After the May, 2020, killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, fire and vandalism swept the nation and the world. Those participating in riots alleged that America and Western culture were stained with white supremacy. Violence would even the score and purify the land. My liberal Facebook friends insisted to me, “It’s just property. Insurance will pay for it all. It will be replaced.” In fact it wasn’t just property; human beings, including African Americans, have died in these riots. I posted photographs of the victims. My liberal friends did not pause to type a word of mourning or second thoughts about the price of civil unrest. As Grigory Zinoviev says in the 1981 movie, Reds, the revolution is a train. It stops for no one, not even those accidentally crushed on the tracks.
Unable to convince my liberal friends that innocents don’t deserve to die in riots, even those prompted by understandable outrage, I tried a different tack. On my Facebook page, I posted a photograph of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial in Washington, DC. The photo is dramatic and inspirational. Roiling, blue-black twilight clouds provide King’s backdrop. Two white visitors, dwarfed by King’s thirty-foot height, gaze up at him worshipfully. Dramatic lighting casts a golden glow on the statue and on King’s words on surrounding walls. One inscription reads, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” An American patriot cannot look at this photo of this “mere property; easily replaced” and not be moved.
Again, on my Facebook page, underneath this photo, I wrote, “Breaking news. Vandals have attacked the MLK monument. They spray-painted ‘pig’ and the f-word. Any restoration will take a great deal of time, money, and effort. The statue will never be the same. People who love this monument and all it represents are heart-broken. Harder to repair than the monument will be fellow-feeling, and social trust.”
Suddenly people who had been insisting that “mere things” can be “easily replaced” and that the destruction of “only property” posed no long-term threat to civil society were hyperventilating and pressing the panic button.
I explained. No, no one had vandalized King’s statue. In fact, it was the Washington, DC monument to Tadeusz Kosciuszko that was defaced with a spray-painted pig and the f-word. Kosciuszko was a Pole. Poles are Slavs, and Slavs gave the world the word “slave,” because so many Slavs were enslaved in the classical and medieval worlds, under middle-eastern Muslims as well as Europeans. Slavs were especially cherished in Muslim Spain, that very “paradisiacal” Al-Andalus called by some Islamophiles “The Ornament of the World.” Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the man in the defaced statue, was one of a long line of Poles who devoted his life to fighting for freedom. He designed West Point. He left money in his will to purchase freedom for American slaves. He argued against slavery with Thomas Jefferson. He granted civil rights to Polish serfs. Booker T. Washington, born a slave, traveled to Poland to research how Polish peasants, freed from serfdom only decades before his visit, were faring. Washington hoped to find, in the fate of former Polish serfs, insight on how to uplift African Americans. He wrote of this research in his 1912 book, The Man Farthest Down. Poles were most recently enslaved between 1939 and 45, under the Nazis, who declared Poles fit only for slavery and genocide. One of my friend’s parents were Polish slaves.
I present to you, dear reader, in rat-a-tat-tat fashion, all these facts about Poles and Kosciuszko so you might get a sense of why Black Lives Matter activists spray-painting a pig on his statue is, to me, something more than about “just things.” As it would have been more than about “just things” had someone done to MLK what they did to Kosciuszko.
So, yes, I said, on Facebook, the vandalism of the Kosciuszko statue in Washington, DC by George Floyd demonstrators broke my heart, and changed my soul. I will never forget it, and it would take a lot to heal the rent this vandalism created. The things human hands, and human societies, create, are never just things. These things are reflections of human hearts and minds. When these things are purposefully destroyed, something in the human heart of the creators echoes back that destruction, and breaks as well. Those broken hearts may never recreate the things destroyed. Witness Detroit, Newark, and Camden. The things that once constituted these cites are gone, but so are the minds and hearts that created those things. Those minds and hearts were chased, and escaped, and never returned.
