There is by now a well-rehearsed script that plays out every time such events occur. There is the accusation that the activists seek to “erase history,” and there is the retort that history will still exists in the schools, the books, and Wikipedia, so all that removing the statue is achieving is removing an honourific to someone who ought not to be honoured. While the person advocating removal has a point, I believe that this reply fails to understand the erasing history concern in its most interesting form. Removing public statues is not merely dishonouring the dishonourable and there is some merit to the idea that statue removals do in fact erase history in some interesting way, school lessons and Wikipedia articles notwithstanding. What I propose to do, then, is to offer a better way of understanding the erasing history defence, one that is centred on statues as public history, and public history as something that defines the public itself. By centring public history and public identity, this account of the erasing history defence has the added bonus of being able to explain not only why statue removalism has returned to the forefront in protests centred on police violence and state racism, but also why statue defenders may defend those statues as strongly as they do.
Understanding the Erasing History Defence
Statues, such as those Colston or Columbus, are not just statues of historical figures but public history. That they are public history means not only that they are publicly situated — in the middle of a city or by the legislature — but also that there is some connection between the statue’s historical content and the public in which it is situated. Understanding the erasing history defence requires understanding these connections: between public history, commemorative statues, and identity. I begin with the connection between history and identity, which will draw out the value of history pertinent to the erasing history defence.
History and Identity
Collective identities are what Benedict Anderson (2006) calls “imagined communities.” These are communities created and sustained by members imagining themselves as being fundamentally similar to each other. These fundamental similarities not only establish the bonds between community members, but also serve to distinguish between that community’s members and non-members. So for me to identify as Canadian, I must imagine both myself and others as possessing certain Canadian-making qualities, and others as not possessing these Canadian-making qualities. It is worth noting that we may each imagine ourselves as Canadian but ground that Canadian-ness in different qualities; this will be important later.
Some imagined communities extend through time, into the past. This means that the imagined similarities must not only demarcate present-day group boundaries, but also identify that group’s perseverance through time. If I imagine “Canadian” extending from the present back through (e.g.) 1867, then “Canadian” has to be defined by something that persists through time. This has to be something that unites Canadians and distinguishes them from non-Canadians. In the cases of national identities, like Canadian, Anderson suggests historical narratives. While members of a public may have collective identities other than national identities, and while historical narratives do not exhaust the bases of national identities, since we are discussing the role of public history in collective identity we may safely take up Anderson’s account of national identity as a basis of collective identity such that we will be discussing it. Accordingly, the relevant imagined similarity that defines the imagined communities we are considering is a common history.
Historical events demarcate the identity-defining historical narrative. These events chart the identity’s passage through time. They set boundaries, especially beginnings — think of how many monuments and memorials are dedicated to historical firsts — distinguishing an identity from what came before it. The statues of Christopher Columbus, for example, celebrate him as the first European to discover the Americas. Such a title for Columbus is inapt for several reasons but this highlights another point: the common imagined historical events do not have to have actually taken place. It is common for national identities to invoke a much grander historical past than actually exists. Altogether, imagined communities are collective identities defined by members imagining themselves as fundamentally similar to other members. For identities which extend into the past, the imagined similarity is a common historical narrative.
Following Alan Gordon (2001), statues of historical figures are works of history, which is to say that they embody particular conceptions of past events. These conceptions of the past comprise accounts of past events, why those events happened, and their relationship to other events. So, for example, a statue of Christopher Columbus allows me to reconstruct a version of the past like “Christopher Columbus was a significant figure because he discovered the Americas.”
Statues are specifically public history such that they are situated in areas where they are accessible by members of the public. These statues’ public situation lets them form a common reference point for members of the public: any one member of the public may imagine themselves as having a relationship to a historical statue as any other member of the public. Since the statues embody particular conceptions of history, this in turn lets the statues provide the historical narrative which grounds the sort of collective identity discussed above.
The publicness of a statue also creates a connection between the statue and the territory in which it is situated. So, for example, the Colston statue’s location in downtown Bristol suggests a connection between the statue — and the conception of history it embodies — and Bristol. Since the statue persists across time, this lets us speak of a kind of public memory. Returning to Gordon, public memory may be thought of as the conceptions of the past available through public history (2001, p.7). This counts as a sort of memory because the statues are a way that those conceptions of the past are preserved and transmitted across time. Altogether, understanding statues as public history lets us understand the connection between the statues, history and the public in which they are located. Combined with the account of history and identity given in the above, we can move to providing a full account of the erasing history defence.
Public statues present particular conceptions of history. These statues, by way of being situated in public, help to define the public identity by offering and preserving a historical narrative. That historical narrative grounds (part of) the public’s collective identity. Removing the statue, then, erases history inasmuch as it removes the conceptions of the past embodied in the statue from the publicly-available historical narrative. Removing the Colston statue from Bristol does not erase Colston from the history books, nor erase the concrete effects he had on Bristol, but it does remove him from the historical narrative available through Bristol’s public history. The connection between history and identity can also explain why the erasing history defence is sometimes pursued with such vigour: a statue’s public history may ground an important part of someone’s valued identity. The Columbus statue, for instance, may be intimately related to Italian-Americans’ claim on civic membership. (The toppled St Paul Columbus statue was initially erected to appeal to precisely that sentiment.) Similarly, but less sympathetically, are statues members of the confederacy like Robert E. Lee are not just vague symbols of white supremacy, but represent a white supremacist claim on public identity.
