Thirty years ago, I spent a year in Minneapolis as an exchange student. For me it was a formative experience. An opportunity to live in a vibrant, progressive and exciting city. Skyscrapers, huge cars, baseball and all the other clichés of American life were there. I was impressed with its adherence to the Scandinavian roots of the city’s founders and I believed it was one of the most forward thinking of US States. More recently Minnesota elected Ilhan Abdullahi Omar to the House of Representatives, one of the first Muslim women to hold such office. Further proof to me that the city of Hubert H. Humphrey, one of the architects of the 1968 Civil Rights Act maintained its status as a city that welcomes all who seek to pursue the American dream.
As is so often the case, my illusion covered an uncomfortable truth. Somewhere well away from the experiences of a naïve 18-year-old something was rotten in this wholesome state.
Rather more recently I lived in the City of Bristol a place built on the profits of slavery (and tobacco). On my daily commute to school I used to pass the Empire Museum and the now toppled statue of Edward Colston. Another progressive city with an uncomfortable past. A place having to realise that there remains a discussion to be had about what should be remembered and how the experience of the many should be balanced with the fame of the few.
The College I attended as an undergraduate has embarked on a sometimes painful but frank discussion of its past and indeed the source of some of its endowment with current students and alumni. The past cannot be undone but it should be acknowledged. It most certainly should not be ignored. It cannot be rewritten. There is a rational discussion being conducted about the statue of Robert Clive in Whitehall, a man vilified in his own lifetime for his actions in India whose reputation was restored as a hero of empire by supporters in the early Twentieth Century. Whilst this school has no uncomfortable skeletons hidden in the closet of its endowment it, like all other institutions, should pause and reflect. We teach a history of Empire that reflects the brutal truth of exploitation and the industrialisation of slavery, it addresses the horrors of the Nazi death camps and the role of Empire in the world wars. We have a PSHE programme that both addresses and challenges injustice and intolerance. That we could do more is without question. But our diverse population is something that gives me hope that the wrongs of the past can be acknowledged and that our young people will not be condemned to simply missing inherent prejudice and discrimination. Our community is perhaps uniquely placed to answer the question posed by Darryl Davis: “How can you hate me when you do not know me?”
Before coming to Paris, I was the headmaster of a school in a tucked away and often overlooked part of the United Kingdom. It was a school with a long past; it was founded in 1379 with a continuous history of providing education to young people. One such student was Thomas Clarkson and his efforts supporting William Wilberforce in the anti-slavery movement are all but forgotten today. If there is a lesson we can take from the current wave of protest it is that this should be the start of a long, careful and mature debate. It should not be hijacked for photo opportunity or for commercial gain. A movement like this will not be sustained by black squares posted one day on social media but requires long term commitment, it requires education, it requires us all to pay attention.