Over the past four months my focus has been on all matters Heritage, mainly for academic purposes and outside the boundaries of my studies. I also spend a great deal of time on the inter-webs mentally travelling to different parts of the world in present day as well as through history. Another thing that may have contributed to my sudden awareness about all matters heritage and ethnicity may be the fact that I have been an ethnic minority for the past two months (not that this is a complaint in any way, but it has made me more aware of cultural differences and the manifestation of otherness). Otherness for me is having a different color of skin, accent, cultural background, religious background, nationality, palate and hair texture among others) There’s many similarities too! but that’s a topic for another day. I hope this is the last time I digress!
Something that has got my attention in more recent times is controversial national holidays and other aspects of heritage. For the purpose of this blog, my idea of heritage is something that a group of people hold as valuable and pass down from generation to generation. To narrow it down abit, I will be referring to ethnic heritage (Ethnicity is also taken as a fancy word for race). What do the Confederate Flag, Thanksgiving, Australia Day, Columbus Day, Allahu-Akbar and A Statue of Cecil Rhodes have in common? They mean different things to different people and this tends to cause anything between an all out conflict or anxiety on the other extreme.
Thanksgiving! Happy thanksgiving! Oversize bird! Turkey! Americans! Dinner! those are some of the buzzwords that pop into my head whenever I read about or hear about Thanksgiving. If film and TV are anything to go by, this is the time of year when American families come together and feast on a bird and other foods.
Traditional Thanksgiving Meal. Source
After a little scouring on the web, I got to see that the ‘official’ take of the holiday is to commemorate a great harvest experienced by the early settlers.
The First Thanksgiving?
The Native American tribe, the Wampanoag Indians however have a very different view of this holiday. For them it is a sore reminder of the decimation of their population. Theirs is a tale of betrayal by immigrants their ancestors welcomed with open arms. Recently they have been more vocal about this and as a result gather by the statue of Massasoit in Plymouth. Are the ‘Americans’ of today obliged to apologize for what their ancestors did? Are the Native Americans justified to hold this grudge passed down by their forefathers? Should bygones be bygones?
Since I started with Americans, it only makes sense to bring up Christopher Columbus. He discovered America after all, didn’t he? Some say he didn’t, some say there were millions of natives on the continent millenia before he arrived? If a tree falls in the middle of the Forest and nobody hears it, did it still hit the ground? Before I get overly existential, let me bring up Columbus Day. This is a holiday celebrated in the Americas to commemorate the arrival of Christopher Columbus on the shores of the Americas.
Columbus making a grand entry on the American Shores. Source
Columbus was an Italian explorer sponsored by the Spanish Monarchy. The holiday attributed to him has different Spanish variations in South American countries. Five centuries ago, Europeans landing on the shores of America were explorers looking for a way to India . The nature of their adventures and labeling of the natives as Indians is telling of how much they knew. Evidence of that chance encounter between Columbus and the continent has impacts that last to this day. the ‘Indian’ tag persists to this day. Second, and more significant is the fact that almost 80% of the people in the United States are of some European Ancestry. From a survivalist point of view, this is an incredible feat worth mentioning, Columbus day is done to commemorate the great migration and domination. Several Native American Tribal groups however see this as a reminder of the loss of land,life and dignity experienced by their ancestors by European Colonizers. This short clip samples some of their views. To them Columbus day is more of a slap in the face given the marginalization they continue to experience to date.
Controversial holidays are not just celebrated in the Americas. The whole reason I got to writing this blog was a write about this was a short documentary I came across. It featured the responses of aboriginals with respect to the subject of Australia Day. It too celebrates the arrival of Europeans, specifically the docking of British Ships in 1788. As of 2006 aboriginals made up 2.5% of the country’s population. If you made it this far in the blog, there is a high chance you know that they were the original/initial/native inhabitants of the Continent.
Artist’s depiction of British Settlement on Australian Shores..From Wikipedia
The dominant population of Australia as we know it today claims some form of European Ancestry. This holiday’s originated from the need by settlers to to celebrate the British victory in conquest. In more recent days however it has evolved into a national holiday celebrating the country’s diversity.
Australia Day, 2014. Source
Long before the official change in attitude, the Aboriginals had been subjected to disease, ethnic cleansing and forced civilization through the kidnapping of their children to be raised by white Australians. While the rest of the country celebrates, Aboriginals see this as a wicked reminder of the evils Aborigines before them were subjected to. Some members of this community call this invasion day. There have however been deliberate efforts to make reparations through a holiday they call “Sorry Day.” A conversation with someone from the land down under made me aware of this holiday. Also, an interesting look at what it means to be Australian.
Offensive Statues, Columbus and Rhodes
Other than national holidays, ‘civilized’ society makes use of statues to commemorate special events, in this case its heroes, through the use of statues. Personally, I’m a fool for equestrian sculptures,first because they are awesome and second, I get to show off a rare word. Statues are great in that they let present and future generations interact with a likeness of the individual being portrayed. There are about 600 statues of Columbus across the world, some of them in the Americas. In October 2015 someone decided he/she has had enough of the Columbus Statue in Detroit and performed an extremely visual vandalism job. I hardly think this was an overactive art critic.
Vandalized Statue of Christopher Columbus in Detroit,USA. From The Elkhart Truth
Cecil Rhodes is mostly known for his business and political exploits in South Africa. Another less pleasant tag to his resume is imperialist. His influence in the Southern part of the African continent during the colonial period was evidenced by two countries being named after him (for a while), and the Rhodes Scholarship applied in a more global context. Zimbabwe and Zambia were previously called Southern Rhodesia and Northern Rhodesia. There was also a statue of Cecil Rhodes erected at the University of Capetown.
The Cecil Rhodes Statue at University of Cape Town,South Africa.. From Wikipedia
Sustained demonstrations by the Student body and ensuing support from students from across the world. The movement spread to other institutions of higher learning such as Oxford University and Rhodes University. These protests took place under the tag ‘Rhodes must Fall,’ and the message here was a resounding rejection to the glorification of Cecil Rhode’s legacy of Imperialism. Imperialism that relegated black South Africans to third class citizens subjecting them to severe rights violations. The University of Capetown uprooted the offending statue early in 2015. In the case of Rhodes University, the process to change the institution’s name started. Opposition to the removal of the Statue was mainly voiced by members of the white Afrikaner minority who saw the defacement of a similar statue as a threat to their heritage.
The phrase “God is great!” will barely raise any eyebrows in today’s society…provided you say it in the correct language. Correct language you ask? Shout it in Arabic. The translation of this is الله أكبر or the more famous ‘Allah u Akbar!’ The context of this controversial cultural issue is however different in that it is doubles up as a war cry by Arabic speaking militants in various places where the ‘war on terror’ is being fought. Popular media is reliant on negative news and as such most of the portrayals of middle Eastern peoples is in war-like scenarios either as victims or militants. Fear mongering is also rife on social media and the combination of these factors have turned an otherwise innocent phrase into something bordering on a terrorist threat.
The Confederate Flag
What goes around comes around, my incorrect understanding of this cliche is to blame for my return to the United States where I started. The Confederate flag recently hoisted itself in conversations on news channels (and my head). There was basically a fight between those who wanted it lowered for good and those who saw it as an important symbol of their heritage. It is believed by some that one of the reasons the southern states wanted to ceccade was their intent to continue with slavery.
The Confederate Flag..from Wikipedia
While this remains to be debated, the flag the Southern States used during the Civil War has come to be seen as a symbol of racism mainly due to its use by white supremacist movements such as the (in)famous KKK. Some of the supporters of the flag’s usage have claimed that it is not a racist symbol. Opponents of the flag’s open display claimed that it indicted support for racist policies of the Jim Crow era and the lynchings in the early years of the twentieth century.
“One man’s meat is another man’s poison” i always wrote in my essays to appear well acquainted with the English language.As i grew older, the proverb’s significance also grew and evolved beyond matters food and poison. The scope broadened to pleasure and pain as broad contexts to explain the dichotomy in which the human condition often manifests itself in the human experience. Each and every human society has a history and heritage which they will often fight vehemently to protect. If your ancestors crossed oceans to an unknown land and managed to thrive, shouldn’t you be proud of that? On the other hand if your ancestors lost their right to the land on account of foreign invaders, aren’t you obligated to somehow protect their memory and recognize what took place too? The former situation has holidays, statues often upheld by the dominant majority.
Should the marginalized let bygones be bygones and join those their ancestors were unable to beat? Or should they maintain otherness by voicing their opposition to the reminders they consider offensive? The settlers in the Americas and Australia were what we would call today immigrants. Some of these countries have really tough immigration policies and given the actions of immigrants centuries before, such regulation may make sense as cleverly put by the comedian Trevor Noah in this stand-up routine.
I really don’t have a specific way forward. Kenya was a British colony and during the first 60 years of the 20th Century, many of our Streets and other places of significance to the public had British names. A good friend of mine tells me that the Brits did the same when they colonized Ireland, changing place names from Gaelic to English. Today most of these streets/schools/hospitals in Kenya have African names. My High School, started during the colonial period, was initially called the “Duke of York School” but I attended it as Lenana School.
I’m typing this post in English and that is sufficient proof that the Kenyans (among other Africans) didn’t get rid of all relics of colonialism. Only those that bothered the people. This begs the question about the controversies highlighted above. Perhaps the pain felt is not restricted to the experiences of those long gone. Maybe these symbols personify present day challenges that stop the aggrieved from feeling like they are part of the societies they live in.