Gal Gadot as Cleopatra in new movie about Egyptian queen is causing misplaced outrage

Always useful to have historical and social context, rather than contemporary reflexes only:

I was happy for two reasons when I heard earlier this week that Israeli actress Gal Gadot had been tapped to play Cleopatra in her latest Hollywood incarnation. First, she’s a star who could help popularize the legendary queen in a rare female-directed blockbuster. Second, like myself and Cleopatra, she’s from the Middle East. I celebrated this fact with my partner, a fellow Middle Easterner from Lebanon and Turkey, who was excited in the same spirit of regional solidarity.

Claims that the casting was another example of “whitewashing” had an amusing side to them since no one seemed to agree on what exactly the acceptable ethnic origin for the actress playing Cleopatra is.

But we knew controversy was soon to follow given the demands of the current social climate that roles only be played by a person of the same ethnicity as the character. In this case, though, claims that the casting was another example of “whitewashing” had an amusing side to them, since no one seemed to agree on what exactly the acceptable ethnic origin for the actress playing Cleopatra is: North African, African, Arab and Egyptian were suggested. In other words, anybody from the region except Jewish Israelis.

The controversy shows a misunderstanding of history and an unfortunate persistence of racialized thinking about both Gadot and Cleopatra, two women born some 2,000 years apart in two relatively close parts of the Eastern Mediterranean. The fact that neither one’s background can be easily distilled shows why it’s wrong to insist that artists fit rigid identity boxes to qualify for a role and to treat historical figures as markers in our modern-day divides, rather than celebrating individuals for their talents and civilizations for their diversity. To do otherwise denies humanity its rich multicultural heritage.

“Was Cleopatra white?” is an essentially meaningless question since categories and morphologies of race in the United States of 2020 are not those of 1st century B.C. Egypt. And they are particularly inappropriate given that Cleopatra and the region she dwelled in were defined by a breathtaking array of cultural mixing — something the critics of her casting would do well to remember.

When Cleopatra was born in 69 B.C., her birthplace of Alexandria was the capital of Egypt’s Ptolemaic Kingdom. Though located on the southern side of the Mediterranean, the ruling monarchy was rather conscious of its Greek origins and wanted to maintain that cultural status; intermarriage with the native Egyptians was forbidden in Alexandria and other cities, although this wasn’t always observed.

The kingdom was part of the effervescent Hellenistic Eastern Mediterranean in which Cleopatra’s mother tongue, Koine Greek (the standardized dialect of Athens), was the lingua franca for the exchange of goods and ideas. The dynasty she was born into had been founded about two centuries earlier by its namesake Ptolemy, a companion of Alexander the Great whose conquests from Egypt to India laid the foundations of the Hellenistic world. The kingdom’s diverse people included Egyptians, Nubians, Syrians, Celts and Jews, some of whom would occasionally be granted the coveted status of Greek elites.

On her father’s side, Cleopatra was an eighth-generation descendant of Ptolemy. The identity of her mother has never been verified, giving rise to speculations that she might have been a native Egyptian or perhaps had some Iranian or Syrian heritage.

Either way, the debate over her DNA misses the much more interesting part of Cleopatra’s biography and the mix of worlds she encompassed by nurture if not nature. Although she had been born into an Alexandria with segregation between the ruling Greeks, native Egyptians and other ethnic groups such as Jews, her own outlook defied this rigid separation.

When Cleopatra came to the throne jointly with her brother in her late teens, Cleopatra became the first-ever Ptolemaic ruler to fluently learn the local Egyptian tongue. (The language is now extinct, but a form of it was spoken until around the 16th century and is now preserved as the liturgical language of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.)

Cleopatra also dressed and styled herself like an Egyptian, elevated Egyptian religious practices and identified herself with the Egyptian goddess Isis. If we are to believe the tall tales of her first-century Roman biographer Plutarch, she not only possessed an “irresistible charm” but spoke fluent Ethiopian, Arabic, Syriac, Parthian and Hebrew (one thing in common with Gadot, at least.) This probably exaggerated multilingualism wasn’t due to linguaphilia but her self-nativization attempts to help spread her authority in the region, challenged as it was by the might of Rome.

Ironically, her origins were the subject of conversation then, too. Her Roman opponents inflicted racist scorn on her, with Roman ruler Augustus deriding her as an “Eastern courtesan” and Latin poets Horace and Virgil speaking of her as a conniving “oriental.”

The black-and-white thinking that confines Cleopatra and Gadot to racial boxes ignores the complexities of human commonality and community. Gadot can indeed be a white-passing actor in the U.S. while also being a fellow Middle Easterner to Iranians like me, despite the unfortunate conflicts that pit our nations against each other. Someone who celebrates her origins from a “small country in the Middle East,” Gadot is certainly as fit as anyone to play Cleopatra — their hometowns are only a half-day’s drive away, after all.

The knee-jerk anxiety about unmatched ethnicities of actors and characters is understandable. The history of cinema is full of hurtful portrayals by white actors, ranging from the gruesome blackface donned by Al Jolson in the landmark sound film “The Jazz Singer” to Mickey Rooney’s infamous Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” to Alec Guinness’ anti-Semitic Fagin in “Oliver Twist.” But the problem with these portrayals is their demeaning caricaturization — something that no one expects in the coming Cleopatra film.

Meanwhile, if we are to truly expand representation on screen, maybe we can look at some other ancient female leaders? How about a film on the 2nd century B.C. Nubian Queen Shanakdakhete, who reigned in today’s Sudan? Or a biopic on the 1st century A.D.’s Musa? Believed to be he first woman to have ever ruled Iran, she was originally an Italian slave gifted to the Parthian monarch of Iran by Augustus, the very tyrant who defeated Cleopatra. Maybe we can fictionalize history and watch her rise and take revenge for Cleopatra? I’d watch Iranians and Italians fight over who gets to play her any day.

Source: Gal Gadot as Cleopatra in new movie about Egyptian queen is causing misplaced outrage

Three contrasting narratives regarding statues of Sir John A and other historical figures

Three contrasting narratives: the first by Martin Regg-Cohn, of the Star (keep most statues but provide historical and social context), the second by Erica Ifill in the Globe (tear them down, lacking perspective) and the third, by Tom XXX in The Tyee, (focus on building monuments and statues to commemorate Indigenous history). In Hegelian terms, think thesis, antithesis and synthesis.

Focussing on the symbolic, while important, can divert attention away from the long and difficult tasks of improving conditions for Indigenous peoples and can be seen as one form of virtue signalling. If there were easy and simple solutions, we wouldn’t be in this space now.

Starting with Regg-Cohn:

The tug of war over public statues keeps exposing our blind spots — not just our blinkered view of history, but of democracy in all its complexity.

Sir John A. Macdonald is merely the latest historical figure to be pulled down and covered up, his head lopped off or layered with painted graffiti. Protestors in Montreal toppled our founding prime minister last weekend, and Macdonald’s visage is visible no more at Queen’s Park — protected and padlocked in a massive wooden shell after demonstrators hurled paint at his statue this summer.

Unpopular statues, like unpopular governments, ought not to be toppled in a democracy — just put in their place, placed in context, or put in storage.

Controversies over politicians of the past — like those of the present — are as old as history itself, and rarely as simple as they appear on protest placards. How we deal with them, how we heal over them, also matters in the crusade to right historical wrongs.

Sometimes the decision is obvious — like removing Confederate statues that celebrate those who lost the civil war but still succeeded in keeping Blacks down. More often it’s complicated.

Shall we remove the monument to Mahatma Gandhi at Carleton University, given latter-day criticisms of the Indian independence leader for harbouring anti-Black views? What about the monument in Toronto’s Riverdale Park to Sun Yat-sen, the revered leader who brought China into the modern era?

“Other monuments, such as to Sir Winston Churchill, to Sun Yat-sen, have also been called into question,” Wayne Reeves, chief curator of Toronto’s culture division, told the city’s Aboriginal affairs advisory committee last month.

Which raises the question of who decides. Protestors deserve to be heard but not automatically heeded. A representative democracy defined by pluralism, mindful of minority rights and majority sentiments, requires consultation and conciliation, debate and deliberation.

