Historiography is having a moment. We are, once again, trying to make the square-peg past fit the round-hole present.
Revising the past is a never-ending contest and pretty close to a cultural highwire act. It is often emotionally charged as anyone accused of revisionism can confirm. The passion behind some of those denunciations, the clinging to one orthodoxy or another, is as revealing as the need to reconsider a shared past can be pressing.
The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has provoked protests around the world. There is a sense that, 52 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King and 72 years after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, Floyd’s death is a turning point. There is renewed hope that the belief in the redemptive, empowering virtues of tolerance and inclusion might be in the ascent. Cynics might dismiss that as a mixture of optimism and revisionism but unfolding events suggest otherwise. That sitting Utah senator and former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney marched in Washington “to make sure that people understand that black lives matter” might not be seismic but it is significant. It is far more significant that Minneapolis City Council has promised to disband the city’s police department and that a “public safety” system will be established. That is in stark contrast to the “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” slurring from the White House. This, even if it is another front in America’s culture war, looks like progress.
That war continued on Saturday night when in Richmond, Virginia, the old Confederacy’s capital, protestors tore down a statue of Gen Williams Carter Wickham. Last week, protesters in Montgomery sundered a statue of Robert E Lee. In Nashville, a memorial to Edward Carmack was razed. In Birmingham, Alabama’s mayor agreed to remove a five-storey-tall Confederate statue despite a 2017 law that protects it. New Orleans may rename Jefferson Davis Parkway to honour Norman Francis, a civil rights leader. Expect more.
That purging came closer at the weekend when Bristol protesters pulled down a statue of slaver Edward Colston, a man responsible for tens of thousands of deaths. He epitomised the imperialist entrepreneur described by VS Naipaul in A Bend in the River. They, he wrote, “wanted gold and slaves, like everybody else”, but also “wanted statues put up to themselves as people who had done good things for the slaves”.
Tempting as it may be to imagine this as a remote, faraway issue that is not possible. Young Irelander John Mitchel, the author of Jail Journal and an enduring icon of Republicanism, vehemently supported the Confederacy and slavery. Two of his sons died fighting for it. Yet, his memory is kept alive in the name of many GAA clubs. There is a statue honouring him in Newry. In private correspondence with a Mary Thompson of Ravensdale, outside Dundalk, he asserted: “... would you like an Irish Republic with an accompaniment of slave plantations? Yes, very much. At least I would ... ”
Even if history is full of grey, contestable areas this is a simple, contemporary black-or-white choice. Surely, there is no place for indulging Mitchel’s racism in today’s Ireland?