By JudyAnn Bigby
As Americans wrestle with the significance of the death of a 32-year-old woman who was killed while walking across the street in Charlottesville, Virginia, allegedly by an Ohio man who embraced Nazism and white supremacy, I am struck once again by the parallel struggles facing the United States and South Africa. Those who organized the “Unite the Right Rally” chose Charlottesville because of the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee.
The U.S. and South Africa continue to struggle with the legacy of racism and the long overdue discussion about what it means to hold up as role models today, men who long ago promoted white supremacy. In 2015 students at the University of Cape Town in South Africa began a campaign to remove from campus the statue of Cecil Rhodes, a successful British businessman and politician in South Africa. According to historical documents, Rhodes was a brutal racist and imperialist. In 1887, Rhodes told the House of Assembly in Cape Town that “the native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise”. For the protesters, the statue represented everything that Rhodes himself stood for: racism, colonialism, white supremacy, and the oppression of black people. A month after the protests began, university authorities removed it.
Before the Rhodes statue came down at the University of Cape Town. Photo Credit: enca.com
The demonstration in Charlottesville was in part precipitated by the city’s decision to remove the statue of General Robert E. Lee. Lee, having married into a wealthy slave-holding family in Virginia, fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Both of his major offensives into Union territory ended in defeat. Monuments and statues of Lee were erected during a time when lynchings were rising, the Ku Klux Klan was rising, and Jim Crow segregation laws were adopted. Lee, like Rhodes, viewed people of African descent as incapable of being in charge of their own fate. He believed that African Americans were “better off” in America than in Africa. Documents describe Lee as brutal, encouraging staff to severely beat slaves who were recaptured after trying to escape.
It is hard to imagine why men like Lee and Rhodes are held in such high esteem today given the brutal context in which they rose to power and influence. At the heart of the struggle to hold on to these monuments, these symbols of white supremacy and colonialism, is the perceived loss of white power and authority versus the need for blacks and others who experience the effects of racism and other prejudice and disadvantage in their economic and social status, and those who deplore racism to see racism finally come to an end, to be rooted out from our everyday lives.
Protesters and counter protesters in Charlottesville. Photo Credit: variety.com
Some people believe America is past the hatred and violence that took the life of a young woman during the Charlottesville demonstrations and her death is an anomaly. But there are reminders every day that the past is not past. During an interview on National Public Radio, journalist Jelani Cobb explained his reaction to some Americans who shook their heads and responded to Charlottesville with the sentiment “This is not who we are.” He acknowledged that this [Charlottesville] is who we are and it is more accurate to say “This is not who we want to be.” We will never be what we want to be if we can’t let go of the past and admit the symbols of the past give voice to those who want to perpetuate the past. Rooting out racism requires acknowledgement that it exists. The Charlottesville experience was eye-opening for some and affirming for others about how much work there is ahead.
I can’t help to believe that President Obama was acknowledging the parallel legacies of the U.S. and South Africa when, after Charlottesville, he tweeted Nelson Mandela’s quote about love being more natural than hate. Obama’s tweet set the record for the most retweeted and liked tweet suggesting that Mandela’s legacy continues to bring significant relief to the public.