Some of you may have already seen this piece I wrote which ran in this week’s Memphis Flyer.
It describes connections between a statue controversy here and one at home. A couple of further notes on this topic…
First, specifically with regard to the South African effort to undo the symbols of colonialism on monuments or street names or elsewhere, there is some irony in the fact that the movement to take down the Rhodes statue had as its name, “Rhodes Must Fall,” an English phrase. There is no more lasting or dominating sign of the colonial conquest in South Africa than that the two European languages dominate civic life. Although the nation’s other native languages are spoken widely, English is the language of government and the economy and, for the most part, entertainment. Even Afrikaans, which was pushed for half a decade under the apartheid regimes, is being squeezed out of public life. Regardless of the removal of the Rhodes statue, the prevalence of English remains an increasing, enduring, and unavoidable symbol of colonialism.
Second, the push to change names and take down statues is a truly a universal one as sensibilities become more enlightened over time. Although each community or country likely has numerous examples of this phenomenon, one example that has particular relevance to me at this moment in time is a small movement to rename the Fulbright program based on the racism of Senator William Fulbright, for whom the program is named and with whose name the idea of international programs for mutual understanding has become synonymous. Senator Fulbright was one of many southern Democrats to have signed the Southern Manifesto in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education and also worked to filibuster civil rights legislation during the 1960s. I am, of course, currently a beneficiary of the Fulbright program, spending time here looking at the long ripples of Brown v. Board in a country dealing with its own challenges providing more equitable educational opportunities after a history of open discrimination. I cannot say whether Sen. Fulbright would have been supportive of this particular work – he clearly was a leader in the movement to generate international exchanges as a form of American diplomacy, but he also clearly took action as a legislator inconsistent with the idea of mutual understanding across races in the US. Just another example of the complexities created by legacies of the past.