The things humans chose to defile and desecrate, like the things humans choose to create, are never just things. A Kosovar urinating in a Serbian Orthodox church is never “just relieving himself.” A Nazi using a Jewish tombstone to pave a road is not merely addressing transportation needs. When Hitler’s defeat was imminent, and he was raiding classrooms and old-age homes for the few remaining German males he hadn’t yet drafted into military service, the Nazis devoted energy to destroying libraries, churches, museums, and, indeed, the statues of national heroes, in Warsaw. All these “things,” and, indeed, defeated Warsaw itself, were of absolutely no military significance. The Red Army was watching just across the River Wisla and would soon cross and crush the Nazis. Chinese communists reducing to ruin thousands of Buddhist monasteries in Tibet, the Taliban bombing the Bamiyan Buddhas – to depict these acts as “merely” doing away with “just things” “that can be replaced” is hopelessly divorced from the full meaning of the word “human.”
Nor should anyone scoff that an American shopping center would be counted when invoking ancient Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. Shangri-la is nice, but most people get their daily fix of pleasure, contact, bonding, meaning, and that Pachelbel sense of “God is in his heaven and all is right with the world” in their favorite coffee shop, or the hole-in-the-wall that makes great sandwiches. We know the names and the faces in our neighborhood saloon, and those names and faces know us. We are woven into life in quotidian exchanges, the giving of a ten, the receiving of change, the “Have a nice day,” and that delicious first bite. The photos of a newborn, or a golden retriever, behind the cash register. We ask; we are told, “That’s my youngest. She graduates today. Time moves so fast.” That, not Andrew Marvell’s classic text, is the memento mori mortality poem that most of us will read in any given day.
There is, too, the inescapable smell of human habitations; these smells wrap us like intimate, sensual cloaks, redolent with the biology that civilization demands we otherwise suppress. I would give much to smell oskvarky, potatoes, and cabbage cooking up in my mother’s kitchen, and, of course, I never will again. What time robs from us patiently, fire snatches before we can react and rescue. Fire’s spiteful rage takes the scent of a place first, and permanently, and replaces it with a cold precursor to the dirt of open graves. The once homey scent of now burned and looted places; the camaraderie of the clientele: all that is gone now. Gone up in flames, flames meant to be purifying, flames meant to bring justice. Wicked flames, apart, in a different family, a different species, from the discovered flame that separated our ancestors from surrounding animals, the flame that cooks and nourishes; riot flame warms no one; it only destroys, reduces to ash, terrifies animals; it is a petty, spiteful flame no less cannibalistic than the Red Guard’s bayonet slashed across a world-class Tibetan thangka depicting Manjushri destroying ignorance.
Oh, and by the way. If you continue to object to my placing the neighborhood saloon in a city where a cop killed a black man cheek-by-jowl with a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. If you can get dewy-eyed over the monastery, but not over the saloon. Some call pre-Chinese-occupation Tibet a feudal, indeed, a slave society. The Guardian – who else – wants us to know that sexual abuse was practiced in monasteries. Does that justify China’s cultural genocide? China says yes. I say no. I’ve met too many Tibetans, and I love their art too much. Tibet could have been improved without mass destruction.
Okay. We can agree to weep for Tibet’s lost monasteries, and maybe one Minneapolis saloon, but what about the really bad stuff protesters have destroyed?
Ah. There it is. We will destroy only the bad stuff.
In June, 2020, George Floyd protesters in Bristol, England, tore down a statue to Edward Colston. They threw the statue into Bristol Harbor. Edward Colston is a name unknown to most Americans. The American press told us that this British man was a slave-trader.
Why erect a statue to a slave-trader? You have to ask that question, and not passively accept what you are told.
A quick Google search informed me that Edward Colston was a merchant who began by trading in cloth, wine, and fruit in Spain and Portugal. When he was 44, he entered the slave trade. Further, “Colston supported and endowed schools, almshouses, hospitals and churches in Bristol, London and elsewhere. Many of his charitable foundations survive to this day … David Hughson writing in 1808 described Colston as ‘the great benefactor of the city of Bristol, who, in his lifetime, expended more than 70,000 £ in charitable institutions.'”
You may be thinking, “Who cares if he gave all that money away in charity? He made money by trafficking in slaves.”
Yeah, I thought the same thing.
And I thought of something else, as well. I thought of Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie began life very poor. He was the wealthiest man in the world, or said to be, when he died. Carnegie was very philanthropic. Where did he get all that money?
