Thou shall not erase me

For too long, we have remembered alone when it should have been an obligation for everyone to remember in common.

Carmack toppled statue AP
The statue of Edward Carmack is seen on the ground outside the state Capitol after it was toppled by anti-racism protesters, May 31, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn, US [AP Photo/Kimberlee Kruesi]

Statues of whiteness everywhere must fall – not because they offend some of us, but because the ideological deafness that erected them is a license to kill. When anti-racism protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder turned into scenes of delighted crowds maiming and removing monuments remembering racial violence in their cities, many objected to these acts as historical erasure and a petty litigation of the past. But this insurrection against sanitised history is the direct result of a relentless disease called the privilege of forgetting.

One of the most striking truths about Floyd’s death is that it took an amateur video to remind us all of an obvious reality. Racism permeates the United States and white supremacy is no intellectual abstraction. Pause for a moment and ask yourself where we would be today if we had no visual aid to drive our current rage. Statues do not come with a disclaimer or an amateur video to expose their troubling racial history. They just stand there in public spaces as uncontested tributes to a glory few of us identify with. Our failure to embrace this dark reality without the spectacular nudge of death mirrors the eerie stillness of our monuments. 

Some of us can forget while others live permanently in the chokeholds of history. Statues police our memory and sanction our convenience to leave things behind. This is perhaps why our remembering in this moment is particularly shocking because we are not finding out what we did not know. We are rather remembering what we have repressed in our memory, fragments of the marginal histories we have laboured to forget, and the pain of others we have grown numb to. And it is too much to bear, but only now that the affliction of evil cannot leave our screens.

“I had no idea” is a lame defence against the sting of injustice. It is the excuse of the powerful when confronted with the inevitability of disaster, when the fog of lies finally lifts to reveal the ugliness of comforted history. Statues are the front lines to revise partial history and reckon with deadly lapses of memory. Confederate monuments in the South stand as proud symbols of white triumphalism. Their main function is to white out the horrors of slavery so history is remembered through myths and falsehoods. They are political choices to promote an ideology. Trump defiantly calls them “beautiful” but their “beauty” carries with it the stench and wreckage of excruciating evil.

Erasure is indeed a disingenuous defence to spare statues. French President Emmanuel Macron recently gave a speech categorically rejecting calls for the removal of colonial statues because France, he said, “… will not erase any trace, or any name, from its history”. This is coming from a country with a disturbing ambivalence about its brutal colonial history. Last year, in response to a report urging French museums to return stolen art to African countries, the director of the musee du quai Branly, home to one of the biggest collections of non-Western art, objected to restitution saying “heritage will become the hostage of memory”. In plain words, there is only one celebrated history, one sanctioned memory and they belong to white men, even if erasure of cultures and languages has been the motor of their colonial machine. 

Some of us will not forget because the humiliating traces of statues live inside our memory. For this Moroccan writer those traces are etched in the strange Latin spelling of my last name. Those two “chch”s in my name are the jumbled phonetic rendition of an Arabic sound a French colonial officer dismissed as too strange to capture. I hear their echoes when my father was called le petit indigene (the little Indigenous) by his French tutor during colonisation. And I felt its debris in a postcolonial education system which semantically muted its students and made them feel culturally disqualified by privileging Western knowledge as the norm and consigning many of us to a role of mere responders.

For too long, we have remembered alone when it should have been an obligation for everyone to remember in common. You say removing statues will disorient your heritage, but you fail to recognise that the demons that built that heritage are in the concrete that erected these monuments of shame. Sooner or later they will bend to fall because the drowned memories these statues suffocate will ceaselessly return. Removed from history, you think that the past has passed, but your sin today is that you dared to forget. You have become as Frederick Douglass once said the “Apostles of Forgetfulness” in a world where remembering is the only source of our salvation.

Push your statues down the harbour and drown their lies, but remember that it is only a small symbolic gesture in a heap of suffering and injustice. To those who would rather forget, tell them the only way they can love their country, as the German president said recently, is with a “broken heart”.

Thou shall not erase me. My history is told in a different key. Remember the thunderous words of Audre Lorde:

There are so many roots to the tree of anger

that sometimes the branches shatter

before they bear.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.