Oxford University has no regard for black life

Also published on http://www.freespeechdebate.com

Since its inception Rhodes Must Fall Oxford has bent over backwards to accommodate Oxford’s ignorance. But the time has come to speak plainly. Oxford’s response to our campaign has been nothing short of shameful. Oriel College’s backtrack on a “listening campaign” and announcing in early 2016 that it would not remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from its prominent position overlooking High Street is only one example. In truth, the predominant response to RMF has been a knee-jerk scramble to defend nostalgic mythology.

Oxford University has no regard for black life. By that, I don’t mean it’s filled with people who make public racist remarks or openly profess the inferiority of blackness (though they certainly exist). Instead, I mean that the university displays a diabolical indifference to the past and present suffering of black people. This veiled racism is buried so deep that it masquerades as tolerance while retaining the effect of old-style oppression.

That’s the crux of this debate, not the ridiculous appeals to “free speech” or “historical preservation” that have characterised opposition to RMF thus far. Statues don’t enjoy free speech, and there is no inalienable right to immortalisation. RMF has never hampered anyone’s ability to disagree with us. On the contrary, we inaugurated the debate, before big money silenced it at the first indication we were winning. Therefore, the whole free speech objection is a red herring, and often a cloak for prejudice. The fact that many so-called “free speech advocates” have not criticised Oriel’s decision to trade money for debate also speaks volumes.

This is not to say that free speech does not enter into the debate. But, where it does, the burdens of the principle fall on the side of RMF, not its detractors. Students should be allowed to make calls for the removal of statues without being compared to Islamic State. They should also be allowed to protest vociferously on issues that affect their everyday lives. And they should not be threatened with expulsion just for raising views contrary to establishment orthodoxy. Members of RMF have also continually been on the receiving end of various acts of cyber hate speech. If free speech has been limited, it has been limited against RMF.

Second, how can RMF be accused of “erasing history” when Oxford itself refuses to mark the complexity of its own past? Our actions have been confused with damnatio memoriae when in fact we want Rhodes to be remembered. The question, clearly, is not whether Rhodes is remembered, but how. Our opponents, on the other hand, cannot explain why we should preserve a single and misleading narrative at all costs. We also should not draw a false dichotomy between historical preservation and ethical awareness: putting the statue in a museum achieves both.

When probed about what they mean by “history”, many of our critics actually reveal a deep ignorance of Africa, and Rhodes. What they really express is a desire to preserve infantile fables that reinforce their identities. History is not as simple or static as colonial apologists want it to be: removing the statue from its current position would itself mark the moment at which Oxford entered a more honest present. We should not be so overawed by history that we are afraid to make it. Beyond this, we are accused of wanting “safe spaces”, when Oxford remains a safe space for the old boys club that runs it. Here’s the ugly truth: Oxford is a safer space for a statue of Cecil Rhodes than it is for black students. The reduction of black vulnerability and isolation to a plea for “comfort” only further reveals the scale of the problem.

The facts are clear: over the last five years, Oxford only accepted between 19 and 30 black British students as undergraduates each year. That’s half of what elite private schools Eton and Harrow sent. In 2010, for example, 21 Oxford colleges did not accept a single black undergraduate. There are only a handful of black professors, only one of them senior. How can anyone not be struck by how outrageous that is in 2016? Why have there not been protests in the streets for decades? Because Oxford is dull to black life. Unable to cope with our sustained critique, Oxford’s senior leaders continue to deny that a problem exists, or tell anyone who raises the issue to “go elsewhere”. By calling for the removal of the Rhodes statue, RMF wants to show just how far Oxford will go to defend the indefensible. Just how unwilling it will be to look itself in the mirror. Just what reflexes still dominate its systems of power. Whatever happens with the statue, we have already succeeded.

By ending its “six month listening campaign” before it began, Oriel College may think it has won the battle, but it is destined to lose the war. Whether now, or in generations to come, Rhodes will fall. One day, people will look back on those who defended Oxford’s racist symbols as they view the dons who argued that women should not be allowed into the university. They will be laughed at like those who, in the 17th century, campaigned against the teaching of science at Oxford. We are not campaigning to be understood by the relics of racism that still live today. We are marking, for history to record, the moment when black students exposed Oxford’s persistent racism, and the imperial blind spot that enables it. And we are only getting started.

Monunents of Gratitude are not Facts of History 

Also published on http://www.consented.com

“The Library exists for students and researchers. Its name and statues reflect facts of history which, like the history of slavery itself, cannot be changed”.

This was the reply that Rhodes Must Fall Oxford received from British Economist, ex chair of the  Independent Commission on Banking and Fellow of all souls college Sir John VickersIt was in response to the demand that the college remove the statue of Christopher Codrington from the Library he funded, rename the Library, and set up a fellowship or scholarship within the university for students from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds to help amend for the literal enslavement upon which parts of the college stand.

Sir John Vickers also claims the college “actively seeks to remove or minimise disadvantages suffered by people due to their protected characteristics […] and in that spirit would very much welcome applications from candidates from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds.”

This seems disingenuous, as it limits applications for its prize fellowships to students who have already “matriculated at the University of Oxford”, a university which is well known for taking more students from Eton each year than black students and which, in 2010, admitted only one Afro-Caribbean student in it’s entire undergraduate intake.

