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Toppled Statues: From Catalysis to Catharsis

Published onMar 17, 2022
Toppled Statues: From Catalysis to Catharsis

While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it in their own hands. – Michel-Rolph Trouillot.1

Images as catalytic signifiers

The Summer of 2020 in the UK and the US saw the media landscape filled with images of one toppled, defaced or burned statue after another. One image followed another in a relay of toppling statues. The audio-visual trigger that ignited this catalytic dynamism was the video of the sadistic and brutal murder of George Floyd, by the hands of the US police in May of that year. Yet again the agonising words, with their Fanonian echoes,2 “I can’t breathe” reverberated around the world. The pain, anger and horror transcended the audio-visual and across the Atlantic, to the UK, when an abundance of people took to the streets under the banner of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.

This was in the backdrop of continued racialised police violence and a global pandemic where Black and Brown communities are disproportionately affected, exacerbating the outrage at a structurally violent racist system. This system, usually concealed by a white liberal façade, had made itself visible to a wider public here in the UK with the Windrush scandal3 and the Grenfell tragedy4 - a rupture in the matrix of coloniality.5 Curiously then, this moment of rupture manifested itself on the ground by protesters directing their focus and frustration at statues in a series of cathartic spectacles. Equally, it wasn’t so much pictures of mass protests that saturated the media landscape but images of a somewhat ritualised toppling of these statues – whether they were a burning Columbus, a graffitied Churchill or a drowning Colston.6 I will briefly show some of these images and related pictures and memes in a somewhat chronological fashion – or at least how they appeared to me on my media feeds at the time of their circulation, whether it be via WhatsApp, Facebook or Twitter - to display their ricocheting trans-Atlantic nature. Thereon, I want to think how the images themselves acted with a catalytic dynamism, but focus more on that they were catalytic for inducing moments of catharsis by temporarily expunging the white ignorance these statues embody.

1. Toppled and defaced statue of Columbus in flames, Richmond, Va, USA. (Source: Coleman Jennings/MyVPM)

2. Statue of Churchill graffitied, London, UK. (Source: Frank Augstein/AP)

3. Statue of Colston dumped into Bristol harbour (Source: PA Media)

4. Fearing for the statue of Churchill in London, the government chose to board it up. A move, some claim was designed to deliberately stoke culture wars (Source: Getty Images)

5. “Rhodes, You’re Next” placard opposite the statue of Rhodes on High Street in Oxford (Source: Twitter/Jack Doyle)

6. Renewed demonstrations calling for the removal of the statue of Rhodes in front of Oriel College in Oxford (Reuters)

7. Jen Reid – who took to Colston’s plinth on the day of protest, poses in front of a statue made of her by artist Marc Quinn, and placed onto Colston’s plinth in Bristol. It was removed just over 24 hours after it was put up (Source: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian)

8. Indigenous dancers take to the plinth of where Columbus used to stand in Detroit, USA. (Source: Rosa Maria Zamarron)

9. Image circulated around social media pointing out that Google Maps had relocated the statue of Edward Colston into the harbour he was thrown into (Source: Twitter/Alister Wedderburn)

10. Image of the boarded-up statue of Churchill, with photoshopped writing “Don’t Open, Racist Inside” (Source: Twitter/Robin Johnson)

11. Meme that circulated around social media which playfully sought to undermine the narrative that statues are a pedagogical source for the study of history (Source: Twitter/Nicolas Chinardet)

12. Meme that was circulated around social media on the day that initially a BLM protest had been scheduled - which was cancelled - yet a group of far right protesters came to “defend” the statue of Churchill nonetheless, some of them performing the Nazi salute. This meme hints at the irony of the situation (Source: Twitter/Chris Buxton)

