On being ‘woke’, BLM, statues, history, birds, and Dolly Parton again

21 February 2021

I’m struggling with the description ‘woke’, and not just grammatically (using ‘woke’ as an adjective troubles me even though I realise it was originally a dialect or slang word used in African American communities).

I believe it originally meant something like ‘enlightened’ and was intended as a compliment to those who can put historical and educational conditioning and peer pressure on one side and deal with people as they are, but I’m not sure that people describe themselves as ‘woke’.  However, people on the right of the political spectrum seem to be using it as a way of dissing people who, either individually or in groups, are sensitive to societal prejudice and injustice;  and, in an attempt to distract attention from the government’s catastrophic mistakes in the last year, some Conservative MPs are trying to stir up a “war on the woke” campaign to defend things that seemed OK at the time but are now perceived rather differently.

It really took off last year when a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston was dragged into the harbour in Bristol as a side-show at a Black Lives Matter demonstration following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in America.

Colston is actually a good case to illustrate the complications of making incompletely-researched judgements about people.  He originally joined the family’s textile trading company then, in 1680 when he was 44, he joined the Royal African Company which had a monopoly on the west African slave trade and branded all slaves, including women and children, with ‘RAC’ on their chests. 

Colston made most of his fortune from RAC which transported about 100,000 people, some 20% of whom died on the voyage, to be sold in the Caribbean islands and America in his 12 years with the company.  In 1692, Colston left to become a money-lender and (briefly) a Tory MP but continued trading in slaves privately and died extremely rich (even after he’d given a large number of his shares to the king in 1689, presumably to ensure his continuing patronage and support for the R in RAC).

Colston then became known as a philanthropist, giving money to endow and support schools, almshouses, hospitals and Anglican churches in Bristol and elsewhere.  Some years after his death, The Colston Society, which later became a charity, was set up to commemorate him;  it was disbanded last year.

At the time, Britain thought it ruled the world and that other peoples and lands were there to be exploited, slave trading was ‘normal’ and companies like RAC even had royal charters.  What Colston did was deemed acceptable at the time and he did give a lot of money to ‘good causes’ in his later years so they named streets and buildings after him, and erected statues of him (although the one in Bristol that was removed last year was only erected in 1895, 174 years after his death and 30 years after slavery had been abolished by the 13th Amendment).

Now, in 2021, the empire’s gone and, in theory at least, all people are equal although your skin colour can put you at a potentially fatal disadvantage if you live in the ‘wrong’ society, and there are still far too many racists.

Questions now arise about whether memorials to people who would today be considered criminals should be removed, or housed in museums dedicated to their own particular crimes or, as the anti-woke people would argue, left where they are on the basis that they are part of our historical record (even though most of us accept that history books are written by the winners and are therefore entirely one-sided and that the history of, say, India is shockingly unbalanced as long as we believe in ‘the glory of empire’ and forget the tens of millions of Indians who died as the Brits stripped the country of its riches and subjugated its peoples)?

Should their earlier peccadilloes be ignored if people later spent some of their blood-money on ‘good’ things, whether they had developed a guilty conscience or they just liked seeing their names on streets and buildings? 

There are precedents elsewhere:  previous leaders’ statues have been felled in Russia, Saddam Hussain’s was pulled down in Iraq, there are no statues of Hitler in Germany and Austrian laws ban the use of Nazi symbols.  On the other hand, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen in America still visit statues of Robert E Lee, a traitor who started a revolution to defend what he thought of as ‘white supremacy’ (which is ironic – you only have to look at neo-Nazis and the KKK to realise that ‘white supremacy’ is an oxymoron with, in this case, the emphasis on ‘moron’).

Anyway, statues and memorabilia are just symbols and irrelevant to how we should treat other people, and we need to remember that some people can be nasty and some can be nice, but you can’t tell which they are by the colour of their skin or their ancestry.

We’re even getting precious about icons.  Think of the Charlie Hebdo murders which took place because they’d printed an image of Muhammad, which is forbidden by Islamic texts.  Or just last week, Rihanna was criticised for wearing a pendant of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha (who represents success in new beginnings) whose statues and images can be obtained throughout India.

Other – less contentious – things I learnt this week:

  • a northern mockingbird has been seen in Exmouth;  pictures were posted on – yes, you guessed it – Twitter
  • travelling from coast to coast by train in the north of England can take longer than going by train from Leeds to Paris
  • in Iran a married woman must get her husband’s permission to apply for a passport or travel abroad so Samira Zargari, coach of the Iranian women’s skiing team, will have to stay at home while somebody else takes her place in the world skiing championships in Italy
  • Nashville wants to put up a statue of Dolly Parton in the grounds of the Tennessee state parliament building;  she has asked them not to do this saying “I am honoured and humbled …[but] …Given all that is going in the world, I don’t think that putting me on a pedestal is appropriate at this time”
  • scientists at the University of Maryland have discovered how to make ordinary sheets of wood transparent
  • Heathcote Fabrics, a company based in Tiverton, developed and provided NASA with a new, exceptionally strong fabric which can withstand extreme heat and, after being tested in the world’s largest wind tunnel, was used to make the parachute that slowed the Mars rover Perseverance, which is the size of a small car and weighs 1 ton, from 13,670 mph (Mach 16) to a soft landing.

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