You Can’t Change History, but You Can Tell the Truth About It
On a recent visit to England, I was surprised by a couple of conversations I had about race and racism with British people. In a restaurant in Penzance, an old town in southwestern Cornwall, we found ourselves sitting only a foot or so from another couple. It seemed natural to strike up a conversation, and we enjoyed talking to them about their plans to fly to the Isles of Scilly, which are described as a quiet paradise of beaches, walks, and gardens. The couple hailed from a town they described as being close to Wales–Cheltenham, perhaps? They moved there years ago for the man’s job in the chemical engineering industry. We got along well—them with their martinis, me with my negroni, my husband with his Coke—chatting about their memories of visiting the US.
They were a few years older than us, and the man had gone through what he described as a kind of Jack Kerouac phase in his youth, traveling from western Canada to the Pacific Northwest and then across the country by thumb and bus. At some point, I can’t remember how, the topic of slavery came up. I’m sure I was the one to raise it, but I only remember the woman’s face going pink as she said, “And they want us to apologize! But why should we apologize? Everyone was doing it—France, Spain, Portugal.”
But of course, that’s exactly the problem. Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, and the United States are not everyone. And to say that they were implies that everyone else is no one.
Then in Oxford, a place that was far more diverse than Cornwall in its variety of students, faculty, and workers, we took a walking tour of the city. This one was led by a woman of about forty, a woman who had been educated in what is known in Oxford as “the other place.” (Cambridge) When she showed us the statue of Cecil Rhodes on the Rhodes Building of Oriel College, I asked whether there had been any call to remove the statue.
Once again, a white woman’s face turned pink as she said, “You can’t change history.” But obviously, you can change history. The land once known as Rhodesia, as a tribute to Rhodes, is now Zimbabwe and Zambia. (Rather than try to explain who Cecil Rhodes was myself, I will quote here from DiversityUK: Cecil Rhodes was a British mining magnate, and politician in southern Africa. Born in Hertfordshire, he migrated to South Africa at the age of 17, going on to found the famous De Beers diamond company, formed in 1888, which retains its prominence into the 21st century. Rhodes advocated vigorous settler colonialism and ultimately a reformation of the British Empire so that each component would be self-governing and represented in a single parliament in London. An ardent believer in British imperialism, Rhodes and his British South Africa Company founded the southern African territory of Rhodesia.)
It was only after I returned home that I learned that there is in fact a very active Rhodes Must Fall movement that has been operating in Oxford since 2015. In June 2020, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, Oxford announced a plan to form a commission to look into removal of the statue, but a year later, in June 2021, more than 100 academics at Oxford were refusing to hold tutorials to protest the university’s decision not to remove the statue.
Foolishly, I imagined that a nation that has a nationalized health system and that has succeeded in preserving its excellent taxi system despite the efforts of Uber would somehow have a deeper understanding of the ongoing effects of racism and white supremacy. My two conversations hardly amount to a thorough investigation of racism in Britain, but they provide me with enough evidence to convince me that my earlier assumptions were wrong.
Thanks for writing about these experiences we had in Britain. White defensiveness is certainly observable on both sides of the pond.
–Bob (traveling companion)
Thanks for this reflection, Lynne! As a history teacher, I always have to think about how to present history in ways that accurately present the past, encourage students to develop their abilities as critical thinkers, insightful readers, and skillful writers in the present, and help those same students to create a better future. It’s hard, and telling the truth about the crimes that formed our modern world is essential.
Your title almost says it all—love it—but I also love the personal details of your encounters that make the huge crimes of our histories on both sides of the pond more accessible as I begin to comprehend their scope so late in my own life (I’m 72). Thank you!
Interesting. Reminds me of conversations here, or Facebook exchanges. Thanks for these anecdotes and reflections.
Thanks for your well-told story on the racism and colonialism that still permeates our English speaking world.
We’ve been having quite a discussion at Sessions and just decided not to lay down NEYM’s confronting racism committee. But only after much pain was shared, which led to more volunteers offering their willingness to serve. The struggle goes on.