Are these the faces of ‘Institutionalised racism’?

June 10, 2020 10:30 PM
By Peter Dobbs
Edward Colston Statue & Blacks Head (BBC)

Edward Colston (Bristol) and Black's Head (Ashbourne)

These are the faces of Edward Colston and a 'Black's Head' pub sign. Both have attracted crowds in the last few days and now their heads have been removed from where they had looked down on streets for well over a century.

The statue of Edward Colston was the target of those who felt that someone whose wealth was derived from the pain, suffering and death of countless African slaves should not be celebrated, even if his wealth ultimately benefited many Bristolians through philanthropy.

In contrast the Black's Head pub sign situated on top of a large gallows-like name board straddling the A515 in the Derbyshire town of Ashbourne, was 'rescued' by a crowd who feared that the District Council might remove their iconic sign. Whatever it represented (and many stories have been told about the Black's Head, some less credible than others) as far as they were concerned it was part of the town's heritage and it should stay.
Both these crowds appeared not to trust their locally elected representatives to do what they believed was the 'right thing' and inspired by their belief in their cause, they broke various laws (including many Health and Safety guidelines as well as social distancing) to achieve their goal.

The Colston statue and the Blacks' Head are very different in terms of artistic merit. Edaward Colston was represented by an elegant bronze casting erected in 1895 (more than 170 years after his death) and paid for by public subscription following a campaign by James Arrowsmith (a successful Bristol businessman who effectively invented the 'myth' of Colston the benefactor during the last decade of Queen Victoria's reign).
In contrast the 'Blacks Head' is a crude caricature of a Black-a-moor Head. Its shape seems to be more determined by the dimensions of readily available timber than on achieving a good likeness of a human face. It is possible that it was a replacement of the original more artistic structure erected in 1825 since some sources claim that a different shaped head is to be found in early photographs of the sign before about 1870.

What they both share is that many people, probably most people, who walked beneath their gaze largely ignored them and what they represented. They were aware of them and possibly knew something about what they represented but because they were such familiar landmarks both the structures and their subliminal message were largely ignored. Is this part of what 'institutionalised racism' means?

It is often the case that it needs an outsider's eye to identify the problems in a situation. A fresh approach with no preconceptions about what is appropriate will normally provide a valuable insight. Those who have grown up with an ugly pub sign or elegant bronze statue may not be the best people to judge whether or not it gives offence to others.

The Colston statue may be saved from its watery grave but I doubt if it will ever be restored to a place of honour. The fate of the Black's Head is still to be resolved - indeed at the time of writing it has not yet been returned to its current owners - Derbyshire Dales District Council. I trust the decision will be taken after allowing as many as possible to reflect on its merits with 'fresh eyes' and cool heads.