A statue of Edward Cornwallis, founder of Halifax was a festering sore given his infamous Scalping Proclamation of 1749 offering a bounty for any Mi’kmaq adult or child. Ultimately, the statue was removed when elected representatives took a vote in 2018 (they voted again last month to erase his name from city streets and relocate the statue in a new museum of Mi’kmaq history).

That may not be as satisfying as spray painting, or as gratifying as graffiti. But the decision is more enduring.

The controversy over Macdonald is complicated — and in many ways intertwined with the debate over Egerton Ryerson, whose statue at Ryerson University was covered in pink paint by the same protestors this summer. As one scholar looking into Ryerson’s relationship with residential schools noted, his name is “incorrectly linked to the ‘architect’ label;” instead, wrote Sean Carleton, “Macdonald must be understood as its architect.”

(Full disclosure: as a visiting practitioner at Ryerson’s Faculty of Arts, I walk by his statue on campus; I see his visage again inside the legislature when I walk by the Ryerson bust perched just outside NDP Leader Andrea Horwath’s office).

Perhaps that’s why Ryerson University added a plaque in 2018 introducing more context: “As Chief Superintendent of Education, Ryerson’s recommendations were instrumental in the design and implementation of the Indian Residential School System,” it reads.

That he also pioneered the modernization of Ontario’s educational system remains beyond dispute. The question is how to reconcile conflicting legacies for people like Ryerson, Macdonald, Churchill, Gandhi, and others.

At Queen’s Park, Macdonald lies boarded up. What’s interesting is that few other statues, such as one honouring Queen Victoria — who presided over so much of our complicated colonial history — get much attention.

A few steps away, a monument honours the “memory of the officers and men who fell on the battlefields of the North-West in 1885,” which surely invites historical context and Indigenous input. The previous speaker of the legislature, Dave Levac, campaigned for years to erect a new to monument to the Métis leader Louis Riel, who led the Northwest Rebellion and was later executed during Macdonald’s time as PM.

Surely the answer to our complicated historical record is to clarify and contextualize it, rather than censor it — which is why the recent addition of anonymous historical plaques adding context to some of Toronto’s most problematic landmarks and street names is so interesting and educational. Far better to fill in the gaps of history rather than create new historical vacuums in a country where few of us have taken the time to learn it.

“The problem I have with the overall approach to tearing down statues and buildings is that is counterproductive,” said Sen. Murray Sinclair, who headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigating the Residential Schools disaster. “We are trying to create more balance in the relationship.”

That’s similar to the approach taken by Nelson Mandela, who launched a pioneering truth and reconciliation commission when he became the first president of post-apartheid South Africa. As president, he avoided reflexively razing the statues of his racist predecessors, opting for a more deliberative approach (some came down, others remained).

Mandela, like Gandhi, understood the frailty and flaws of all humans, not least our leaders. Let he who is without sin cast the first bronze.

In a classic example of what the late John Lewis called “good trouble,”Montreal demonstrators removed the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald from a public space without injury at a protest to defund the police last Saturday. And the outrage from the white Canadian men in whose image Canadian history is taught was swift.

But context has been missing from so many pearl-clutching responses. In this second civil rights movement, where Black Lives Matter has brought global attention to police violence and death wrought on Black people, the traditional framing of criminality is being challenged. Even our current Prime Minister has engaged in at least the pageantry of it; just months earlier, Justin Trudeau attended an anti-police brutality march in Ottawa, going so far as to take a knee reminiscent of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s years-long protest over the same issue.

Fast forward to his response to the statue toppling, and his tone has changed. Much like his reaction to the protests in support of some Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, Mr. Trudeau has morphed from white ally to condescending white settler colonialist. “We are a country of laws, and we are a country that needs to respect those laws even as we seek to improve and change them,” he said on Monday. “Those kinds of acts of vandalism are not advancing the path towards greater justice and equality in this country.”

With allyship like this, who needs enemies?

In doing this, Mr. Trudeau was eager to show off his law-and-order bona fides. But if he is still seeking to advance “greater justice and equality,” he undermines his own allegedly progressive message by vaunting the very laws that underpin many of the problems being protested – including laws Macdonald helped establish at the start of Confederation. (And imagine having the temerity to scold Canadians about respecting the law after proroguing Parliament to avoid judgement from those same laws, in your second ethics scandal in as many years.)

It’s not as if this issue came out of nowhere for Mr. Trudeau, either. The removal of monuments exalting the father of Confederation has been in the national discourse for years. However, Canadians like to engage in the vanity exercise of cherry-picking the history we’re comfortable with, leaving out the icky bits that don’t uphold our worldview of being “good people.” The reality, though, is that Canada’s first prime minister was an oppressive colonist whose deployment of state violence was instrumental in the formation of the nation. These aren’t “mistakes made by previous generations who built this country,”as Mr. Trudeau falsely characterized them; rather, this was a man who committed real atrocities that formed and informed how the Canadian state interacts with Black, Indigenous and people of colour, to this day.

Here are just a few achievements on his résumé: The creation of the federal residential school system, which was used as a form of genocide against Indigenous peoples; the creation of the pass system, a program of social control requiring Indigenous people to attain permission to leave the reserve (and which was then exported to South Africa, where it was used to control Black South Africans during apartheid); the execution of Louis Riel; a starvation policy to clear Indigenous people off their lands and make way for the Canadian Pacific Railway; the largest mass execution in Canadian history, when eight Indigenous men fighting that starvation policy were hanged in what is known as the Frog Lake Massacre; the implementation of the Chinese Head Tax; and the passage of the Electoral Franchise Act, which denied Black and Indigenous people the vote.

Those same racialized groups targeted by MacDonald in the formation and dominion of Canada continue to be the targets of systemic racism and oppression today.

Ignoring inconvenient truths makes for bad leadership. And the paucity of leadership from Mr. Trudeau is evident, or else there wouldn’t have needed to be a protest in Montreal in the first place. Five years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report, we are still waiting on this government to implement its recommendations. Nearly three months after Mr. Trudeau took the knee, we are no closer to systemic reforms, despite the credible plans on the table. And in June, the Parliamentary Black Caucus called on the federal government to dedicate real resources toward ending anti-Black systemic racism: “This is not a time for further discussion – the Afro-Canadian community has spoken for many years and is no longer interested in continued consultation or study. Extensive reports and serious proposals already exist.” That call appears to have gone unheeded.

Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, his ability to deliver on promises of transformational change has long been in dispute. Now, he has condemned protesters on the destruction of property more than he has the RCMP, for the gratuitous violence against Black and Indigenous people.

The time for double-talk is over. The time for action is now – and it’s not being well used in defending Canadian history’s leading man.


Lastly, and I think most useful, Tom McMahon:

Every so often, the removal of a statue or place name causes a minor media moment in Canada. Like this weekend, when protesters in Montreal pulled down a statue of the country’s first prime minister, the notorious racist John A. Macdonald, and beheaded him.

The media dove in. “Trudeau ‘deeply disappointed’ after demonstrators topple John A. Macdonald statue” read one headline. The prime minister’s thoughts on this “act of vandalism” filled papers across the country.

Rarely does news coverage of such stories place the topic of statues in a broader context. And political parties are usually completely silent about it too.

What is the broader context? It’s that while we can seemingly talk forever about whether a statue or place name should exist, we never seem able to discuss what does not exist. And why that might be.

What doesn’t exist in Canada, for the most part, are statues and monuments highlighting great Indigenous leaders, or highlighting exactly which Indigenous groups live in a particular place and their contributions to Canadian life. What doesn’t exist is any effort to create these monuments.

Justin Trudeau is deeply disappointed that a headless John A. Macdonald was put on the ground? Well, I’m disappointed that Trudeau has not lived up to his promise to implement the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Specifically, Call to Action #81:

We call upon the federal government, in collaboration with [Residential School] Survivors and their organizations, and other parties to the Settlement Agreement, to commission and install a publicly accessible, highly visible, Residential Schools National Monument in the city of Ottawa to honour Survivors and all the children who were lost to their families and communities.

I see that the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson, responsible for Parks Canada, has announced that the residential school system is an event of national historical significance and that two residential school buildings in relatively remote, unpopulated areas will be designated national historic sites.

Not in the capital cities. Not particularly publicly accessible or highly visible.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney volunteered to bring the statue of the headless racist to his province. But who will ask Kenney what he is doing to implement TRC Call to Action #82?