Alongside such developments there were two dominant narratives emerging in relation to these fallen statues. The first, a hijacked liberal discourse proclaiming a sort of post-racial narrative akin to that of the Obama era. Its proponents, many of whom had only a few years previously spoken out against the removal of the statue of Rhodes in Oxford, professed that by having toppled Colston and his cohort, white supremacy now too has fallen. The second narrative, undoubtedly spurred on by the former, was drenched in cynicism. Its main proponents were progressive academics who in the face of an increasing co-option and barren performance of anti-racism by neoliberal actors and agendas, were insistent on shifting focus away from said statues, declaring that “this does not change anything”. In this paper, I would like to situate myself beyond these narratives, as, despite leaning toward the latter, I found neither particularly apt to think with. Whereas one reproduces a detrimental narrative sabotaging tireless grassroots work to overhaul a systemic and structural racism, the other one in attempting to escape the overreaching tentacles of coloniality is downplaying the affective importance of these moments and their ability to bring about momentarily reprise. Thus, I turn to Antonio Gramsci7 and his analysis on catharsis, arguing that these images were catalytic for inducing moments of catharsis by toppling and exposing the white ignorance these statues embody.

Contested Spaces – Statues and white ignorance

Conceiving of these statues as “contested spaces”8, will enable us to unpick how and why they embody white ignorance.9 Contested spaces are sites that address certain social conflicts, usually by way of debating meanings invested in these sites. They are spatial locations that are imbued in conflicts by groups that have differential access to power. Crucially, they “reveal broader social struggles over deeply held collective myths”.10 These deeply held collective myths are concretised in statues, turning them into spaces of contestations manifesting and revealing socio-political struggles.

All of the above figures of protest and toppled statues showcase this contestation. They are particularly pertinent for the statue of Winston Churchill where questions arise from the intricacies of broader social struggles over deeply held collective myths. Churchill is principally perceived as a World War II hero who saved the country – and the whole of Europe - from a racist, fascist doctrine. Others, however, see him as a racist and fervent believer of Social Darwinism, and as a man who had an important role to play in the 1940s Bengal famine, a famine that was less to do with food shortage but more British colonial policy in India born out of neglect.11,12Churchill was a Racist” - Figure 2 - is a direct challenge to the veneration of a man who is demonstratively revered. It points to a racialised dynamic in myth-making, or what is perceived as history-making. Figure 4, the boarded-up statue of Churchill, then displays the very real physical defence against the contestation surrounding the statue. Differential access to power is manifested by the hegemonic group protecting the statue, which is to quite literally guard its myth and its supposed pedagogical value in the teaching of history (see also Figure 11). Figure 10, the one of Churchill boxed up with photoshopped writing “Don’t open, Racist inside”, continues this contestation of throwing rhetorical and epistemic punches against the meanings invested in this site. Here is an interesting, quite revealing, as well as perplexing manifestation of this contestation. To photoshop writing on the box blends myth and reality. In an ironic way, the only resort to break through the hegemonic web of myth-making surrounding the statue was in falling back on a tool, Photoshop, that is emblematic of a distortion of reality. There is no need here to get lost in a Baudrillardian spiral13, but to simply ask what if it is history/the present that is being distorted through these statues?

This brings us to the question of what history is, or more precisely, how it works. What one has to remember is that these statues have been contested since they have been erected. They have irked more anger than awe, and more frustration than fascination. Such contestation, however, is simply not part of the dominant narrative, given the stronghold coloniality has over history and its interpretations.14 Here, it is crucial to give a nod to the brilliant work of the late Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot on “silencing the past”, and his lucid inquiry into the role power plays in what gets omitted from historical narratives.15 Determining what history is, is to him “a hopeless goal if phrased in essentialist terms”, thus his focus is on “how history works”.16 His analysis, spurred by the consistent silencing of the Haitian revolution17, brings to the fore the processes involved in the active production of silence in the making of sources, archives, narratives and history in its final instance. Guiding the reader through a myriad of different dilemmas, he chips away at the conventional and static perceptions of the historical guild and “the Past”, gradually revealing the root of silencing to be a deeply structural one. Consistently weaving in story and counter-story, he uncovers some of the most foundational myths of the making of the West, resulting in poignant statements such as “The West does not exist. I know. I’ve been there.”18 Not only does that reveal a reliance of the West on “the rest”, pointing to a complementary dyadic nature, it also places myth right into the fabric of present reality.

