By Ebubechi Okpalugo.
Firmly nestled within the end of term buzz, ‘Making Rhodes History: Taking the Decolonisation Project Forward’ opened up a multi-faceted discussion of the legacy of imperialism, exploring, but importantly going beyond, Rhodes Must Fall Oxford (RMF). The eclectic voices of 6 panellists and one mediator ranged from a previous Rhodes scholar to the director of the Pitt Rivers Museum. The panel was chaired by All Souls student Max Harris, and took place at Christ Church college.
Dalia Gebrial, a PhD student formerly involved in the RMF Movement, began by acknowledging the term ‘decolonisation’ as a “buzzword in the student anti-racist movement,” and stressed the importance of properly defining the term, avoiding the risk of it losing its meaning. Dalia urged us to maintain a firm grip on the word, and ensure we are actively anti-colonial in breaking down the relationships which haunt and continue to uphold Oxford as an institution. However, because the university represents such a small, and largely culturally homogenous, part of the population, such discussions must transcend these spaces.
Dalia spoke powerfully about the statue of Cecil Rhodes above Oriel College, arguing that “the statue stands as a metaphor for the empire: situated on one of the busiest streets of Oxford but outside of plain sight.” She rejected the idea that the statue must be removed simply to create a safe space: its removal must be representative of wider change in the university. Arguments for the statue’s removal are often framed as welfare issues but this can backfire on the anti-racist aims which need to be at the forefront of the movement.
“Only a single sentence is devoted to the source of Codrington’s wealth on the All Souls College Codrington Library website page.”
Considering the Rhodes statue as an artefact, Professor Dan Hicks, an anthropologist at the Pitt Rivers, argued that we should see these objects as remnants of an unequal past, and that an understanding of this inequality must be foregrounded in the present. A twist on the classic ‘we can’t just tear down parts of history,’ comeback to RMF, Dan introduced the German concept of Mahnmal, describing a monument of shame. Mahnmal, often used in relation to remnants of the Holocaust, essentially means ‘be vigilant and don’t allow this to happen again.’ It contrasts with Denkmal, which describes a monument that recalls something positive. Mahnmals take on a didactic role; rather than just prompting remembrance, they serve as a reminder. Perhaps this is a way forward for the Rhodes statue?
The Codrington Library, housed within All Souls College, pays homage to its major benefactor, Christopher Codrington. Codrington, the inherited Captain-General of the Leeward Islands, gained his riches as a plantation and slave-owner. Only a single sentence is devoted to the source of Codrington’s wealth on the All Souls College Codrington Library website page: ‘His family wealth principally derived from sugar plantations — worked by slaves — in Antigua and Barbados.’
The third panellist, Michelle Codrington-Rogers, an Oxford based teacher involved in RMF, and a descendent of those enslaved by Codrington, discussed the relationship she has with his legacy. Michelle grew up in Oxford, in the shadow of the Codrington library, and was initially unaware of her personal connection. However, even when the information about her ancestry came to light, the door to the Codrington Library remained figuratively and literally closed to her since she was not from an academic family.
“The university’s exclusive admissions system, and the blocking of the general public from even walking around college grounds, upholds the systemic inequality upon which the library was founded.”
Touching upon the exclusive Townies vs. Gownies nature of Oxford, Michelle stated that as a working-class person in Oxford, she was more likely to know the porters, the cleaners and the cooks than Oxford academics. The university’s exclusive admissions system, and the blocking of the general public from even walking around college grounds, upholds the systemic inequality upon which the library was founded. Michelle argued forcefully that as a black woman, the door was doubly closed to her. Michelle’s complex and personal ties with a building built on the back of her enslaved family means that despite eventually being invited to speak at the re-opening of library, she chose not to go inside.
Michelle stressed the importance of involving those affected by legacies of imperialism in deciding how to address them, rejecting a narrative which lifts up the voice of the oppressors, while omitting those of the oppressed. She said that she chose to keep the name ‘Codrington’ for her ancestors that are nameless, holding on to her heritage to ensure that the next generation are aware of its collective history.