We call upon provincial and territorial governments, in collaboration with Survivors and their organizations, and other parties to the Settlement Agreement, to commission and install a publicly accessible, highly visible, Residential Schools Monument in each capital city to honour Survivors and all the children who were lost to their families and communities.

In Winnipeg, we have a monument to the Holodomor in the Ukraine in front of our city hall. A monument to the Winnipeg Rifles who were sent to put down the Riel Rebellion in Saskatchewan in 1885 is across the street.

Or for a more exhaustive example, look at Manitoba. On its legislative grounds alone you’ll find a massive monument to Queen Victoria and a smaller one to Queen Elizabeth II; one for General Wolfe who led England’s takeover of New France from France; two to Lord Douglas, to whom the London governing committee of the Hudson’s Bay Company gave a huge grant of land to settle Scots in Manitoba; one to Scottish poet Robert Burns; one to the Sieur de La Verendrye, the first European to travel to Manitoba from Lake Superior; one to Father Ritchot, Louis Riel, Marc-Amable Girard and John Norquay as early Manitobans who got the province included in Canada through the Manitoba Act (and a monument to George-Étienne Cartier who worked with them); several memorials to Manitoba soldiers killed in wars and to others who served the war efforts; one to the internment during the First World War of Ukrainian and other eastern Europeans as potential enemies of Canada; one to Taras Shevchenko, a Ukrainian poet and symbol of the important contributions of Ukrainians to the Canadian West; one to Jewish victims of the Holocaust; one to Jon Sigurdsson who led the country of Iceland to be independent from Denmark, symbolizing the important contributions of Icelandic immigrants to Manitoba; a B.C. totem pole to commemorate the 100th anniversary of B.C.’s entry into Confederation; and a commemoration of the tenth year of an exchange program between Manitoba and Japanese students.

Plus, there’s a monument to the controversial Famous Five, who won the right for propertied, well-connected women to be appointed to the Senate. Some of the five were also famous for their racism, support of eugenics and advocacy of racist drug laws.

The Famous Five should be controversial because support for being appointed to the Senate did almost nothing for women’s equality generally, and Indigenous women and children in particular are still fighting for equality in various ways nearly 100 years on.

At the University of Minnesota football stadium in Minneapolis there is a marvellous plaza showing the names, maps and a summary of information about each Tribal Nation that is in Minnesota. I have never seen a similar plaza in Canada.

Go to any provincial capital city and see what monuments there are, especially on legislative grounds. How are Indigenous peoples included in those monuments? Are they there at all?

Now go ask your premier what is happening with Call to Action #82.

Every time there’s a news article about monuments to John A. Macdonald, Cornwallis, Amherst, Langevin, Wolseley, Osborne, Douglas, Begbie, Vancouver, etc., do the media show any awareness of what monuments are not there?

Do the media have any awareness of TRC Calls to Action #81 and #82? Do the media ask the first ministers and leaders of the opposition about those Calls to Action?

Did the media ask the federal government: thanks for the announcement about the new Portage la Prairie and Shubenacadie residential school sites, but what is happening with Call to Action #81 for the capital cities?

Let’s get on with building a publicly accessible, highly visible, residential schools monument in each capital city to honour survivors and all the children who were lost to their families and communities.

Let’s get on with building prominent public monuments that show exactly which Indigenous peoples live in a specific region, showing the extent of their traditional territories and the dates and contents of the treaties that we signed with them.

Let’s get on with building prominent public monuments to Indigenous contributions to our lives and to Indigenous heroes.

It’s history by addition.  [Tyee]


Royson James: Be careful who gets the honour of a memorial

Good reflections by Royson James on the need for reflection before erecting or removing monuments:

Be slow to tear down; slower to erect.

Heroes and villains are too often aligned — in the same body. So beware the memorials and monuments we construct.

That should be a direct lesson from the mound of past sins now being excavated and tossed on the sculpted images of our once shining heroes.

Once a hero, always a hero — in somebody’s mind. But the conquering coloniser is a miserable picture of pain and suffering to the victims of imperial conquests.

So, rip ‘em down. Tear down that statue. Remove the monument. Behead that statue that causes us so much pain. But be willing to square off against a phalanx of counter-protesters brandishing “Hands off our heritage” placards. America is Exhibit A — raw, extreme, seemingly irreconcilable, attempting to confront the past and a study in how not to get there in the first place.

It doesn’t have to be so, of course. Reasonable human beings can study the lives and contributions of the people our forebears honoured with monuments and memorials and reconsider their place of honour in light of modern norms and practices.

We learn. We grow. We listen to our neighbour. We may have to change our minds.

A tear-down doesn’t have to be a whitewash or a blackout. It can be an opportunity to present an era or person or people in wider context. Still, in real life, on the street, it doesn’t play out that neatly.

Toronto is not a city of statues and monuments. There are a few at Queen’s Park and along University Avenue and on university campuses, but nothing like the affinity found in Europe or the American south.

Maybe it’s because we are so young, compared to ancient cities. Maybe the paucity of public statues serve as a natural inhibitor to erecting new ones. After all, who are you to tower over us when so many before you have not been awarded that honour? Why this hero when we can name another 10 or 20 worthy competitors?

Count me among those who have advocated for more piazzas, grand boulevards, fountains and statues. Maybe we are fortunate not to have a proliferation because it is so difficult to install perfect human beings. Prime Ministers and presidents owned slaves. The British monarchy sponsored slave-ship expeditions. The Anglican Church owned slaves and branded them on the Codrington estate in Barbados.

In the midst of this tangled time stamp, affirming the victims, confronting the ugly truths and moving towards reconciliation and reparations is no easy feat. Denial is the worst option. So is a blanket erasure of evidence of the past.

We could be Richmond, Virginia, where the mother of all statues — the 21-foot high horse and rider General Robert E. Lee, head of the pro-slavery Southern Confederate states in the U.S. civil war — is coming down after years of protest that it is a symbol of white supremacy and racism. Opponents see it as symbol of southern heritage. The work, completed in Paris in 1890 is considered an artistic “masterpiece.” It took 10,000 people to transport the pieces from port to platform. Dismantling it and its granite base that’s almost twice as high as the stature itself, is a feat.

Here, we worry about spray paint on the King Edward VII statue at Queen’s Park.

Here, the city of Vaughan is embarrassed when a citizen pointed out that by changing the name of its August civic holiday in 2013 to Benjamin Vaughan Day, the city was celebrating a man of who not only owned hundreds of slaves in Jamaica but fought against the abolition of slavery. (Educated, Vaughan city council dropped the holiday name this year, returning to Simcoe Day.) There’s no word on the fate of the city’s name itself, cut from the same cloth.

Clearly, we pay scant attention to the names we give our streets. So many streets to name in so many subdivisions. Developers name your street address after their girlfriends. Architects throw in ninny names to satisfy whatever fantasy overcame them. Who’s to know?

Maybe Toronto city planners were a bit more fastidious when they laid out the old city by name. You can’t go wrong with Front or Lakeshore, er Lake Shore, or King, Queen, Princess, John and Jane. Who would suspect Mr. Bathurst or Mrs. Dufferin of having damaging secrets that might render them unfit to adorn our boulevards? Dundas? Harmless.

Oops. Apparently, only as harmless as Ryerson and Macdonald — names and esteemed people now under scrutiny for questionable racial history.

Toronto’s city manager has issued a brief committing to “broadly understand and respond to how systematic racism and discrimination are embedded in city assets, commemorative programs and naming policies.”

Chris Murray says “this might ultimately touch all named city streets, parks and facilities, public monuments, and civic awards and honours, potentially leading to a variety of actions (e.g., renaming streets, removing monuments, revoking awards or reinterpreting any of these).

“Addressing the historical legacy of Dundas Street is one of these steps” necessary in challenging systemic institutionalized racism and build a more inclusive Toronto,” Murray writes.

If these are more than just words — and if city council next month adopts the philosophy and true intent — we are in for a turbulent period that will test our maturity as a city. If the effort doesn’t get messy, it’s a sure sign it isn’t real.

We honour people who touch us and move us to dream and aspire to greatness. When the very visage of our “heroes” evoke the image of “villains” in our neighbour, this clash of vision can only crash at our feet — assuming we are equally invested and rooted and valued.

How we clean up the mess will define our future. It will also remind us: Be slow to tear down; slower to erect.