This existential myth, and its off-shoots of repressed histories of whiteness, racialisation, racism and their contestations and resistances was unfurling in the summer of 2020, leading protesters to flock toward statues. According to Charles Mills, statues’ ability to manage memory contributes to “[…] the mystification of the past [which] underwrites the mystification of the present”.19 The realities of a violent racist present were not lining up with the myth that whiteness propagated about the past (in the present). This resulted in a renewed momentum in the UK to critically engage with Churchill’s legacy. Churchill College at the University of Cambridge, for example, ran a series led by Professor Priyamvada Gopal that critically interrogated his life and deeds. This working group however was disbanded after a mere two events – both of which were preceded by a torrent of indignation - seemingly because the College conceded to external pressure, leading Gopal to revealingly accuse them of “cancel culture”.20

Perfect cue to return to Trouillot who highlights the need for a constant renewal of processes of power involved, to sustain the mystification of the past and/in the present.21 Notably he points out that this renewal of power can only occur in the present, concluding that “even in relation to the Past our authenticity resides in the struggles of our present. Only in that present can we be true or false to the past we choose to acknowledge.”22 For the government to commission a report after the protests of 2020 that majorly downplayed any incidences of racism and claimed that the UK is not institutionally racist23, is to ignore the struggles of our present. Equally, to box up the statue of Churchill and for the government to have introduced a new legislature, in 2021, punishing the defacement of statues and memorials with up to 10 years in prison, as well as for Churchill College to refuse to critically engage with his legacy, is precisely this renewal of power which sustains the mystification of the past and/in the present. What, however, are these processes of power that need constant renewal? Why is it that we cannot genuinely engage with the past? What are the mechanisms behind an inability to acknowledge the struggles of our present (and indeed the past)? How is it that we have choice in veracity – allowing some to simply chose to or disavow the past and by default the realities and struggles of the present?

These questions come together in Charles Mills’ conceptualisation of white ignorance, which is a tool that can help us understand this intensified focus on statues and shed light on these processes of power.24 It is a concept in which he essentially is trying to pin down an “idea of an ignorance, a non-knowing, that is not contingent, but in which race—white racism and/or white racial domination and their ramifications—plays a crucial causal role.”25 Further, he details the interrelating factors of white perception, conception, memory, testimony, and motivated group-interest in the perpetuation of ignorance. Crucially, he sees whiteness as a social construct but also a disposition towards ignorance that manifests itself more prevalently amongst those that benefit from structures of whiteness. Equally it can be both individual, institutional and structural, and has a moral component to it. Not only is it a racialised not-knowing, it is also, importantly, an active one – a willful ignorance. Mills hones in on this aspect which brings to the fore the processes of power evident in actively reproducing white ignorance, or silencing for that matter. In other words, white ignorance upholds coloniality. It contributes to the myth-making necessary to conceal how the struggles of the present are intricately related to struggles of the past. Statues embody white ignorance and the need to protect and erect them is a demonstration of coloniality renewing and sustaining itself.

Therefore, Mills, calls for a need to not only understand collective memory but also collective amnesia.26 Especially helpful in understanding these contested spaces and for a more intricate understanding of white ignorance, he adds:

“Thus there will be both official and counter-memory, with conflicting judgements about what is important in the past and what is unimportant, what happened and does matter, what happened and does not matter, and what did not happen at all. So applying this to race, there will obviously be an intimate relationship between white identity, white memory, and white amnesia, especially about nonwhite victims.”27