“So many of our children don’t know what colonisation is. How does one even start to explain decolonisation to them?”
Commenting on Dalia Gebrial’s point that these conversations need to be expanded to outside of the higher education system, Michelle explained that there are schools in Oxford who need to know what many of us know. “So many of our children don’t know what colonisation is. How does one even start to explain decolonisation to them?” She implored that we don’t wait for the people in charge to give us permission to teach the next generation about Britain’s imperial history, but to go out and hold discussions with the students who do not have the opportunity “to walk through that door.”
‘The Rhodes scholarship “does not buy their silence over the legacy of Cecil Rhodes.””
Another panelist, Ndoji Ndeunyema, is an MPhil student involved with Redress Rhodes, a group of Rhodes Scholars who have come together to engage critically with Rhodes’ controversial legacy. Redress Rhodes take part in discussions to make the Rhodes House a less degrading space for Rhodes Scholars, removing, for example, a toast to ‘the founder’, Cecil Rhodes, in the scholars’ annual dinner. After a Rhodes Scholar was accused of hypocrisy upon joining a RMF campaign, Redress Rhodes released a statement signed by almost 200 international students, saying that the Rhodes scholarship “does not buy their silence over the legacy of Cecil Rhodes.”
Ndoji pointed out, however, that despite the dramatic changes to the criteria for becoming a Rhodes scholar, and many recipients aiming to defy Rhodes imperialist intentions, the selection process is still distorted to favour people of privilege: the door remains closed to many.
“While in a toilet cubicle, he had overheard a young white man telling his friend not to drink straight from the tap, saying, “don’t do that – that’s something niggers do.”
Nadiya Figueroa, a Rhodes Scholar in 2007, is now the Dean of Scholarships and Director of Leadership and Change at the Rhodes Trust. She recounted three vignettes which highlighted the difficulties of living and working in Oxford as a black woman. In one, she recalled her boyfriend coming to visit her from the West Indies, and being shocked by the fact she didn’t enjoy living in the city of ‘dreaming spires.’ At a black-tie dinner, he returned from the bathroom ashen-faced. While in a toilet cubicle, he had overheard a young white man telling his friend not to drink straight from the tap, saying, “don’t do that – that’s something niggers do.” This incident made him realise the struggle it was Nadiya to just exist in such a stifling, colonised space. He expressed his pride in her, “for standing there.” Breaking down what explicitly makes Oxford unwelcoming, Nadiya highlighted the comfort in having people that not necessarily look like you, but recognise you.
A common theme to come out of the discussion on taking the decolonisation project forward was that we must ensure that the younger generation is involved, particularly through the curriculum at school and at university level.
“Laura agreed that, with some artefacts, it was the responsibility of museums to return stolen objects to the communities they were taken from.”
The director of the Pitt Rivers, Laura van Broekhoven, suggested that the museum could be used as a space for this teaching. Holding objects and collections which tell many stories, it must be a space for all individual voices to be heard. Often, however, pieces in the collection, such as the Benin Bronzes obtained through the 1897 looting and consequential demise of Benin City, have violent histories. Laura agreed that, with some artefacts, it was the responsibility of museums to return stolen objects to the communities they were taken from. At other times, she considered that the value of their use for educational purposes was able to outweigh claims to rightful ownership.
She acknowledged that some artefacts can signify the hierarchy that for a very long time has barred access for minorities, and argued that institutions must find ways to address these things if they are to be inclusive spaces. She offered the Pitt Rivers not simply as a space for teaching, but for protest.
The discussion ended with some questions from the floor. The contribution which resonated with me the most was the call for a renewed sense of urgency. Two years since RMF Oxford first met, the Rhodes statue still stands. The campaign is so much more than the statue – aiming to open up Oxford to discussions about race, fight for curriculum change and improve representation of non-white scholars and academics – but the statue can be seen as a physical symbol for progress. The question is, are we doing enough, and if not, what more must we do?