‘Rhodes Must Fall’ and Decolonizing Education

Cecil John Rhodes Statue Removal, University of Cape Town, 2015 (Flickr: Desmond Bowles)

Writing in 2006, the historian Manning Marable asserted that, “The Black public intellectual must actively engage the past in such a way that tends to obliterate the boundaries that appear to divide the past from the present, and from the future.” Central to the praxis of what Marable termed “living Black history” is the contention that the “powerful narratives we construct about the past have the potential capacity to reshape contemporary civic outcomes,” as well as the insistence that for those subjected to anti-Black racism, “the past is not simply prologue; it is indelibly part of the fabric of our collective destiny.”1

This pressing issue, namely the interplay between history and the ongoing struggle for Black liberation, is a central theme of the edited collection Rhodes Must Fall: The Struggle to Decolonise the Racist Heart of EmpireCompiled by members of Rhodes Must Fall Oxford (RMFO) — Roseanne Chantiluke, Brian Kwoba, and Athinagamso Nkopo — the book offers a transnational perspective on the Fallist movements that recently erupted on university campuses around the world. Chapters expose the imperial structures that gave birth to elite educational institutions, and which continue to inform the racist and patriarchal practices that work to protect white privilege in the university and in society more broadly. As the collection’s contributors make clear, at its heart, the demand to decolonize is about refusing to draw a line between the past and the present, it is about calling attention to the ways in which histories of imperialism and white supremacy continue to shape the world around us. As the founding statement of RMFO insists, “… for Rhodes to fall, Rhodes must first stand” (5).

The book explores the Rhodes Must Fall movement and the broader struggle to decolonize education in three parts. The first focuses on the voices of RMFO members themselves as they called for the removal of the statue of the arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes that still looms over Oriel College, while simultaneously demanding that the university confront the colonial ideologies that structure the institution. Section two, entitled “Sister Movements,” expands this analysis by examining Fallist campaigns beyond Oxford, in the UK, South Africa, and the United States. Part three explores decolonizing campaigns and innovative pedagogy around the world. The editors have skillfully brought together a range of voices, and while clear themes recur throughout the book, chapters are eclectic, taking the form of writings, speeches, interviews, poems, and song lyrics. This makes Rhodes Must Fall an absorbing read, while also ensuring that the personal experiences of those involved in various decolonizing campaigns are centered throughout the text.

Collectively, the chapters expose the racist power structures that are deeply embedded within educational institutions. This is starkly illustrated by the trade unionist and educator Michelle Codrington, who’s letter of support for RMFO’s March for Decolonisation describes growing up “in the shadow of Oxford University,” in the knowledge that the library of All Souls College carries the name of the man who enslaved her direct ancestors on a Barbadian plantation. The contemporary resonance of this history is made painfully visible throughout the book as contributors repeatedly call attention to the ways in which racism and hegemonic whiteness function to marginalize students of color. Julian Brave NoiseCat’s essay is especially revealing, recounting his experience of being confronted by a barrage of racist questions and stereotypes regarding his native heritage during the interview process for the Rhodes Scholarship. Imperial power and colonial “logic” continues to shape how we think about and experience education around the world, controlling access, limiting opportunity, and marginalizing diverse experiences. Indeed, as Chantiluke makes clear in an excellent piece that is sure to resonate beyond its immediate focus on secondary school education Britain, “To thrive in any way in the English classroom as a non-white student is to learn and manipulate the rules of a heavily rigged game” (296).

However, Rhodes Must Fall is as much about demanding justice as it is about identifying structural inequalities. As such, several pieces outline steps institutions could take when atoning for their role as key agents of slavery and empire. As Sir Hilary Beckles notes in his lecture on “Britain’s Black Debt,” “[Oxford] has an opportunity to turn its face against much of the evil that was created within the contours of its curriculum and the conversation in its corridors.” This, Beckles insists, would require educational institutions to “advocate for repertory justice” by committing resources and developing programs that actively grapple with these histories of oppression and promote structural change (72-73). The geographer Prof. Patricia Daley outlines what this might look like in her thought-provoking essay “Reparations in the Space of the University in the Wake of Rhodes Must Fall.” She argues that the university must move beyond the language of “diversity” by developing new “healing rituals that address the past … as well as the injustices of the present” and by establishing a genuine politics of belonging within institutions (87). As Daley concludes, this vision of reparations in the university demands “a recognition and acceptance of the multiple ways of interpreting and understanding the world” (85).