Now let’s look more closely at some of these statues and their contestations, their official and counter-memory, to discern how they embody white ignorance. Christopher Columbus is seen by many as the man who “discovered” the “empty lands” of the Americas. Others, and here again I turn to the work of Trouillot28, but also Mills29 and plenty of other scholars and activists (see for example the American Indian Movement), have outlined that neither did he “discover” “empty lands” - these were populated polities that had been trading with other overseas peoples well before Columbus arrived - but that he was also complicit in initiating a genocidal project, killing much of the Indigenous population. Edward Colston, conversely, is seen by many as a merchant and philanthropist who donated much of his money to schools, houses for the poor and hospitals in London, Bristol, and beyond. What has been omitted from this narrative is that he amassed his invested fortune through the slave trade.30 Here we can see clearly how white amnesia and memory are fusing with white identity – a genocidal settler colonialist turns into a discoverer, and a slave trader masks as a philanthropist - to justify the privilege of the present and solidify a delusional state regarding current day struggles.

And returning to Churchill, the contestation around his statue brought to the fore the white ignorance that it exemplifies. This is particularly prevalent in figure 12, the meme that is grappling with a seemingly ironic scenario: “Today’s situation in London is somewhat confusing. You’ve got the police protecting a statue from “football lads” who want to protect a statue, from people who don’t seem to be there. The statue is of a man who stopped the Nazis, these men are now doing the nazi salute.” Spelling out the bizarre reality of the moment, the collective myth engrained in the statue of Churchill was revealed for what it was – a distorted past, a myth. As a contested site it reveals broader struggles around the process of myth-making needed to sustain coloniality. White memory, amnesia and identity are all wrapped up in contestations around statues whose glorification is emblematic of white ignorance.

Feeling Statues – affective white ignorance

Lastly, I will focus on the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, who I will spend just a little more time on as the rich history of his contestation led me to my field-site and played a role in my doctoral research on the reproduction of white ignorance. Thus, after establishing that he too embodies white ignorance, I will be able to ethnographically ground an affective layer to white ignorance, and why it is that people targeted statues in the previous summer of 2020. Cecil John Rhodes was an English diamond magnate in southern Africa in the late 19th century, who donated large sums of money to Oriel College Oxford, and set up the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship.31 Despite and perhaps because of his largesse, he was a white supremacist, imperialist, racist who is seen by many as the architect of the precursor of apartheid. It is no surprise then that the recent call for the removal of his statue was initiated by a group of protesters who started the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) movement at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. There the statue was eventually taken down, transforming the movement into Fees Must Fall, whereas the one in Oxford continues to stand in the open.

There is an argument to be made here, that I will only briefly dip into, and that is that of coloniality being deeply tied to a racial capitalism32 - in other words, there is a political economy of white ignorance. Prominent historian, and former Rhodes Scholar, Richard Drayton, has argued that commemorations and memorials of Rhodes at the time were part of an ongoing campaign to launder his reputation33, that Rhodes’ contemporary antagonists were “written out of history by the free speech of Rhode’s money”.34 The poignant question he proceeds to ask is as follows:

“…is the national heritage, that which survives in perpetuity into the future, to be conceded always to those who, in the past, had the money and power to force their symbols into dominant places in the shared landscape of the city?”35

Drayton outlines how opposition to the removal of statues is a very twenty-first century phenomena, “in which an older romantic fetishism of the past is reinforced”, by “the retrogressive spirit of our own temporal conjuncture”36: by which he means “the cultural analogue of the financial order”.37 There is, of course, also an element of continuity here when considering that Oriel college, in keeping the statue in 2016 (and arguably again in 2021), conceded to the pressure of donors.

Looking closely, however, there are further dynamics to consider. In 2016 when the RMF movement first found footing in Oxford, many in the general public, the media and the University management were arguing against its removal, contending that it would amount to an erasure of history.38 What is omitted from this narrative is that many of Rhodes’ contemporaries were staunchly against the statue. The writer Mark Twain memorably commented, “I admire Rhodes, I fully confess it, and when his time comes I shall buy a piece of the rope for a keepsake”.39 Others chimed in, with for example the writer and journalist Evelyn Waugh urging in 1930 for Rhodes’ statue to be “dynamited”.40 As to why these histories of contestation are not remembered is not only due to the “cultural analogue of the financial order” or the complex relationship between empire, memory and history within the UK,41 but also because their active silencing is part of a continuous renewal of power – coloniality – that utilises white amnesia to create a false memory legitimising the myths of whiteness and its mystification of the present.