Using the erasing history defence to draw out the connection between public history and collective identity also helps understand why statue topplings have become a part of public protests against police violence and statue racism
There is one sense in which the statue removals performed and initiated by protestors can be explained by sheer numbers. Perhaps, since statue removal has been a current piece of politics for a few years, protestors simply took advantage of controlling the streets and removed the statues. Irrespective of the actual motives of the activists removing the statues, the way I have framed the erasing history defence allows a deeper coherence between the statue removals and the present moment. As I noted in the previous section, public history creates a connection between the history a statue represents and the territory in which the statue is situated. The protests are challenging the very nature of the public, and so the statues become fitting targets.
Contesting the Public
The past few weeks have been defined by a movement consisting of protests and other direct action centred on opposing police violence and state racism. The proximate causes of the movement has been the high profile murders of three Black Americans: George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. Floyd and Taylor were murdered by the police; Arbery by white vigilantes. The three cases, public in quick succession, have come to represent how public authority in the United States is organized and operated on the basis of anti-Black racism. In the cases of Floyd and Taylor, the police exercised lethal violence which they seem to use freely on the Black Americans they are supposed to serve and protect. Arbery, who was out of a job, was murdered by people who thought he did not belong where he was. These cases speak to who the state protects, and who is accepted as a member of the public. The police response to the protests affirmed this dynamic: violence targeted against both protesters and journalists may be understood as the police rejecting the idea that they should submit to civilian authority. A similar idea may be found in the Seattle police using tear gas just two days after Mayor Durkan announced a 30-day moratorium. Altogether, one of the areas of conflict is the question of who is a member of the public, and who controls it.
In as much as the present movement is a contest over the control and definition of the public, the removal of statues fits right in. As I have argued above, public history serves to define public. In toppling statues like those of Colston and Columbus, people are rejecting this definition. They are demanding a new definition of the public, one that includes people who were previously officially or unofficially excluded. Understood this way, removing the Colston and Columbus statues is indeed a case of erasing history, but it is merited. Colston, and the legacy of the slave trade more broadly, is still part of the history of Bristol, but it is removed from the public history which defines the public. Colston’s claim on the public is denied.
Contesting the Public another Way
There is another way in which understanding the present movement against police violence and state racism as a contest over the public helps understand the recent spate of statue topplings. There is not only the question of how the public is defined, but also the question of who gets to define the public. Public history is generally put together by a group of people Gordon refers to as the “heritage elite.” (2001, p.49) These are just the people so situated within a society to determine what statues get put up where. And, of course, statues are not just put up for no reason. Historical figures are chosen not just for perceived significance, but also for embodying values the historical elite wish to promote. So, for example, Ian McKay and Robin Bates (2010) write that public history in mid-Century Nova Scotia was chosen on the basis of whether it promoted the idea that Nova Scotia was an extension of racially-Scottish, economically-liberal progress.
Understood this way, Gordon’s heritage elite have considerably sway in defining the public. A statue can be understood as a claim they have made on the public. And just as the erection of a statue can be seen as a claim on the public, so too can the removal of a statue be understood as asserting the right of the movement to define the public. Consider the following video, from the Minnesota: capitol. Members of the American Indian Movement sing and dance around the fallen statue of Christopher Columbus. Columbus was honoured for discovering the new world, an inapt title given that the “new world” was already by then inhabited. Columbus organized kidnapping thousands of Taino and transported them to Europe to be sold as slaves. The statue of Columbus is not just a historical claim on the Minnesota capitol, it is a claim made that does not include Indigenous Nations in its conception of the public. In toppling the statue, members of the AIM are not just contesting the history represented by the statue, they are asserting themselves as people who have the right to participate as authors of the public. They are asserting themselves as authors of public history.
Conclusion: Where Do We Go from Here?
If concerns about erasing history are ultimately concerns about the role of history in collective identity, what does that suggest about a way forward? In my paper on the erasing history defence I suggest three broad solutions (Abrahams 2020). Roughly, they are pursuing a history more in line with historical fact, pursuing a history which supports a better version of the present collective identity, and pursuing a history which supports the diversity of identities within a public. However, in this case, I believe that the question can be sidelined for the time being. As I argued above, the statue removals cohere with the current movement against police violence and state racism. However, as David Olusoga notes in an editorial for the Guardian, the statues themselves are not a primary concern. Reworking how the state works — reimagining society without its racist structures or enforcements — comes first. How we choose to honour that achievement comes later.
Abrahams, D. (2020) “The Importance of History to the Erasing-history Defence.” Journal of Applied Philosophy doi: 10.1111/japp.12422.
Anderson, B. (2006) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso Books.
Burch-Brown, J. (2017) “Is It Wrong to Topple Statues and Rename Schools.” Journal of Political Philosophy vol. 1, pp.59-88.
Gordon, A. (2001) Making Public Pasts. McGill-Queen’s University Press.
McKay, I. and Bates, R. (2010) In the Province of History: The Making of the Public Past in Twentieth-Century Nova Scotia. McGill-Queen’s University Press.
The empty plinth where the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol stood until 7 June. copyright by BEN BIRCHALL/PA.
About the author
Daniel Abrahams completed his PhD at the University of Glasgow shortly before the world ended. He has published on monuments, identity, humour, and trust. His personal website can be found here.
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on the Heritage in War blog are those of the post author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of members of the Heritage in War project, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Open University or Stockholm University.