Finally, Rhodes Must Fall also serves as a vital document in tracing how change is enacted and movements develop internally. As a result, the book has plenty to say about the politics of solidarity. The editors have captured the global character of efforts to decolonize education, offering an insight into the transnational solidarities that connected Fallist movements. Rhodes Must Fall at the University of Cape Town — which directly inspired RMFO — is discussed at length. As is the emergence of the subsequent Fees Must Fall protests that followed the South African government’s decision to raise university tuition fees by six percent. Student protests in the US are also accounted for, with chapters covering Reclaim Harvard and Royall Must Fall, as well as an interview with Asanni York of Princeton’s Black Justice League. This last piece highlights the need for transnational dialogues around the issue of decolonizing. York notes, “Anti-blackness is global” and as such demands a global response. She comments the following:

… white supremacy is malleable and a fight has to be malleable and so the way we fight this at Princeton is going to be different to the way you guys fight Rhodes … accepting that difference and saying, “Listen, how can I be an ally to you, and how can I support you from where I am? How can I get my resources to where you are and you show me how to take the reins on that?” (225-226)

While it is inspiring to see these connections play out on the page, it’s important to note that these writings refuse to romanticize the politics of solidarity. Instead, contributors examine its limitations alongside with the political tensions that existed within Fallist campaigns. This is particularly pronounced when the gender politics of specific movements are discussed. The problem of patriarchy within activist groups is explored in detail, with chapters demonstrating how the failure to fully engage with intersectional politics could animate race, class, and ethnic tensions amongst campaigners. It is also apparent that the concerns of Black feminists were sometimes side-lined as movements developed. As Kealeboga Ramaru notes when discussing the development of Fees Must Fall in South Africa, “Black womxn and queer people had to deal with fighting police harassment and police brutality. They also had to contend with their fellow men comrades who refused to think beyond their patriarchy” (156). These painfully honest accounts are vital and should be read and internalized by anyone involved in campaigning for social justice.

As yet another racist Oxford graduate and cheerleader for empire has his go at being British Prime Minister, the arguments contained within Rhodes Must Fall couldn’t be more timely. Given his upbringing, educational background, and political outlook, Boris Johnson’s ascendency to power provides further evidence of the imperial forces that continue to structure national life in Britain. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Mitch McConnell’s recent facile dismissal of reparations for African Americans on the grounds that “none of us currently living are responsible” for the institution of slavery, provides yet another reminder of how the failure to engage honestly and critically with the past works to exacerbate racial inequality today. With searing power and honesty, Rhodes Must Fall shows us how historical power structures inform how societies function. This is “living Black history.” By interrogating “the racist heart of empire,” this collection not only insists that universities grapple with the continued resonance of their historical misdeeds, but that we urgently have these conversations beyond the ivory tower, at both a national and global level.

  1.  Manning Marable, “Living Black History,” Souls 6, no. 3–4 (2004), 12-13; Manning Marable, Living Black History: How Reimagining the African-American Past Can Remake America’s Racial Future, (New York: Civitas Books, 2006), 14.
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Nicholas Grant

Nicholas Grant is a Senior Lecturer in American Studies at the University of East Anglia. He is the author of Winning Our Freedoms Together: African Americans and Apartheid, 1945-1960 (University of North Carolina Press, 2017). He completed his doctoral research at the University of Leeds in 2013. His research engages with the fields of African American and Black international history by examining how transnational political and cultural forces have shaped race relations in the United States. His work has appeared in the Radical History Review; Palimpsest: A Journal on Women, Gender, and the Black International; and the Journal of American Studies. Follow him on Twitter @nicholasgrant.