We Don’t Have to Like Them. We Just Need to Understand Them.

Good commentary on historic statues in a way that understands the differences between historical figures, their contexts, and the need for case-by-case consideration of whether to remove or relocate:

Some sights are so searing that you can’t unsee them. And, like it or not, you end up seeing the world through them. Reality hasn’t changed; you have, which makes you want to change reality. Right now.

That pretty much describes the cause-and-effect physics surrounding the release, on May 25, of the cellphone video of George Floyd pinned to the ground and having the life squeezed out of him, second by second, by a Minneapolis policeman.

In the protests that followed, white supremacist images of all kinds — Confederate memorials, statues of slave-owners, tributes to colonizers — have come under attack. Some have been destroyed; others forklifted into storage; still others left in place to await an uncertain fate.

More recently, the anti-monument movement appears to be spreading beyond a focused demand for racial justice. Earlier this week in Madison, Wis., protesters toppled a statue of Hans Christian Heg, an abolitionist who died trying to end slavery.

Among a number of racially charged images in New York City, one of the most contested, the equestrian statue of Theodore Rooseveltat the entrance the American Museum of Natural History, has finally had its day of reckoning. Last week the museum itself asked the city for permission to remove the statue, and got the O.K.

In a press statement, the museum was careful to explain the reason behind its request for removal. Roosevelt himself — whose father was a founder of the museum — was not the main problem. The monument’s optics were.

Roosevelt is a complicated historical figure, an unstable ethical compound of bad and good. As an ardent conservationist, he put vast stretches of American land under federal protection, but took much of that land from Native Americans. He was internationalist in his thinking, but largely because he considered the resources of the world, particularly parts of the world with dark-skinned populations, to be ripe for the taking.

A Smithsonian Institution website describes him bluntly as “a racist whose beliefs reflected those of the elite of his day. Roosevelt thought African Americans to be inferior to white citizens.”

But even if you didn’t know any of this, one look at the monument tells you that it’s a problem, one that no extenuating information can make right.

Twenty-four feet tall, including an eight-foot high base, the 1940 sculpture by James Earle Fraser depicts Roosevelt, armed with pistols and perched on a spirited charger. Below him, walking on either side of the horse, their heads reaching barely higher than its back, are two other male figures, one Native American, one African, both in “native” attire. Each carries a rifle. Are they meant to be Roosevelt’s gun-bearers? His guides? His security detail? Whatever, he doesn’t look like he needs them. His face is alert, resolute, forward-directed; theirs, passive, withdrawn, cast down.

The image is, of course, a fantasy, one that can, and has been, interpreted in varying ways. One historian reads the standing figures as allegorical embodiments of Africa and America. To Fraser himself they represented “Roosevelt’s friendliness to all races.” But to contemporary eyes, the white supremacist import of its composition is unmistakable, and unacceptable: heroic white man on top of the world. No question, the thing has to go. And in the vaunted “great awakening” to racial injustice underway in the country now (how long will it last? How deep does it run?) the museum, and the city, figured that out.

But here comes a question. What do we do with other monuments that have similar compositions but more complex images and histories, and are, in addition, works of aesthetic distinction (a claim rarely made for the Roosevelt statue)? I’m thinking of the Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment in Boston — a monument that got graffiti-tagged during protests in May.

This bronze bas-relief by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, installed on the Boston Common in 1897, also centers on a dominant white equestrian figure, in this case surrounded by black men in military uniforms. It commemorates Shaw as the leader of the first all-black volunteer Union army brigade that formed in Boston in 1863, and marched to a battle in South Carolina, where many soldiers, including Shaw, died, and where they were all buried together.

The visuals here say “white supremacist,” too: the racially hierarchical composition, the single-name dedication, the suggestion of the Union army’s enforced segregation.

At the same time, does a narrative of interracial loyalties between leader and troops add a mitigating factor to a judgment of the work? Or the fact that Frederick Douglass came to Boston to attend the 1897 unveiling? (Two of his sons were in the 54th Regiment.) Or even the fact that the Saint-Gaudens relief is widely regarded as a masterpiece of American public art?

To fully weigh such factors requires some knowledge of history, a discipline that has long been shunted aside in education. The story of Shaw and the 54th Regiment, or at least a highly romanticized version of it, has had the advantage of popular exposure: It was the subject of the 1989 film, “Glory. ” But even so, the monument was targeted by protesters. And the real question is, what’s the correct — meaning useful — response to the monument’s image of an egregious racial power dynamic? Eliminate or obscure it, or explain it?

All to say that the disposal of monuments should be approached case by case. Public political images are never innocent. But some are complex, with questions to ask and lessons to teach, while others — so-called “Lost Cause” Confederate monuments, created long after the Civil War to reassert white power — are, and were intended to be, racist assault weapons, plain and simple. In the current, healthy drive to neutralize assaultive images, it’s necessary, for history’s sake, that we first stand back, look hard, sort them out.

As for the disposition of the Roosevelt monument, which has not been officially announced, I have an idea. Clearly a racist artifact, the work cannot continue to serve as the visual introduction to an institution that, through its modern department of ethnology, is deeply devoted to the study of human culture.

I suggest that the museum retain the sculpture but display it for what it is: an outsize ethnological specimen, the product of a specific era and culture (the piece was unveiled in 1940, a year after the release of the “Lost Cause” film “Gone With the Wind”), now subject to critical evaluation in a different, Black Lives Matter era and culture. This conceptual change in use and value would require moving it, minus its base, into a gallery — and an apt context for display already exists.

In 2019, in response to earlier protests around the sculpture, the museum organized a small, ongoing documentary show called “Addressing the Statue,” which details the work’s history and includes commentary by contemporary ethnologists, social historians, art historians and artists.

Almost everyone says, in different ways, that the monument’s not a good thing and never was. And it would be useful for present and future audiences to be able to learn why it’s not a good thing, and why this not-good-thing — as big and bullying as a Tyrannosaurus — stood where it stood in this city for so long.

As for what might replace it out front, at the entrance: Something should. Why let an empty stone base the size of a small stage go to waste when we have so many politically savvy artists, young and old, who need a platform for their ideas?

As least one has already had a say about the Roosevelt monument: David Hammons, in a 1991 group show called “Dislocations” at the Museum of Modern Art. For his installation there, titled “Public Enemy,” he surrounded photomurals of the sculpture with sandbags and, police barriers. Who was being protected? It — or us? Way back then he wanted it gone, and now the deal’s done. The museum should ask him over for a victory lap.

And the museum could commission new work, keep it impermanent and have it change often, even daily. Mr. Hammons’s “Public Enemy” was ephemeral. When the MoMA show ended, his installation disappeared, perhaps into closets, studios, dumpsters; I don’t know where. More and more right now, impermanence makes sense. Losses from Covid-19, the flood of violent deaths and a new political art that seems to exist entirely on plywood and pavement contribute to this perception.

We’re at an inflection point in this country, potentially the most significant one in generations. Black Lives Matter brought us here. Now it’s everyone’s job to sustain the momentum. New art certainly has a contribution to make. So do our historical public images.

Some examples, like the Roosevelt and Shaw monuments, are eye-and-mind grabbers, dense packages of information and emotion. We should study them as closely and critically as we do the monuments of any age and culture. We don’t have to like them; we just need to understand them, examine their mechanics, what made them persuasive in their time, and how that persuasion works, or doesn’t, now.

By comparison, most of the commemorative statues now under attack across the land — and there are more and more each day — have little visual charisma. They’re generic period images of white male power. You’re tempted to think: If they go, small loss. Let’s move on.

Then you remember that each of those images comes with a name and a history, and some of those names belong to murderers, enslavers and genocidists. And their history is our history. It’s good to keep reminders of that visible, somewhere. Sometimes the most effective way to push yourself into the future is by reviewing the record of how bad the past has been.

Holland Cotter is the co-chief art critic. He writes on a wide range of art, old and new, and he has made extended trips to Africa and China. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2009.

Canada has a long, documented history of racism and racial discrimination. Don’t look away

Good reminder by Mark O’Neill, president and chief executive of the Canadian Museum of History and the Canadian War Museum.

In the 1980s, as a young program officer in what was then called the Department of the Secretary of State of Canada, I worked in the race-relations unit of the department’s multiculturalism program. Several events, in particular, were formative in my understanding of the state of social cohesion and the institutional response to the diversity of Canadian society at that time. These included the fatal shootings of young Black men in Mississauga (Michael Wade Lawson, in 1988) and Montreal (Anthony Griffin, in 1987) by police officers, and the final report of the Marshall Inquiry, released in 1990, which concluded that Donald Marshall Jr., a Mi’kmaq man in Nova Scotia, had been wrongly prosecuted and convicted of murder in 1971.

A critical milestone during this period was the Japanese Canadian Redress Agreement of 1988, the first time a Canadian government had formally acknowledged and apologized for a historic injustice against a group of Canadians – in this case, the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War.

Collectively, these experiences formed the beginning of what has essentially been my lifelong learning of Canada’s history of systemic and institutional racism and racial discrimination.

The entire concept of Canada as a racist society is antithetical to the mainstream notion of Canadian identity and values (as expressed, most fundamentally, in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms). In an interview with the Canadian Press, journalist and activist Desmond Cole talks about the need to overcome Canada’s self-mythology as a country that doesn’t have the same forms of racism as the United States.

Recently, and in previous decades, Canadian politicians have quipped that a point of distinction between our country and the United States is Canada’s lack of a history of slavery, which has exposed an unawareness of, or unwillingness to acknowledge, the brutality of the transatlantic slave trade that benefited pre-Confederation Canada.

The late Gord Downie was inspired to create his Secret Path multimedia project when, as an adult, he learned of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old Anishinaabe boy who died of hunger and exposure in 1966 after fleeing a residential school in Ontario. Mr. Downie made it his purpose to bring the story to Canadians because, like him, there were so many people in Canada who didn’t know the dark history of the schools.

Academic and author Lubomyr Luciuk, instrumental in the long campaign for redress for Ukrainian-Canadians interned as enemy aliens during the First World War, was initially told by government officials, “That never happened.”

Canada’s racism, both past and present, is a well-documented and undeniable fact. But many Canadians, sadly, do not know their history, so it stands to reason that they don’t know the darker chapters of it. It is profoundly important that we learn our history – and be acutely aware of our individual and collective wrongs – if we are to move ahead as a society, let alone judge others.

The Canadian History Hall, unveiled at the Canadian Museum of History in 2017 and developed by content experts in collaboration with community representatives, aims to bring Canadian history to life in a comprehensive, artifact-rich visitor experience grounded in the historical record of the events and people that comprise our history. In many respects, it lays bare our history. Not surprisingly, not everyone approves.

Examples of Canada’s history of racism abound. Our first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, when presented in his complex entirety, is the architect of both Confederation and the Indian Act (the two historical realities are inextricably bound – and critical to understanding both him and our country).

McGill University, one of Canada’s most respected postsecondary institutions, has a history of anti-Semitic admissions policies that were not lifted until after the Second World War. The historically Black town of Africville, N.S., was expropriated in the 1960s; homes were torn down without warning or process, and the community was displaced. The Chinese head tax, first introduced in 1885 and increased several times thereafter, discouraged and penalized Chinese immigration to Canada. It was superseded by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923, which forbade Chinese immigration altogether.

The persistence of systemic racism and racial discrimination in Canada is a part of our contemporary history. As recently as 2017, the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent released a report on its mission to Canada. The Working Group found that “Canada’s history of enslavement, racial segregation and marginalization of African Canadians has left a legacy of anti-Black racism and had a deleterious impact on people of African descent, which must be addressed in partnership with the affected communities. Across Canada, many people of African descent continue to live in poverty and poor health, have low educational attainment and are overrepresented at all levels of the criminal justice system.”

Both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls have painstakingly documented Canada’s long and devastating legacy of racist policies and practices against Indigenous people.

In April, an article by poet and columnist El Jones in the Halifax Examinerexplored the serious impact COVID-19 will have on Black communities, noting that “racism and structural inequality shape who is affected by this illness and its economic fallout. Systematically ignoring that reality makes Black people even more vulnerable.” The article goes on to describe the disappearance of “Blackness” from the reporting of the pandemic, despite the fact that many Black people are on the front lines and that, like the U.S., Canada is not keeping race-based data on testing or infection rates.

It has been a long time for me, personally, since the shootings of Mr. Lawson and Mr. Griffin, the Marshall Inquiry’s report and the Japanese Canadian Redress Agreement. But along the arc of the moral universe, they are recent events in Canadian history.

The Department of Justice reports that although Indigenous adults represent just 4 per cent of the adult population in Canada, they account for 26 per centof admissions to correctional services.

Political leaders at all levels have acknowledged the existence of anti-Black racism in Canada. In 2016, Abdirahman Abdi died during his arrest in Ottawa, and Dafonte Miller lost an eye after an alleged assault by an off-duty police officer in Toronto. Andrew Loku was killed by Toronto police in 2015 in what was deemed a homicide.

Canadians have much to be proud of in their quest for social justice, including the creation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms; the introduction of the Employment Equity Act to guarantee every Canadian equal access to work; the Government of Canada’s apology for the Chinese head tax; and many other stories of leadership on human rights and international aid and development. In 2019, the federal government unveiled its anti-racism strategy, a key pillar of which is the establishment of an Anti-Racism Secretariat that will lead a “whole-of-government” approach in addressing racism and racial discrimination. This is a welcome approach, but there is still much work to be done.

The final panel in the Canadian History Hall at the Canadian Museum of History reminds visitors that “Canadians have inherited a contested past. Like their forebears, they face conflict, struggle and loss alongside success, accomplishment and hope. They steward an acclaimed but imperfect democracy, a beautiful but threatened environment, a revered but relative civility. Their vision and generosity, wisdom and compromise will be their own legacy – for Canada, and the world.”

Source: Canada has a long, documented history of racism and racial discrimination. Don’t look away

As Protests Grow, Belgium Faces Its Racist Colonial Past

Of note:

When it comes to ruthless colonialism and racism, few historical figures are more notorious than Leopold II, the king of the Belgians who held Congo as his personal property and may have been responsible for the deaths of millions of Congolese more than a century ago.

Yet across Belgium, the monarch’s name is still found on streets and tunnels. Cities are dotted with his statues and busts, even as evidence of his misdeeds has piled up over the decades.

Now a reckoning seems to be at hand.

The protests sweeping the world after George Floyd’s death in the U.S. have added fuel to a movement to confront Europe’s role in the slave trade and its colonial past. Leopold is increasingly seen as a stain on the nation where he reigned from 1865 to 1909. Demonstrators want him removed from public view.

In just the last week, a long-running trickle of dissent that resulted in little more than occasional vandalism has turned into a torrent, with statues of Leopold defaced in a half-dozen cities. In the port town of Antwerp, where much of the Congolese rubber, minerals and other natural riches entered the nation, one statue was burned and had to be removed for repairs. It is unclear whether it will ever come back.

“When you erect a statue, it lauds the actions of who is represented. The Germans would not get it into their head to erect statues of Hitler and cheer them,” said Mireille-Tsheusi Robert, president of the Congolese action group Bamko-Cran, which wants all Leopold statues removed from Belgian cities. “For us, Leopold has committed a genocide.”

On Wednesday, an internet petition to rid the capital, Brussels, of any Leopold statue swept past 70,000 signatures. Also this week, regional education authorities promised history course reforms to better explain the true character of colonialism. And at the University of Mons in southern Belgium, academic authorities removed a bust of the king, saying they wanted to make sure “nobody could be offended by its presence.”

Similar efforts are unfolding in Britain, where at least two statues of prominent figures connected to the slave trade have been taken down by protesters or city officials. London’s mayor has promised a review of all monuments.

Leopold ruled Congo as a fiefdom, forcing many of its people into slavery to extract resources for his personal profit. His early rule, starting in 1885, was famous for its brutality, which some experts say left as many as 10 million dead.

After his ownership of Congo ended in 1908, he handed the central African country over to the Belgian state, which continued to hold sway over an area 75 times its size until the nation became independent in 1960.

Leopold has come to symbolize the racism and inequality citizens of Congolese descent have had to endure. Next to the royal palace stands an equestrian statue with Leopold gazing solemnly toward the horizon. On Wednesday, his hands and eyes were covered with red paint, and expletives were spray-painted on the side of the monument.