This argument of an erasure of history was further pushed to its liberal fringes when pundits claimed that if one were to remove the statue, then all of a sudden colonial history in its entirety would be forgotten – their very own version of silencing the past. This argument dangerously transforms the nature of statues from one of veneration and glorification to that of a supposed inherent pedagogical value (see Figure 11). Or, as Gary Younge, tellingly echoing Trouillot in a mainstream media outlet, so succinctly puts it: “This statue obsession mistakes adulation for history, history for heritage and heritage for memory. It attempts to detach the past from the present, the present from morality, and morality from responsibility.”42 Arguing with Mills, Trouillot and the RMF movement43, however, the statue of Rhodes himself embodies an erasure of history. Glorifying and leaving a legacy to a racist man complicit in imperialist crimes is silencing the narratives and histories of those who fell and continue to fall victim to coloniality - a form of white amnesia and thus white ignorance.

Not only is the existence of the statue an embodiment of white ignorance, but also the fact that many people deny and cannot perceive the violence that it emanates. One can understand why these particular statues are complicit in silencing the past and the myth making of whiteness, but there is also an affective layer, one that foregrounds feeling these statues. Especially leaning on the work of Yael Navaro-Yashin on affective materialites44 and that by Ann Stoler on “imperial debris”45, I came to realise that buildings and statues at Oxford (and beyond) exude racialised affective material violence.46 As one interlocutor so poignantly put it “What racism is….it seeps into buildings.” These buildings and statues exude racism. They are racist. This affective component to white ignorance greatly contributes to the pain these statues cause and is a reason as to why they were contested. GreenSky, one of the indigenous dancers who took to Columbus’ plinth in Detroit (Figure 8), proclaimed: “When I was around that monument, I felt like I could feel the entire timeline of trauma that this land has felt. We didn’t fight Christopher Columbus, but we definitely fought the spirits that were there.”47 The past is in the present, and it hurts. It is a continuing (de)colonial contestation. The question that remains is why can some people perceive these racial colonial legacies, the past in the present, and others cannot – an affective white ignorance.

It is yet again a question of authenticity, but one that transcends a faux factual objectivity and centres feeling, morality and responsibility. As Trouillot reminds us, “…historical authenticity resides not in the fidelity to an alleged past but in an honesty vis-à-vis the present as it represents the past”.48 This honesty ought to include a perceptive element. In the United States, Linda Martín Alcoff tells of her experiences regarding the memorialisation of confederate generals and encapsulates the affective response, and the pain and disappointment felt at a non-acknowledgement of the affect that these deeply racialised tangible histories have on the present:

“The affective response one can have to a place like Washington and Lee University is intense as it is divergent. I spent two days there speaking on the topic of whiteness. By the last session with students, my temper was close to the surface. I had been housed in the “Lee Room” of the historic Morris House, a museum-like residence for visiting guests of the university. Lee’s image, dishware, and family cookbooks surrounded me. The ever-present white columns coordinated eerily with a student tradition of wearing blazers and ties. My friendly faculty hosts, most of whom were not, interestingly, from the United States, explained that some displays about George Washington were recently added as an attempt to balance the homage to Lee. There was nothing resembling a balance.”

