It isn’t just Sir Henry who is in danger of being erased, 45 streets and statues have been either renamed or removed over historic slavery links. And it isn’t only links to slavery which are prompting name-changing. In north London, councillors in Haringey voted to rename Black Boy Lane in Tottenham to better reflect diversity. The road will become known as La Rose Lane after the poet and activist John La Rose, who co-founded the first Caribbean publishing company in Britain.
Why stop there? Queen Victoria was Empress of India during a time when the British were merrily looting treasures from the subcontinent — among them the Koh-i-Noor diamond and a white jade wine cup belonging to Shah Jahan, he of the Taj Mahal, currently displayed in the V&A.
Given the fingerprints of empire are all over British history — it has been estimated that the British looted £34 trillion in today’s money just from India — one could ask why we still have a Victoria Station, the Victoria Line or the V&A? I am not seriously proposing we rename any of those things.
I am in fact weary of our current obsession with reducing the complex into the binary, to turn everyone whether a historical figure, a politician or a celebrity into either a hero or a villain. History and life are not that simple. While it is laudable to honour the richness of our shared history, I am not convinced renaming every street that has links to an unsavoury aspect of British history is the answer. It also runs the risk that whoever any street is renamed after might be later revealed to be not be quite as perfect as we had hoped.
There was time not too long ago when Jimmy Savile was mostly known for his charity campaigning and Prince Andrew was regarded as a loveable playboy — imagine if any of the streets of London had been renamed after them. I found it rather telling that the name change of Black Boy Lane, which is estimated to have cost around £186,000, went ahead even though the vast majority of local residents, many of them from diverse communities, opposed it. La Rose’s family also objected to the name change, which they considered to be a waste of resources, disrupting to the local community and tokenistic.
All of this confirms my long-held suspicion that white liberals can be guilty of assuming they know better than ethnic minorities what is good for them. Education, not erasure, is what is needed. It helps no one trying to understand the present to whitewash the past.
In other news…
One of the saddest consequences of the post-Oscars coverage being dominated by Will Smith and Chris Rock is that it overshadowed what I thought was the most powerful moment in the entire ceremony. I am talking about Lady Gaga and Liza Minnelli, right, introducing the Best Picture award. Minnelli, 76 and shaky, was struggling to read the autocue when Gaga leaned over to whisper, “I got you.” It was respectful, supportive and kind all at once; the polar opposite of the ugly profanity with which Smith greeted Rock’s joke about his wife Jada Pinkett Smith. We all have a choice: to be like Smith or to be like Gaga.
It also made me wonder how the post-awards discussion might have gone and how differently we might now be feeling about Smith if, after Rock’s joke, he had leaned over and given his wife a kiss and supportive embrace and whispered, “I got you.”