Off the backs of largely Eastern European immigrants, many of whom were liberated from serfdom at the same time that Carnegie made his first big investment in the Columbia Oil Company. These were barefoot, desperate, hungry immigrants. Henry Glassie, who studied their quarters, discovered that they had less living space than American slaves, and that they died younger than slaves from things like amputated limbs and lung damage. They were beaten and shot when they struck for better conditions. In describing the suppression Carnegie and his fellow industrialist, Henry Clay Frick, visited on strikers, Carnegie’s biographer wrote, “Frick had … been unfortunate in the type of workmen with whom he had previously dealt. The Hungarians, Slavs, and Southern Europeans of Connellsville were a savage and undisciplined horde, with whom strong-arm methods seemed at times indispensable.” Other industrialists were equally brutal. During the 1915-16 Bayonne refinery strikes, Standard Oil’s manager announced, “I want to march up East 22nd street through the guts of Polaks.” No one is tearing down Carnegie Hall or the Frick Museum. No one is torching the Alhambra, in Grenada, site of a slave market fed by “long columns of slaves” arriving from Slavic lands. And I do not recommend this arson. The Frick houses a magnificent Rembrandt, “The Polish Rider.” Henry Clay Frick presided over the shooting of Polish workers, and his museum houses a Polish rider. I would bet that the Colston charities that still exist have helped people of color. I don’t live in Bristol, I’d never heard of this guy till his statue’s removal, and it’s not for me to say that the statue should have remained. I’m saying that this headline, from the Guardian, makes my blood run cold. “The Fall of a Statue and Victory for the Oppressed.” Oh, those glorious victories for the oppressed always stir my atavistic Eastern European impulses to check that my papers are in order, and that my suitcase is packed in case my door should rattle in the middle of the night with that heavy, signature knock of one of my liberators.
There’s a lesson that abused children learn, whether they like it or not. Life is complicated. It is difficult to separate the parent who tenderly taught you how to roll out strudel dough so thin you could read a newspaper through it, whose kitchen was fragrant with oskvarky, potatoes, and cabbage, from the parent who stars in your nightmares even decades after she is dead. Life is complicated, and maybe God made it that way. He did tell us, in the parable of the wheat and the tares, that it was not our job to separate the pure from the impure.
The destruction of Colston’s statue reminds me of another photo in the news. Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Steny Hoyer, and other Congressional Democrats donned kente cloth and kneeled to honor George Floyd. At least one African woman, Obianuju Ekeocha, lambasted the Democrats on Twitter for their cultural appropriation of kente cloth. “We are not children. Don’t treat us like children,” she said, echoing the words of Nestride Yumga, a Cameroonian-American woman whose epic rant begins, “Black Lives Matter is a joke! You are the racists! Why are you telling people they are oppressed? I am free!”
I do not wish to impugn the Congressional Democrats’ intentions in draping themselves with kente cloth. But here’s an interesting tidbit about that cloth. This cloth has more than a little in common with the Colston statue that was tossed into Bristol harbor. Kente cloth is the cultural heritage of members of the Ashanti tribe of Ghana, West Africa. The Ashanti “provided a substantial portion of European slave exports.” They were so well-integrated with their European customers that one king sent fourteen of his children to Holland to be educated, and Dutch representatives lived in Ashanti territory for “most of a century.” In addition to supplying slaves to European traders, the Ashanti had their own, five-tiered system of slavery. One tier: slaves used in human sacrifice. The Ashanti wanted to continue trading in slaves even after Britain outlawed it. The British sent military force against the Ashanti in this conflict over the British desire to end slavery. The British were defeated. British soldiers lost their lives fighting against the Ashanti over the Ashanti desire to continue practicing slavery. In 2010, Ghanaian President Jerry Rawlings apologized for Ghana’s role in the slave trade.
Kente cloth is still beautiful, and I will not soon be dumping any kente cloth into any harbor. I hope, till the day I die, to continue to apply the lessons I have learned in living under Utopians, like the Soviets, and reading about those wishing the cleanse the world of impurities and start all over, like the Nazis. Let me keep my impurities.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery.