Recent calls for the removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs finds similitude, if not echoes, in University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Rhodes Must Fall movement which succeeded, as it were, in removing the statue of Cecil John Rhodes from where it had stood on the campus grounds since 1934. The legacies of both men strike another chord in the words of William Shakespeare, who wrote that “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”
Woodrow Wilson and our very own Cecil John Rhodes, one might say, were men of their time. Both were born in the middle of the 19th century, and while they came from two geographically disparate places—the former being an American from Virginia and the latter an Englishmen from Bishop’s Stortford—their dispositions and ideas about black people were congruent. Progressive gentlemen among contemporaries, both achieved acclaim even as their accomplishments depended on the sustained subjugation of people of color.
Today, the legacies of Wilson, Rhodes and other men like them are being challenged. In the US, for example, activists on the Harvard University campus are now challenging the continued use of the Royall family seal as the crest of Harvard Law School. The activists argue that Isaac Royall Junior and his family were slaveowners responsible for the torture and murder of dozens of slaves in Antigua in the mid 1730s.
So what, if anything, can this recent upswelling of protest in the US learn from South Africa?
The removal of names and the renaming of public places, streets and buildings has been a continuous project since the birth of our democracy (and downfall of apartheid) in 1994. Attempting to scrub a racist legacy from the walls of a country which was, for the longest time, under the iron fist of colonialists and their equally racist Afrikaner political progeny, is expensive business. But what is at stake, I think South Africa has finally realized, cannot be quantified in dollars and cents. The qualitative health of a nation, especially one that is still struggling to find its true national identity, must be prioritized over budgetary calculations.
The well-intentioned project of renaming has not been easy for South Africa and I doubt it will be easy for the US. And of course, we must be careful not to assume that one country’s struggles are the same as another’s—the historical specificities of America’s racial history are not the same as South Africa’s colonial past. However, there are many intersections between these contemporary challenges.
Above all, we must remember that despite what we might like to believe, history is not fixed. It is not final and for it to be credible and to reveal some crucial aspect of the human race, it must be constantly challenged, interrogated and transformed into something that closely resembles truth. I think the process of renaming is part of this project. It is, as a senior politics student at Princeton put it, about acknowledging history in its entirety.
In 1998, the South African government decided to help manage the national naming and renaming project under the guidance of “nation building.” This state-sponsored policy created a sense of order, and also a sense of permanence. With this permanence, South Africa could begin to restore itself and to heal in the process.
The project of renaming in South Africa was undertaken largely to restore the indigenous memory exterminated by the colonialism of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. This is not an undertaking to take lightly. The US, too, would have to acknowledge the scale of such an endeavor, while also acknowledging the role people of color have played in the founding of America.
Racism is an insidious cultural phenomenon, often disguised as something else. The impassioned resistance to the name changes at institutions of higher learning—bastions of progress and intellectual debate—speak to the superficial inconvenience of such changes, certainly. But more importantly, they prove how internalized these external forms of history have become. For those who identify positively with the legacies and personages of these men, revelations of racist baggage are difficult to comprehend.
To find some kind of middle ground each nation and its leaders must pour over their respective public legacies. In South Africa it has taken us nearly 20 (often painful) years to truly come to terms with this past. And yet, when the Rhodes Statue was taken down this past March, you could almost hear the country heave with relief. That visceral feeling of having just one more shackle loosened is invaluable.
The symbolic victory alone has bought the country a little more time to kick real transformation into gear. It seems the post-Ferguson US has reached an equally pivotal point—it cannot allow the concerns of protesters to fester. A few symbolic changes could go a long way towards creating an atmosphere in which the country has space to come to terms with its legacy—and how to rectify it.
Whether you’re black or someone who ”believe[s] themselves to be white,” as Ta Nehisi Coates writes in his book Between the World and Me, you are an American first. The call to rename and restore America’s racial past is therefore not merely a matter of black and white but also a project through which America might finally acknowledge its own history, without the whitewashing.