Maximilian Christiaens, an architect with a Congolese mother and Belgian father, who came to see the statue after the defacing, realizes the issue is part of his identity. Since Congo achieved independence, Belgium’s Congolese population has swelled to about 230,000 in a nation of 11 million.

“You know, we feel at home here, but seeing symbols like this in the city and all over the country gives us the opposite signal,” Christiaens said. He would like to see them torn down.

A similar struggle is playing out in the majestic woods east of Brussels in Tervuren, where the palatial Royal Museum for Central Africa stands. It was built over a century ago to glorify Leopold’s colonial exploits and to convince Belgium citizens that their country was delivering civilization to the heart of wild Africa.

Museum Director Guido Gryseels fully understands the challenges and the sensitivities, especially after a Leopold statue was defaced in the gardens outside the museum last week. He has sought to shift the museum’s views on colonialism into a contemporary reassessment of a flawed past. This week, the Black Lives Matter logo was displayed on digital screens at the museum entrance.

As part of a major renovation he oversaw, Gryseels consigned the racist statues of Congolese and the glorifying busts of the Belgian military to the “depot” of outdated sculptures in the museum’s cellars.

“We wanted to keep them somewhere so that the visitors could still see, so that we could explain: ‘This is how we looked at Africa before,’” Gryseels said.

Upstairs, in the grand rooms, the only bust of Leopold on display is made of ivory and aims to explain how the plunder of the country extended to the wholesale slaughter of elephants.

As a listed architectural treasure, Leopold’s royal double L monogram is still plastered all over the building. But Congolese artists have been asked to make a counterpoint, and in the main hall now stands a sculpture of a skull of a Congolese chief who was beheaded by a Belgian. In front of statues that could not be moved because they were protected, there are now transparent drapes with images criticizing Belgian actions in Congo.

“It would have been impossible 30 years ago, but there is a step forward,” Robert said. Still, she said the changes do not go far enough and the museum needs to better embrace Congolese in its management structure.

Just about everybody acknowledges that Belgian society needs to take a hard look at its past. The Catholic church, the dominant force in education during much of Belgium’s existence, was at worst an active participant in colonialism, at best a passive bystander. And since many Belgians had family members who went to Congo to seek their fortunes, there is a sense of unease in confronting the history of racism and exploitation.

“The amnesia is linked to the money the Belgians made in Congo,” Robert said.

For many years, Belgian colonial authorities peddled the idea that the king went to Congo to stop the slave trade, Gryseels said, when it was really “a pretext to make big economic gains.”

Source: As Protests Grow, Belgium Faces Its Racist Colonial Past

His family was banned from a Toronto roller skating club for being Black. He fought back in court

Note from our history:

Before Viola Desmond refused to leave the whites-only section of a Nova Scotia theatre and Hugh Burnett led sit-ins at restaurants unwilling to serve Black customers, a barber in Toronto pushed back against racial intolerance.

During the first decade of the 20th century, a roller-skating craze swept North America. Rinks sprang up in cities across the continent and Toronto was no exception. Citizens had several options including Victoria Rink on Huron Street and Granite Club Roller Rink at 519 Church. Roller skating appealed to all ages. The craze was so popular sporting goods stores quickly ran short of skates. Participants were required to rent skates from rinks. Ads placed in newspapers by competing arenas boasted “Strictly select patronage.”

The Taylors lived in a home in the shadow of St. James Cathedral on Francis Street. On a cool November evening in 1906, Arthur Taylor, 12, and his mother, Lydia, dressed against the chill and boarded a Toronto Railway Co. streetcar for the short ride north to the Granite Club, a forerunner of the city’s current Granite Club. After purchasing tickets and entering, they queued up to rent skates. Before they could join the crowd on the floor, however, an attendant instructed by management informed them they were unwelcome because they were Black.

Mother and son returned home humiliated.

The Granite Club chose the wrong family to discriminate against. Arthur’s father, the successful barber Armistead Pride Taylor, refused to take the slight lying down. Incensed, Taylor rushed to the courthouse at city hall and issued a civil claim for $50 in damages.

Armistead Taylor was born a freeman of colour in Virginia in 1845. After visiting an aunt in Toronto in 1870, she convinced him to settle here. Prior to the move, he wed Lydia Hegetscweiler in Virginia and relocated north of the border with his new wife.

The newlyweds initially resided in Yorkville, where Taylor opened a barbershop. Within a decade, he earned a reputation for challenging social norms. Fined two dollars for violating the Lord’s Day Act — Taylor shaved a customer on a Sunday — he won the case on appeal.

Taylor descendant Paul de la Rosa of Toronto is familiar with his ancestry but remained unaware of the specific indignity experienced by his great-grandmother and great-uncle.

What does de la Rosa suppose gave his great-grandfather confidence to challenge the WASP establishment? De la Rosa speculates, “Being considered freeborn in a time of slavery gave him hope for a better life. His move from the States to Canada was also part of that. Self-esteem, pride, and a determination not to go backwards … probably were driving forces. Along with some rage!”

The Taylor family eventually grew to 10 children. By then the barber had standing in the community. He opened the first bathhouse in Yorkville and managed barbershop facilities at the Queen’s Hotel. A talented musician, he was a member of local marching bands.

Lydia and Armistead valued education for their children. Those who survived into adulthood would pursue higher education, going on to make valuable contributions in the fields of medicine and law, in Canada as well as south of the border.

Judge Frederick Morson heard the case before Christmas 1906. With a reputation for fairness, the magistrate was known to dispense swift justice. The defence was mounted by Edward Bayly, a skilled lawyer later appointed deputy attorney general to the province of Ontario.

Hotelier Abram Orpen, a former bookie with previous run-ins with authorities, managed the rink. In years to come, Orpen would establish Dufferin Park Racetrack. The successful venture led Orpen to open additional horse tracks throughout the province. As his wealth and influence grew, he became a friend to politicians and a favourite son of the city.

At trial, the lawyer representing the Granite Club claimed the recreational and social club was not liable for damages since Orpen leased the rink from them for his own purposes.

From the witness box, Armistead Taylor surmised staff initially permitted his light-skinned wife and son entrance assuming they were white. For his part, Orpen unabashedly testified ordering mother and son from the rink after discovering they were Black. Upon hearing arguments, Judge Morson admitted never having adjudicated a race-based case such as this. Court was adjourned to allow his honour to examine Canadian jurisprudence and case precedents.

Two weeks later a decision was rendered. In a challenge against the WASP establishment of the day, a verdict in the Taylors’ favour seemed unlikely. Win or lose, Taylor would not tolerate the indignity afforded his wife and son.

He refused to back down and his tenacity paid off. This doggedness doesn’t surprise de la Rosa. It runs in the family. “I attended a large family reunion many years ago,” he explained, “During this reunion, I actually saw a bill of sale for one of my ancestors that had bought himself! It seemed that that determination and drive was alive then, and was passed down.”

Judge Morson’s judgment read, “In this country nobody has a right to subject anybody to indignities because of his colour. Be a man or woman coloured … he or she is entitled to respect and protection.” Reflective of the times, however, he stated that if management intended to deny entry based on skin colour, a notice should have been conspicuously posted.

The judge denied Taylor’s claim for punitive damages but ordered the Granite Club to reimburse the ticket cost.

What effect the small victory had on young Arthur is impossible to say but it is worth noting, after completing his education in Toronto, the young man attended Lincoln University in Philadelphia and then Yale to study law. He would become assistant district attorney for the District of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Why isn’t the Taylor victory widely known? De la Rosa ponders. “How many know that Toronto once had a Black mayor?” (William Peyton Hubbard, elected Toronto’s first Black alderman in 1894, served as acting mayor on several occasions.) There were schools and streets named after prominent Black leaders in the community that have quietly had their names changed over time, and those stories have been lost to history as well.”

Source: His family was banned from a Toronto roller skating club for being Black. He fought back in court

Atlanta Will Add Context About Racism to Historic Monuments

I have always preferred this approach, providing context and using monuments as a means to increase understanding, rather than tearing them down or renaming:

Atlanta will soon add some lessons about the South’s racist history on markers placed next to four historic monuments amid the ongoing national debate over Confederate statues.

The first of the panels could be installed as early as Friday, officials said.

In Atlanta’s Piedmont Park, the 1911 Peace Monument commemorating post-Civil War reconciliation will get context noting that its inscription promotes a narrative centered on white veterans, while ignoring African Americans.

