Letter to Editor: A response to “airbrushing Harlow’s history”

Politics / Fri 12th Jun 2020 at 05:38am

Dear Editor,

‘I am writing in response to your article published on the 11th June 2020, titled ‘Opinion: Should we airbrush Harlow’s history?’ I hope that you will publish my response in full.

Firstly I think it’s important that we are really frank with ourselves that this is a necessary discussion to have. It is vital that a society can interrogate its past truthfully because, without doing so our progress is limited. Statues inevitably glorify the people they are of: if I put a statue of someone up, it’s because I think they have done something good and I want them recognised for this.

This debate emerges from the decision of protesters in Bristol to remove a statue of Edward Colston. This was prompted after a long campaign to have the statue removed by democratic means, consistently fell on deaf ears. It is incredibly important to see the context on this, and ignoring it really presents a narrow-minded view of the situation.

The decision to place sculptures in our towns or to name streets and buildings after individuals largely comes from our past, a time when the views of those who held power in society, and the subsequent decision making responsibilities, were different to those that they are now. As such, I really don’t see the issue in interrogating our past and considering what is important to us now. It is a process of looking at our past in order to build a better now, and a better future.

It is vital to remember this is a process of learning and building. So taking the example of Kitson Way that you referred to in your article: it seems reasonable to me that in the area it should be possible to commission some kind of public display which presents the history behind the individual the street is named after.

The Kitson’s – both David and Norma – were key individuals in the anti-apartheid movement but, as we are all well aware, the large majority of social change – from the anti-apartheid movement to the US civil rights movements, the granting of independence to the Republic of Ireland to the suffragette movement – has not been achieved by entirely peaceful means. There has to be a way of recognising the positive movements towards equality in society, whilst also talking about the journey of those movements along the way, and the oppressions they faced.

This, however, is different to the glorification of slave traders and violent colonisers. Seeing monuments – whether statues, documented histories or portraits – of these individuals is, as far as I’m concerned, an insult to those who suffered at their hands. There can be a place for such statues as they are our history, but they belong in museums where they can be viewed in context. Keeping these monuments on our streets, or these names adoring our buildings, is nothing short of glorifying their abhorrent behaviours.

For clarity, I do not believe it is right to compare those who worked hard for a fair society with slave traders. These are different circumstances and to not acknowledge so undermines the genuinely important discussions which will take place.

Whilst we need to interrogate the horrible element of our history, looking at the past and thinking about what we want our society to be like now and in the future, I believe it is completely inappropriate to compare this with the mentions of convicted paedophiles in your article. There is no place for this, and Harlow Council and Holy Cross Church both made the right decision in removing them from public display. You mention Germany: they are a brilliant example of a country that can recognise that fascism dominated their country, and that they don’t want it to happen again. They haven’t forgotten Hitler and all that he did, but are able to recognise that they refuse to allow it to occur again. This is incomparable to that of paedophilia and I hope to never see this comparison made again.

You ask in your article whether we perhaps may conduct a ‘moral audit’ into our statues and sculptures. Indeed the Labour Group at the Local Government Association has said ‘that they will listen to and work with their local communities to review the appropriateness of local monuments and statues on public land and council property’. Being a Labour run council here in Harlow, I have no doubt that we will hear more on this shortly which I look forward to. It is, and this I believe key, that a broad cross-section of the community are consulted on and drive the agenda as we move forward.

This is an opportunity for us to look at what we have considered important in the past, what we consider important now and how we can best look to make progress into the future. We live in a society which considers equality, diversity and representation key. But we know that isn’t always the case. It is best that we examine the architects of our past in museums, and think about who and what it is we want to hold up as important to us now.

Of course this isn’t as simple as removing some public monuments, or replacing the statues with those we may consider to be appropriate. Not once at school did I learn about Britain’s colonial history, nor the atrocities committed whilst building its empire. I didn’t learn about the slave trade, I didn’t learn about the Brixton Riots and I didn’t learn about the Bristol Bus Boycott. We have to really actively ensure our curriculums teach all of Britain’s history, not just the order in which Henry VIII’s wives were murdered, or the development of the canals in Old Harlow.

We have an opportunity to put our money where our mouth is here. And until we confront our yesterday honestly, it will be impossible for us to build a truly fair and equal society for today and tomorrow.’


Harry Tennison

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1 Comment for Letter to Editor: A response to “airbrushing Harlow’s history”:

2020-06-12 20:24:57

Really ?

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