When I left the Morris House, I scoured the comments section of the guestbook for some mention of discomfort, some hint of treason to the cause, even just a question about the unmediated praise. I found none. Southerners from all races are schooled in good manners, and perhaps that schooling was operating here, in part. I decided to add a comment of my own. Quickly, before I might be interrupted and found to be lacking in manners, I wrote: “As a southerner, I find the persistent homage to Lee extremely problematic.” A weak remonstrance, no doubt, but I wondered how it would be received by the keepers of the guestbook. Did they reach for the white-out? Or did their sense of service to the integrity of the guestbook keep them from making any reservations?”49

Not only is she pointing at affective white ignorance here, she also tackles head on this question of authenticity and is wondering whether her declaration of unease will weather the test of white myth-making.

Alcoff’s reflections lead to an acknowledgment that affect is an essential component to the study of white ignorance. It allows us to understand the workings of whiteness, its myth-making, as well as the desire to topple statues. Feeling and knowing are intricately related, as Black and Indigenous feminists have long been highlighting. Equally Black feminists50 have shown us that subjectivity, emotionality, phenomenology and situatedness constructively contribute to a detailed understanding of the workings of whiteness. Let’s not forget here that critiques of emotionality, paranoia and lack of objectivity within (and outside of) academia are predominantly levelled at women and even more so women of colour and those who engage in research on racism. These critiques propagated by a broad political spectrum, are part of a system of whiteness that upholds coloniality by attempting to relegate critical voices. This will often manifest in what Sara Ahmed details as racism’s paranoia - a form of gaslighting in that it results in oneself questioning whether something is racist after all?51 It is the glue that holds together white myth-making. The public spectacles surrounding statues in 2020, however, dislodged the psychological stronghold of whiteness. With people en masse seeking to topple or deface statues, not only was their affective racist violence and the pain they cause publicly acknowledged in a cathartic statement, their white ignorance too was made visible as a byproduct of cathartic actions.


Catharsis, meaning “purification” in Greek, has had a myriad of meanings and interpretations. Initially its conceptual use derived from Aristotle’s Poetics52, a work of dramatic theory, in which he used catharsis to explore the affect tragedy has on the audience. Thereon it was discussed in literature, art and psychoanalysis, especially in its Freudian branch.53 Interestingly, the initial concept was subverted by Bertolt Brecht who deliberately chose for the audience to not experience a cathartic moment, as he believed that the lack of emotional resolution will translate in a desire for political action.54 Gramsci, a former theatre critic himself, equally layers the term with political potentiality and provides the most productive interpretation for this analysis. He only makes mention of the term eight times in his Prison Notebooks, despite it being fundamental to his philosophy.55 He used it to critique those intellectuals incapable of acting transformatively beyond their social group as they confine themselves to intellectualise the cathartic moment. For Gramsci, the cathartic event occurs when a social group subverts their oppressive structures to create a new superstructure, which “indicate[s] the passage from the purely economic (or egoistic-passional) to the ethico-political moment”, “also mean[ing] the passage from “objective to subjective” and from “necessity to freedom.””56 Perhaps not coincidentally, this was echoed by Brazilian theatre practitioner and activist Augusto Boal57 who envisioned a transformative theatre which utilises the cathartic moment - brought about by an experience of emotional dissonance - to engender societal change.

In Ruba Salih’s work on Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, she outlines that “[c]athartic moments happen when political hegemonic structures become intelligible by the oppressed not as perennial but as mutable and reversible.”58 Here she is alluding to Gramsci’s declaration that in the moment of catharsis “structure ceases to be an external force which crushes man, assimilates him to itself and makes him passive; and is transformed into a means of freedom, an instrument to create a new ethico-political form and a source of new initiatives.”59 With the toppling of statues, white ignorance or in other words, coloniality’s stronghold over an interpretation of history, was challenged. People took history into their own hands. Momentously the structure of coloniality was transformed into a means of freedom by not only making white ignorance fall, but also by erecting new statues, initiatives and meanings. Remember, for example, the powerful image of the Indigenous women on the plinth of where Columbus used to stand (Figure 8), and of the Black Lives Matter protester, Jen Reid, on Colston’s plinth (Figure 7). Through such acts, they take on new ethico-political forms.

