MOVING MONUMENTS IN BRISTOL AND AMERICA
Events in Charlottesville, Virginia were a sickening reminder of why the past always remains present and can never be forgotten to prevent the same mistakes being made in the future.
Having wrongly predicted that Hillary Clinton would triumph, I’m now watching with both humour and horror as the Trump Tsunami devastates Washington DC and America.
Trump is and always has been a bigot and as far as I’m concerned just added to his rap-sheet and has a history of racism. In 1989 he called for the death penalty for five Black youths who had been wrongly convicted of rape. Then there was ‘Birtherism’ and his pathetic claims that President Obama was not born in America thus making him an illegitimate president. His candidacy began by calling Mexicans rapists and chants of getting Mexico to pay for a wall they had no wish to build at his Nuremburg style campaign rallies. So I was not surprised that he found it difficult to denounce the oldest terrorist group in America, the KKK and other white supremacists.
In Bristol with the Colston brand and resulting controversy still refusing to dissipate we appear to be at a similar crossroads over monuments. Be it slavers in Bristol or America do we remove the past, celebrate them or historically update them within a 21st century context?
One of the most influential books of my life was written by author Gary Younge. In No Place Like Home (1997) he first made me aware of these issues and also the good, the bad and the ugly of America from a Black-Briton’s viewpoint which influenced me to not only visit but write too of my experiences.
Visiting in 2012, much of Virginia appeared untouched by modern life. Its present-day inhabitants give the impression that it is just the way they prefer things to remain, which would meet with the early English migrants’ approval. Their successors, the rebellious Founding Fathers of America, produced an elite group of men who would control not only the region, but also America and influence the world. The Virginia Dynasty, as they became known, produced four of the first five US presidents: Jefferson, Washington, James Madison, and James Monroe. All inherited plantations from their fathers, all of them kept slaves.
I had been drawn first to Monument Avenue in Virginia’s State capitol of Richmond by Gary Younge’s book. Monument Avenue is a wide boulevard with a grand central esplanade dividing the traffic shuttling in and out of the city. There I came face-to-face with the past in the imposing stone civic tributes chosen by the city’s fathers.
The first monument was of Richmond-born tennis player Arthur Ashe. Ashe overcame the authorities banning him from playing against white boys of his own age, by leaving Richmond to gain a scholarship in California, and becoming World No 1 and Wimbledon champion. Ashe became a prominent civil-rights campaigner and also fought against Apartheid. He died tragically of Aids, from a blood transfusion in 1993.
Moving along Monument Avenue I am met by towering testaments to the Civil War. The stone edifices of General Robert E Lee, General Stonewall Jackson and Confederate President Jefferson Davis lead you into Richmond.
Gary Younge wrote: ‘Monument Avenue felt like the cultural and political equivalent of putting a huge statue of Adolf Hitler and his sidekicks up on Kurfustendam Platz in Berlin – not as trite comparison as it might appear, given the number of blacks who died in slavery.’
Much of Monument Avenue today is based in a diverse multi-cultural neighbourhood, with many of its inhabitants passing beneath these monuments that are declaring their adoration for men who would have kept their ancestors enslaved.
My search for answers to the historical contradiction between freedom and slavery continued to President Jefferson’s former home, Monticello, seventy-two miles away. He designed his sumptuous twenty one room three-storey neo-classical mansion house and it is replicated in his monument on the Washington Mall. It is cited on a mountain-top with panoramic vista across Virginia to the nearby university town of Charlottesville where Heather Heyer was murdered.
President Jefferson’s plantation was a network of gardens, buildings and farms that raised a variety of crops and animals that were tended to by over two hundred slaves. There is plenty of evidence that President Jefferson was a benevolent owner. In keeping with the thinking of the Virginia slave-owners. He viewed slaves as we would children, unable to live independent lives of their own. He also had long relationship with a slave, Sally Hemmings and they had children together. I walked amongst some of the slaves’ quarters built below ground so not to spoil the view. Though the trade in my ancestors leaves me with a heavy heart, in order to understand and tell their story. It was here and places like this I began to piece together the origins of how the Transatlantic slave trade flourished and its links to Bristol and Britain via USA and the Caribbean.
This is an edited and updated extract from My American Odyssey From the Windrush to the White House published in 2015 on Silverwood Books. Roger is an Executive Chair and broadcaster at Ujima Radio CIC and a member of the Come The Revolution Film curators.