This piece is a rebuttal written as a response to the article by Professor Lea Ypi and published in The Guardian. Ms Ypi’s piece, entitled “By tearing down our statues, Albanians stopped learning from the past” discusses how the removal of Enver Hoxha’s statue in Albania did little to help Albanians deal with the past. Davey Joseph is an Albanian-American living in New Jersey, USA.
In her opinion piece, “By tearing down our statues, Albanians stopped learning from the past”, Lea Ypi makes some valid points. That said, there’s an awful lot missing from her analysis.
From my perspective as an Albanian-American and as a gay man at mid-life, the central problem with her argument, as such, is that certain blind spots may be keeping her from having a more global understanding of the situation at hand, which is nothing short of a Berlin Wall moment for the human race.
I grew up in a racially, culturally and religiously pluralistic society, founded by slave-trading, Native American-exterminating British colonialists. It was built on the ashes of 12,000 years of indigenous history, about which we know next to nothing today and of which there are almost no traces at all, apart from toponyms which we cannot understand. A substantial percentage of my fellow citizens are descendants of slaves.
My time as a volunteer at Newark’s LGBTQ Center a few years ago opened my eyes to a whole other world that was going on all around me without my even being fully aware of it. Actually, multiple worlds, as being introduced to Black LGBTQ culture shed light on an entirely new spectrum of experience about which I knew little.
I discovered heroes and history in the city of Newark for which no monuments were ever constructed but definitely should have been. I heard deeply painful stories of trying to reconcile faith, heritage and being gay in a culture which could be both hostile to and celebratory of certain types of difference. I discovered my privilege in greater depth and haven’t been able to look at my identity as a European-American the same way since.
I’m so deeply grateful for that. I’ve met an awful lot of people in Newark whose likenesses I’d love to see up on a pedestal for their contributions to daily democracy and human dignity. Particularly Reverend Janyce Jackson Jones, who took me under her wing at the Center and put me to work volunteering, which gave me instant purpose and community during a period of prolonged depression, unemployment and loneliness.
I personally do not mourn the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, or any such statue, as his legacy of inhumanity and white supremacist savagery is well documented and morally indefensible.
Whether his likeness winds up in a museum of some kind or as just so many belt buckles and paper clips across the globe makes no difference to me.
Perhaps the absence of this symbol will lead the good citizens of Bristol, the UK and the Commonwealth that much closer to a deeper reckoning with the role played by men such as Colston, who generated their privilege, power and wealth, on the backs of African slavery in lands which were aggressively invaded and exploited by Europeans.
As I watched Colston’s likeness plunge into the waters of Bristol Harbor, my thoughts went also to that heap of bombed-out Bristol on the East Side of Manhattan, which arrived in New York City in the form of ballast broken down from the rubble of homes destroyed during World War II. It is embedded beside the FDR and is called Bristol Basin.
I’d wager almost nobody in Bristol and few in Britain today know about this nondescript monument and its connection to the memory of the destruction wreaked by white supremacy and global fascism there.
Ms Ypi may not know that here in the United States, many of the statues now coming down were erected well after the end of the Civil War. They are situated in prominent locations in city squares and parks throughout the south. To white southerners, they were erected to commemorate, glorify and uphold what some see as their Confederate history and cultural legacy.
Yet, the Confederacy, which was supported by the British elite, was an enemy state at war with the Republic and the Union. As we are discovering, to our horror, some of its more ardent and dangerous 21st-century proponents have infiltrated every branch of government, law enforcement and the US Military.
We are reckoning with the calamitous fact that a white supremacist, largely Evangelical Christian and entirely fascist and corporatized world view informs our domestic and foreign politics and likely has for generations. To ensure that this remains the status quo, successive Republican administrations have availed themselves of multiple tools at their disposal, including, but not limited to, the Electoral College and gerrymandering, but also an economy entirely based on citizen-taxpayer subsidized cycles of lie-based war.
Much of this is detailed in three excellent books: Jeff Sharlet’s “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power” and Edwin Black’s “Internal Combustion” and “IBM and the Holocaust”.
While monuments can be important historical markers, I disagree with Ms Ypi that their toppling was a central reason the Albanians have not reckoned fully with their past.
Albanians have not reckoned fully with their past for the same reasons that no Balkan peoples have fully reckoned with their past and it goes much further back than the era of the Iron Curtain.
Whether they have made it into the EU successfully or not yet, the national mythologies upon which Balkan countries were built obscure the central role played by Bavarian, Austro-Hungarian, British, French and Russian operators behind the scenes, intent upon carving up and manipulating the spoils of the Ottoman Empire. Balkan countries still aren’t considered or treated as legitimately European and the saddest irony is that the people of the Balkans haven’t fully grasped the odd and inherently inhumane, racist reasons for which they were so easily manipulated into cycles of fratricidal and sectarian fragmentation and then into totalitarianism.
A broader understanding of how the Albanians, the Greeks, the Slavs, the Vlachs and the Turks, Christians, Muslims and Jews, evolved in relation to one another through time would dismantle many cherished nationalist myths about racial and cultural continuity and superiority. What would take their place is the strength and virtue of a common diversity and mutual, inherently intertwined destiny in Europe, rooted in reason and humanity
The peoples of the Balkans were set up by their overlords to act as lightning rods for expressing and acting out the strife rooted in deep insecurities of Germanic white race consciousness shared by Colonial Britain and a fundamentally flawed and deliberately distorted reading of the anthropology, languages and naturally interconnected historical narratives of the peoples of the region. A very neo-classical, romantic interpretation of the ancient past prevailed to the detriment of people like the Albanians, whose contributions to the Greek Revolution of 1821 and to the modern Greek ethnos are indisputable.
The Balkans are still referred to as the Powder Keg of Europe, but it wasn’t a name the people there chose for themselves. Nobody ever seems to trace back who’s been bankrolling the gun powder and who built the keg, much less who are striking the matches, but once we see that, we can’t un-see it.
Conspicuously absent in Ms Ypi’s piece about the importance of monuments is the way in which so many of them have served as weaponry for maintaining an ongoing state of psychological warfare and terror over Black lives, which predates the United States and has its roots in British colonialism. I believe the only humane and just alternative is to secure their removal from the public square and transfer to a national interpretive museum where they may be understood in context.
In the same way that there are interpretive centers about the Holocaust throughout Europe and North America, perhaps we could create a Trans-Atlantic Institute for Global Awareness and Healing from Patriarchal, White Supremacist Genocide.
In the same way that there are no statues of Nazi heroes standing in Germany, there should be no Confederate statues left standing in the United States of America and no slave trader memorials in the UK. Let there be no lingering doubt whatsoever over who was victorious in the Civil War, why it was fought, or the role of the British aristocracy in keeping it going.
Prolonging this delusion is not serving the human race and it is wreaking havoc on Black lives while upending generations of struggle for human dignity and edification. Ms Ypi may not be aware that recently, here in the US, there were attempts to revise textbooks in our public schools to present the Confederacy as something that slaves were entirely on board with and which gave them a higher standard of living. Concurrently, some textbooks were successfully rewritten to present creationism as a legitimate alternative to evolution for Bible-believing Christians threatened by science.
All around us, in every American city, town and hamlet and across the world, important debates are taking place about who we are in relationship to one another and to the past. We are even debating who “we” are. A lot of cherished national myths will not hold up to the light of day any longer. That is as it should be and I’m certain Ms. Ypi, as an Albanian in Britain, would agree.