Equally, despite being wary of the dichotomisation, as the often cited quote of Gramsci outlines that “[t]he popular element “feels” but does not always know or understand,” whereas “the intellectual element “knows” but does not always understand and in particular does not always feel”60 - these moments were cathartic in their shattering of an affective white ignorance. In doing so they not only overturned a hegemonic narrative but also bound together feeling and knowing in what was a potent overhaul of a system of whiteness, and by extension coloniality, that continues to deny the lived realities and anxieties of racism. Crucially, it was a collective endeavour, a collective catharsis. This collective affirmation and recognition, counteracts the gaslighting and paranoia that whiteness induces and that is so strongly stitched into its individualist fabric. Salih also points to the discursive nature of catharsis especially in relation to humour and satire. And here we can remember the memes (Figures 9, 10, 11, 12). There too was a collectivity in them. It became a form of mediated catharsis, sharing these memes with friends and on social media. There was a feeling of affirmation and subversion, in the way they allowed a playful yet lucid transcendence of ignorance.

These cathartic events allowed for a momentary shattering of white ignorance, of its hold over history, its economic tenant, its affective layers and its function to uphold and reestablish coloniality. They allowed for the wider public to be held accountable to “the Past” by pushing for a more authentic engagement with struggles in the present. There was also a radical quality in the way these cathartic moments were able to penetrate to the root of a system of white myth-making and for a moment break the cycle of renewal of coloniality. In a nutshell, catharsis allows us to make visible the radical political potentiality of the public. It is, of course, undeniable that racism has not ended, coloniality has not been demolished and white ignorance not abolished. We would be foolish to believe that. But precisely this is a reason to think through these moments of catalytic rupture in a cathartic sense. Such an approach counteracts the cynicism of those intellectuals who pointed to the limitations of these fallen statues, yet retains a sense of realism in the face of co-optation. Catharsis is only ever a moment or series of moments. And as Gramsci pointed out “the “cathartic” moment becomes [...] the starting-point for all the philosophy of praxis”.61 Thus, to acknowledge the cathartic nature of these moments, is to cherish and recognise their importance, their radical political potentialities and pedagogical possibility in their challenge of white ignorance, yet it is also to keep an eye out for the future and not lose sight of what there still is to do, for this was only ever the starting point.


There is an irony that I have critiqued practices of commemoration and memorialisation and that I am writing this paper on June 7th in 2021, to the day exactly a year ago since Colston’s statue was dropped into the harbour. The other irony also lies in the temporal frame. Catharsis belongs in the moment. That is the strange nature of it, its momentary fleeting one. It is barely graspable and therefore so difficult to essentialise on paper. What am I going to write now, now that the moment is over? Was it transformative? No. Can we talk about momentary transformation? Is what is left now the remnants of the moment? Those that are able to be picked up and be paraded around “look, that was the moment we toppled white supremacy” - ensuring the renewal of coloniality? What happens when we memorialise a moment that was attempting to counter mystification? But, is there not a need to concretise resistance? To archive defiance?

12. Colston supine and graffittied on display in Bristol’s M Shed Museum (Source: Ben Birchall/PA)

Today, Colston was placed into the museum supine and defaced (Figure 12). When visitors go to see him, will they see the white ignorance he embodies or that he embodied? It is a pertinent political question, especially in light of the government’s move to outlaw and severely punish defacement of heritage buildings and statues. It is, however, also a question of historical representations, which according to Trouillot, “cannot be conceived only as vehicles for the transmission of knowledge. They must establish some relation to that knowledge. Further, not any relation will do. Authenticity is required, lest the representation becomes a fake, a morally repugnant spectacle.”62 A retrospective representation, a commemoration of a cathartic moment, can only ever be a dampened experience of catharsis. As an echo it will not be able to penetrate coloniality as forcefully and gracefully, as the initial moment. However, if we are to appreciate and recognise its legacy and continue the unfurling of white myth-making then we can only do so by confronting the continuing violence that racism and coloniality enact on the present.

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