Many white Southerners viewed the American Civil War through “the lens of Lost Cause mythology” following the defeat of Confederate forces.

“That mythology claimed that despite defeat, the Confederate cause was morally just,” states the marker to be placed near the Peace Monument.

“This monument should no longer stand as a memorial to white brotherhood; rather, it should be seen as an artifact representing a shared history in which millions of Americans were denied civil and human rights,” it states.

Georgia law bars the removal of such monuments. Other states with laws protecting Confederate monuments include Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

The project puts the city ahead of other communities grappling with what to do about their monuments, Atlanta History Center President and CEO Sheffield Hale says.

“It’s telling the truth, and it’s also giving people an opportunity to have a discussion around facts,” Hale said. “The goal is to start a community discussion.”

States, cities and universities across the country began debating whether to remove Confederate statues after self-avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine black worshippers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, during the summer of 2015. Roof had posted pictures of himself with a Confederate battle flag on social media.

A violent rally involving white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 added more fuel to the nationwide examination of Confederate monuments.

A few days after the Charlottesville rally, protesters sprayed red paint on Atlanta’s Peace Monument. Statues in other cities have also been vandalized in recent years.

One hope in Atlanta is that adding context in the form of the markers “will take some of the oxygen — the accelerant — out of the room” and make it less likely that statues will be vandalized, Hale said.

Another of the new Atlanta markers will be placed near a monument erected in 1935 to commemorate the Battle of Peachtree Creek. It notes that the statue’s inscription describes the U.S. after the Civil War as “a perfected nation.”

“This ignores the segregation and disenfranchisement of African Americans and others that still existed in 1935,” the marker states.

Other Atlanta markers will be placed near two monuments in the city’s historic Oakland Cemetery: The “Lion of Atlanta” monument and the Confederate Obelisk.

The Atlanta History Center has developed a Confederate Monument Interpretation Guide to add historical perspective to such statues, Hale said. He’s hoping Atlanta’s efforts to add context can be used to guide other communities as they decide whether what to do with their own monuments.

“I think in a lot of cases once people see the power of contextualization, some people might decide they’d like to keep them there as a way to show how far we’ve come, or the journey that we’ve had, and explain what was going on at the time they were erected,” Hale said.

Source: Atlanta Will Add Context About Racism to Historic Monuments

Singapore — history haunts the ultra-modern state

Nice long read, similar to some of the debates regarding Canadian historical features:

From Cape Town to San Francisco, cities have been toppling monuments to historical figures with troubling legacies. In Singapore, authorities have opted for a more genteel way of dealing with the statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the British colonialist who in 1819 chose the tiny island as the East India Co.’s new regional base.

They are diluting the imperialist’s prominence by erecting for the year four new statues of Asian pioneers near Raffles.

The government is commemorating the bicentennial of Raffles’s landing with a yearlong pageantry of exhibitions, essays and events (there may even be a national election).

It is a means to interrogate Singapore’s rich but oft-overlooked pre-independence history. Yet the process involves risks — it exposes some inherent contradictions about a global city’s identity, as interpreted by a heavy-handed state.

Compared with India and most other former British colonies, independent Singapore has always had a romantic view of colonialism. The country’s most famous hotel and school are named after Raffles. In 2015, when UNESCO designated Singapore’s Botanic Gardens as the country’s first and still only World Heritage site, it was remarkable because rarely does a post-colonial state nominate a colonial landmark rather than an indigenous relic.

Four statues of Asian pioneers were erected near Raffles in January. (Courtesy of Singapore Bicentennial Office)

Colonialism’s Singaporean fans suggest that the modern city has thrived partly because of its legacies, including the English language, common law and the port, still one of the busiest in the world.

Critics say that colonialism was fundamentally corrupt and exploitative, pointing to some debilitating vestiges of the era, such as lingering racial biases and a neoliberalism that excessively benefits the owners of capital and land at the expense of workers.

Three of the four pioneers whose images now grace the new plinths thrived under British rule in the 1800s. They are Munshi Abdullah, a Malay-language author and translator, who was of Arab-Tamil ancestry but was accepted into the Malay community; Indian businessman Narayana Pillai; and Chinese merchant Tan Tock Seng.

The fourth is Sang Nila Utama, a visiting Srivijayan prince who in 1299 bestowed the Sanskrit name Singa-pura, or lion city. His inclusion reflects a grander aim. Singapore is using the bicentennial not simply to reconsider its colonial past, but to stretch its history back by a further 500 years. Singapore’s popularly recognized history is, in other words, going from two centuries to seven. A society hitherto obsessed with the future is waking up to the power of the past.

As somebody born into an ethnic Indian family and brought up in Singapore in the 1970s, I see this as an ambitious effort that could help Singaporeans, often caricatured as unmoored economic digits, better understand our place in this world. It will, for one, serve as a reminder of Singapore’s centrality to the Malay world, and Southeast Asia at large.

That could in turn prompt further scrutiny of The British Empire. For even if Singapore’s colonial experience was relatively mild, horrors were never far away. In 1812, for instance, Raffles led British and Indian soldiers in a violent sacking of the royal palace of Yogyakarta (some of his spoils are on display at an even-handed new exhibition at Singapore’s Asian Civilizations Museum, held in conjunction with the British Museum).

Meanwhile, even as merchant Pillai was moving to Singapore with Raffles and building a successful career under the British, thousands of his fellow Tamils were being indentured by the British for backbreaking work on plantations in Fiji, Mauritius and Malaya.

Singapore, then, as a trading hub of the British Empire, was the varnished administrative center, a glittering front that sheltered its inhabitants from tragedies elsewhere.

Today, Singaporean society is coming to terms with its potential complicity in contemporary global nefarious activities. This includes serving as a corporate hub for unscrupulous palm-oil companies engaging in land grabs in Indonesia; a transshipment point for the illegal trafficking of humans and wildlife; and a tax haven for multinationals and millionaires alike. “The Switzerland of the East” is growing a conscience. A broader understanding of Singapore’s role in the British Empire’s global network will help in that maturation.

Critics wail that the bicentennial pomp is nothing but a cynical ploy by the ruling People’s Action Party to energize citizens ahead of a possible general election. Yet it is not clear how a richer historical appreciation might affect the PAP’s modern standing. The PAP’s enduring creation myth is that it miraculously transformed Singapore from a “fishing village” in the 1960s to a modern metropolis by the 1990s. “From swamp to skyscrapers,” screamed a fawning BBC tribute to Singapore in 2015, on the anniversary of its independence.

Yet just months after Raffles landed, people were flocking to the fast-growing trading colony. “Merchants from every country came to trade,” wrote Abdullah of early 1800s Singapore. “But they did not care so much to do business as they did to see the new town.”

St. Andrew’s School, which I attended, was founded in 1862. In the 1950s, Singapore was already no swamp but one of Asia’s most well-developed and multicultural cities.

The bicentennial commemorations should finally bust the fishing village myth, indicating that the PAP in 1959 took over a bustling, multicultural port well-positioned to capitalize on East Asia’s industrial boom. This could rub some of the sheen off the party’s (nonetheless impressive) legacy.

Any reassessment of colonial misdeeds could also lead to an exploration of potential post-colonial injustices, most notably the numerous alleged communists imprisoned without trial by the PAP, in an intermittent campaign (inherited from the British) that lasted from the 1960s well into the 1990s, when the last prisoner was released. For the PAP, it may be tricky urging the electorate to scrutinize only the British legacy — but not its own.

The new statues are also a reflection of the PAP’s dogmatism in codifying identity and organizing society through an unchanging racial lens, known colloquially as CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian, others). In a system derived from colonial-era classifications, every Singaporean is ascribed by age 15 one of the four “races,” which then determines what second language the person can learn in public school and in which neighborhood they can purchase public housing, among other things.

The four pioneers chosen each belong to one of the three major ethnic groups in the country while Raffles himself is the representative of that amorphous “others” category, which includes everybody from Armenians to Yemenis.

It is a reminder that state-ordained representation was a bigger consideration in erecting the four states than fame. After the unveiling in January this year, Singaporeans rushed to Google “Munshi Abdullah” and “Narayana Pillai,” the respective Malay and Indian figures we now have to commemorate. Few knew who they were.