Michelle Codrington, a descendent of one of Codrington’s slaves, certainly does not see the statue as a historical resource when she told RMFO in a statement that she must “confess that [she has] grown up in the shadow of Oxford University and yet as a descendant of slaves owned by the Codrington family [she] has never visited the library for many reasons. However, [her] ancestors toil and sweat was used to build a dynasty that has continued to be linked to education and learning.”

The college itself makes reference to the nasty nature of Codringtons wealth only once, in passing, and without condemnation, on the college website.

The only reference to Codrington to be found relays that the college received “a substantial legacy of £10,000 received by the College in 1710 from Christopher Codrington, sometime Fellow and governor general of the Leeward Islands. His family wealth principally derived from sugar plantations — worked by slaves — in Antigua and Barbados.”

Measuringworth.com tells us that, in today’s money, the real price of that “commodity” is £1,168,000.00, the labour value of that “commodity” is £20,460,000.00 and the income value of that “commodity” is £32,550,000.00.

A substantial amount of money whichever way you approach it. The statue itself, like that of Cecil Rhodes, is accompanied with a plaque which states (in latin) “Christopher Codrington, who built this library and enriched the books out of his will, A monument of gratitude for his spirit”, with no mention of slavery.

The_Codrington_Library,_All_Souls_College,_Oxford_5

Within this time frame, and in this area of the world, slave owners were not particularly kind to their “property”, and torture was a common form of punishment.

Antigua saw a slave named Hercules conspire against his owner, one Mr Crump,  in 1729. He was hanged, drawn and quartered, with three others burnt alive. In 1736, a slave called “Prince Klaas” attempted to orchestrate a slave revolt, Klaas, along with four of his accomplices were executed by the breaking wheel. Six slaves were starved to death whilst hanging from chains, with another 58 burned at the stakeResistance was not taken lightly.

It is in this environment that Codrington amassed his great wealth, and it is this very history which the name and the statue in Codrington Library do nothing to reflect.

Enslaved women were regularly raped and impregnated, meaning many British colonial families had two ethnic strands. It became common practice for one strand to remain in the Caribbean, while the other returned to Britain.

Codrington stands, glorified, at the centre of the library he built atop a column which stands as high as most men. He is portrayed as muscular, regal and European. By his feet lie books, representing the “generous” donation he bequeathed to the library, in his hand, what appears to be some type of scroll or sceptre, rather than a whip or set of thumbscrews.

The statue is, by all accounts, an embarrassing glorification of a slave owner. That it remains in the college in 2016 is in itself a disgrace, that Orders of theBritish Empire are defending it with reference to its historical accuracy is to add insult to injury.

Were Jewish students to be subjected to a towering statue of Josef Mengele, dressed in his finest Roman silks and gazing stoically into the distance as they study in their College Library, I’m sure the response would be different.

Of course, the situations are not quite the same as, as far as I’m aware, All Souls College has never had a black prize fellow. It has just benefited from the denigration, enslavement and death of black bodies. No wonder that when RMFO marched past All Souls college this year, they chanted “All white souls, No Black bodies”.

I do not use the term “death” lightly. We are often taught of slavery from the relatively benign perspective of North America, or of Britain’s “leading role” in its abolishment (ignoring the years of pressure and resistance from slaves themselves and focusing solely on the efforts of St John’s Cambridge graduate William Wilberforce) yet few people know of the Haitian slave revolt, or of how Brazil’s history as one of the longest and most brutal players in the transatlantic slave trade played a fundamental role in its status as both the second largest black population in the globe and one of the most unequal along racial lines.  

At times during the transatlantic slave trade countries such as Barbados were shipping in almost the equivalent of the entire population each year. Life expectancy of slaves in the British Caribbean was short, replacements were purchased on an annual basis. This, of course, refers to those who survived the voyage itself.

One recent estimate suggests that 12% of all Africans transported on British ships between 1701 and 1807 died in the “middle passage” to the West Indies and North America; others put the figure as high as 25%.

When Michelle Codrington was a child, her father received a call from All Souls asking if “as a Codrington” he wanted to donate to the Library to uphold the Codrington legacy. He did, of course, decline, but this anecdote is demonstrative of the type of history the college’s name and statute seeks to uphold, a history of benefaction and “generous” donations, rather than one of exploitation, slavery and death

This article is littered with facts that reflect the history of slavery in all its brutality, exploitation, degradation and hatred, the legacy of which can be seen today across the Americas and in the global racial hierarchy.

Sir John Vickers, however, seems mistaken about the history of slavery, believing it to be some sort of Greco-Roman bibliophile’s paradise despite the fact that slaves were often punished for trying to read, if the statue of Codrington is to be seen as authoritative. I can assure him that, in this matter, he is mistaken.

The college had the chance to succeed where Oriel failed and show humility, regret and sensitivity to this flagrant dismissal of the histories and experiences of black students. It failed.

All souls is revered for producing famed and prolific moralists and philosophers such as Isaiah Berlin, Bernard Williams and Derek Parfit. When dealing with its own sordid past (and present), however, All Souls College, Oriel and the wider university (when I raised the issue of the Codrington Library to Vice Chancellor Louise Richardson she defended it by means of moral relativism, claiming that “when slavery was happening in the American south, only about five people thought it was wrong”) seem to be – for want of a better word – soulless.