Historical Interpretations

Like many of us within the Queen's community, the events of the past few weeks that have unfurled in the US and in the UK have given us pause for thought. For some of our girls, it has been a call to action and I couldn't be prouder of what I am seeing in terms of girls being politically active and using their voices eloquently to drive for and lead change. My own reactions have been like most of you, driven from a humanitarian perspective as the horror of what happened to George Floyd and the continued oppression of people of colour in America was presented to us again in vivid colour. I have sat with my family and had those uncomfortable conversations that the protesters want us to have about how it is not enough to say 'I am not racist' we have to act so we can say we are anti-racist.  

It has also piqued my feelings as a historian. I've been studying events in the US like this since 1988 when I first learned about Martin Luther King and I remember clearly the case of Rodney King and the ensuing LA protests of 1992 when I was just finishing my GCSEs. I watched in awe in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected president and wondered whether this was when the real era of change that people of colour in America had been fighting for more than a century. Would I be teaching the appointment of Obama as a turning point in history as part of the syllabus at some point?

There were a number of events at the weekend to inspire some critical thinking about how we remember the past and for those interested in history and heritage there has long been both academic and moral debate over the preservation of sites and artefacts of historical interest but moral outrage. It is something Year 8 considered when they studied interpretations of General Haig and discussed whether it was right for his statue to preside over Whitehall and the Cenotaph, when some argue that he was responsible for the unnecessary death of hundreds of thousands of young British men on the battle fields of World War One. It is also a conversation with Year 12 when we consider the conflicting opinions of survivors of the Holocaust, some of whom want Auschwitz to be preserved lest the world forget the horrors that took place there, whilst some want it crumble into oblivion. Should the scene of mass murder be a tourist venue? Don't even get me started on the companies offering trips to Auschwitz to groups of stags and hen parties. However, for some academics, the destruction of these visual reminders is problematic. If we dismantle these monuments are we in danger of forgetting what happened? It was George Santyana who said "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." 

The debate around heritage sites that reflect the history of British involvement in the slave trade has raged since I was at university, and no doubt before. I remember a rather heated debate with a uni lecturer and a Liverpudlian student who were on opposite sides of the debate regarding the renaming of streets in Liverpool that had reference to Liverpool's central role in the British slave trade. I also always remember feeling very uncomfortable learning about how great British industrialisation was when it was built on the exploitation of and trade in slave labour. Unsurprisingly, for many people in Bristol, the statue of Edward Colston is a link to an unseemly past with the slave trade. When it was erected, he was being commemorated for his philanthropic contribution to Bristol but, in this day and age, does the statue really represent that or is it a tasteless reflection of a system that led to years of subjugation that, for many, isn't yet over? I saw a young woman on the news this morning that said that every time she walked past it, she felt like a lesser person and a man that said it made him feel he was unwelcome in Bristol even though he was born there. Those feelings of exclusion permeate and if this monument inspires and deepens those feelings, then for many, the time had come for it to go. I am not going to get into the right or wrongs of the way in which it was removed but I can centrally understand that this was a demonstration of a bigger frustration among that crowd of protesters.

One of my main areas of academic interest as a historian, as my groups will tell you, is 1950s and 1960s US history, which is why I am grateful that I get to teach Civil Rights and the Vietnam War at GCSE in the history department. Every year, the unfurling story of repression and the uplifting story of protest and progress (to an extent) provides a fascinating study for Year 10 and 11 and I am sure they are drawing unfortunate parallels to what is happening at the moment. However, they can also learn about the power of voice. How one person can make a difference, how persistence and commitment in the face of adversity can lead to results. The March on Washington and the ensuring Civil Rights Act that led to the end of segregation; the Selma march that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that eliminated the barriers to voting being used in some states and the horrifying events at Kent State University were a protest against the Vietnam War led to the deaths of young students are all examples of this. And every single student reaches the frightening conclusion that it appears it was 'easier' to change the law than it was just to change attitudes because despite all the legislation passed by 1975 there was still discrimination in jobs, housing and education and police violence. Has nothing changed? Indeed, it is not just in America that there is a strong history of public protest. Year 8 have learned about conscientious objectors, Chartists and Suffragists. Some of our older girls will also recall learning about the Abolitionists and the work of William Wilberforce and Olaudah Equiano with Mrs T and I, and Year 9 have been studying the Stono Rebellion in preparation for their end of year progress check. There are so many examples where protest has led to change, although for some, change comes both too slowly and at great personal sacrifice. 

So as a history teacher I have a great personal responsibility to ensure I continue to teach about the history of both prejudice and discrimination and protest, and to constantly look to improve and develop this. As a parent, I have the responsibility to ensure my children educate themselves about the issues that people face and that they use their voice in support of those whose lives are filled with considerably more adversity and challenge than their own.

If you are interested in learning more about the debate about historical monuments, this link is to a YouTube debate on the issue.

Written by Miss L Jones, Head of Pastoral

If you are interested in learning more about the debate about historical monuments, this link is to a YouTube debate on the issue.


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