Yet any effort to comprehensively represent identities in a global city is doomed to fail. Almost immediately, women complained about their exclusion from the all-male statuary. Today, Singapore is home to scores of ethnicities, each splashing their own color onto the city’s always-somewhere-between-Asia-and-the-West palette.

Moreover, the multicultural dogmas of CMIO do not gel with the reality of Chinese predominance, say critics. The PAP recently chose its next leader — and thus Singapore’s probable next prime minister — from a longlist comprised of six ethnic Chinese men. (Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the immensely popular Indian deputy prime minister, was the notable exclusion).

Singapore’s stated immigration policies, meanwhile, give preference to ethnic Chinese migrants to ensure the group always retains its supermajority, currently over 70% of the population of 5.5 million.

All of this reflects the ethnic determinism of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, who said that Singapore’s success was due to the fact that the majority of its people are Chinese who are “practical,” in contrast with Indians, who “believe in the politics of contention.” He separately noted that Malays are “not as hardworking and capable as the other races.”

Under the British, Singapore thrived as a free port where, as evidenced by Abdullah, Pillai and Tan, a person of any color could succeed — as long as they did not challenge white rule. The PAP is, in some ways, the colonialists’ natural successor.

Ethnic nationalists everywhere might draw succor from the paradox of a global city run meticulously along racial lines by a dominant group.

Nevertheless, history is not destiny. Many younger Singaporeans yearn for the day when race and gender (and sexual orientation) no longer matter, and society strives to protect the downtrodden as much as it elevates the elites.

If and when that comes, perhaps Raffles will be joined not by just four other men on the Singapore River but by dozens of figures representing the city’s many hues.

Source: Singapore — history haunts the ultra-modern state

Fact-checking immigration: Boustan uses big data to explore myths about the past

Some interesting work here:

“When the horns started to blow and we saw the Statue of Liberty, I thought I was in heaven. Really. She’s up there and saying, ‘Come on in. From now on you are a free person.’”

These are the words of Turkish immigrant John Alabilikian, who came to the United States in 1922, collected by the Ellis Island Foundation in 1985 as part of its oral history library. In his interview, Alabilikian described escaping the Armenian genocide and journeying to America.

Personal anecdotes like these serve as a rich source of data for economist Leah Platt Boustan, who brings modern statistical analysis and big-data tools to the study of historical events and trends. With the recent digitization of first-person accounts and other documents, Boustan can uncover insights from people’s personal experiences in ways previously not possible. “It’s almost as if we can conduct surveys of people who lived in the past,” she said.

Statue of Liberty with quote from Leah Boustan, Professor of Economics; “Many people imagine that [19th-century] immigrants from Europe very quickly climbed the economic ladder and adopted U.S. behavior norms, and that immigrants today are slower to do so. That’s not the case.”

Boustan, who joined Princeton as a professor of economics in 2017, has an impressive record of proving and disproving ideas that people believe based on anecdotes or “gut feelings.” In the past, economists and historians had few data tools, but with today’s powerful computers and mathematical approaches, historical perspectives can be tested against hard numbers.

“Often what we think we know, we don’t really know,” Boustan said. “If you start to introspect, and ask, ‘Where do my beliefs come from?’ you might realize they come from your family’s experience or from relatively few anecdotes. We rarely test our beliefs with thousands of cases.” Boustan tries to rediscover that lost nuance, giving economists and historians a statistical footing for their research.

One of the questions Boustan has tackled is the issue of “white flight.” Between 1940 and 1970, white Americans left cities in large numbers, but historians have debated whether this exodus was motivated by the desire to pursue opportunities in suburbs or because of an influx of black Americans. Boustan’s analysis, published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in 2010 when she was on the faculty at the University of California-Los Angeles, suggests that both were true.

Another of Boustan’s recent projects is on the age of mass migration, a period from around 1850 to about 1920, when more than 30 million Europeans moved to the United States. Working with longtime collaborators Ran Abramitzky at Stanford University and Katherine Eriksson at the University of California-Davis, and with support from the National Science Foundation, Boustan compared historical data to today’s records, asking: Are immigrants today assimilating more slowly than they did in the past?

“Many people imagine that immigrants from Europe very quickly climbed the economic ladder and adopted U.S. behavior norms, and that immigrants today are slower to do so,” Boustan said. “That’s not the case.”

Crowds on 19th century immigrant ships

Leah Boustan, professor of economics, uses digitized historical records and other sources — like this 1906 photograph of immigrants on an Atlantic liner — to give researchers a statistical footing for studies on immigration, past and present.

Prior work suggested that European immigrants during the age of mass migration were paid less than native-born workers upon first arrival, but then quickly caught up. Boustan and her collaborators tracked the occupations of 21,000 natives and immigrants over two decades, and, in work published in 2014 in the Journal of Political Economy, showed that this common wisdom does not fit the facts in two different ways. Many recently arrived immigrant groups did not have lower earnings than natives and, overall, the income of immigrants and natives rose at close to the same rate.

Slow rates of economic assimilation are consistent with the experiences of recent immigrants, according to studies by other researchers, Boustan said. “There is nothing special — or necessarily alarming — about economic convergence that takes more than one generation,” Boustan said. “We have been there before.”

One measure of cultural assimilation that Boustan looked at was how immigrants named their children. Because selecting a child’s name costs nothing, and thus is independent of socio-economic status, Boustan argued that names indicate a family’s eagerness to adopt American culture. In work supported by a grant from the Russell Sage Foundation, she and her colleagues used millions of entries from recently digitized census records to calculate a “foreignness index” for each name in the early 1900s. She conducted a similar exercise using birth certificate records from California today. In both cases, she found that immigrants shift away from foreign-sounding names as they spend more time in their adopted nation, and at the same rate.

“What was striking about those two sets of analyses — the past and present — is that the speed of cultural assimilation, by this measure, is almost identical in the past and present,” Boustan said. The study is detailed in an NBER Working Paper posted in July 2016.

Boustan’s work is part of a growing trend in economics toward harnessing large data sets to explain historical observations, said her colleague and former mentor, Henry Farber, Princeton’s Hughes-Rogers Professor of Economics. Farber met Boustan when she was an undergraduate at Princeton in the late 1990s. Boustan later earned a Ph.D. at Harvard University in 2006 and then became a professor at the University of California-Los Angeles.

Today, Boustan’s office is only a few doors down from Farber, who is next door to his own dissertation adviser, Orley Ashenfelter, the Joseph Douglas Green 1895 Professor of Economics — three generations of empirical economics in one hallway. “Princeton is lucky to have her on the faculty,” Farber said.

Boustan is also part of the trend toward increasing female participation in a historically male-dominated discipline. When a leading journal recently asked her how the field might attract and train more women, she was caught off guard. “I realized that I didn’t know much about the overall situation of women in economics — I only knew anecdotes from my personal experiences,” Boustan said.

So she began investigating the problem with her characteristic big-data approach. “It is a very important question, and the best way to work on big questions is to take a look at the data,” she said.

She paired with graduate student Andrew Langan to collect data on the male-female graduate student ratios in economics departments at leading research universities and learn more about why some programs have more success than others in training women. Graduate programs in economics are on average 30 percent female across the nation, with some as low as 10 percent female and others achieving a 50-50 balance, Boustan and her team found.

“The average picture looks gloomy, but there are some bright rays,” Boustan said. For example, even departments with high numbers of male students and faculty can serve female students well if they provide opportunities for training and mentoring, they found.

Boustan keeps this in mind as she mentors and advises students in Princeton’s economics department. One advisee, Ji Won Choi, said, “I hope I can be an example, like Leah, for others in the future.”

Until recently, Princeton’s Department of Economics had few women in senior faculty positions, but the department has doubled its number of female faculty members over the past four years, said Janet Currie, the Henry Putnam Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School, who was department chair until June 2018. “Nevertheless,” Currie said, “we are not where we would like to be, and we’ll need continuous effort not to lose the gains we have made and to diversify the faculty and student body in other dimensions.”

With so many charged topics facing society today, from the equitable treatment of women in the workplace to the role of immigrants in building the nation, Boustan’s data-driven approach to controversial issues is more relevant than ever. To explain the importance of this work, Boustan quotes her former mentor, the Harvard economic historian and labor economist Claudia Goldin: “The best historical questions are the ones that speak to the world we live in today.”

Source: Fact-checking immigration: Boustan uses big data to explore myths about the past