many others in his time have done? No, we do not. But a day will come when many of us will be judged anyway, if not already.
A time will surely come when people will shrug their shoulders at the weariness of this overwrought generation of Britons who, having accepted being locked up for more than two months, had no other outlet, after a mental epidemic sparked on the other side of the Atlantic, than to fight statues and ghosts of times gone by. To remove any statue now would mean: « Up to June 2020, we were racist. But nownow that we are washing our hands in the blood of statues, lo and behold, we are not racist anymore. »
It is alright if your hands are dirty. No hands are clean, in history. Compensating for our shared complicated past now by destroying statues would be about your own guilt, not about our pain.
When I arrived in France, I was not a Catholic yet but I found the presence of religious statues beautiful. It spoke about the past of a country I wanted to settle in, a land I wanted to become organically part of. France took me in as I took it in, with its complicated past; the painful pages of which are the ones that have been torn – the statues of Kings and Queens, and Saints, broken during the Terreur between 1791 and 1793. Then I came to Oxford. I took Oxford in as it took me in. I sincerely hope that Oxford took me in because I have quirky ideas about French writers who were hated in their days, then rehabilitated, then hated again. I hope Oxford did not take me in because I have « ethnic background ».
I feel at home here in Oxford, walking down the High Street between the statue of Rhodes and the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I never felt more at home than when the city was deserted because of Coronavirus. I had nowhere else to go. To some, Oxford might be a Harry Potter setting they enjoy while they enhance their resume; to me, it stands as the last place where people would dedicate their lives to truth.
I could say, tongue in cheek again, that I, as an African, am entirely fine with Rhodes and with the buildings Oxford owes to imperialist economy, but that I feel oppressed, as a Catholic, by the absence of statues in some of the niches. Will I, though? I will not. I do not wish to change a single stone of Oxford because I love it. I love it as much as, and maybe more than, I love any city I have lived in before.
There is no shame in loving the country you belong to. We immigrants, love it too. Surely you would not destroy pictures of all the members of your family because none of them were perfect? Surely you can understand that it is possible to have a critical opinion of a country and of the people who built it, while still loving it?
I do believe individual sensitivities should have no place in the rewriting of history. If I can put aside my own sensitivity and enjoy the presence of statues or tolerate their absence because I love the complexities of the country I settled in, surely you could put aside your white guilt and love your country as much as I love it ?