It’s heartwarming to see activists way out here in Hawaii take up the civil rights struggle being fought right now in the continental U.S. over statues that honor the so-called “heroes” of the Confederacy. Those particular statues don’t exist out here, but that doesn’t mean we don’t face the same underlying issues.
The fight is not, as white supremacists are fond of saying, over erasing history. That fight was lost–both in the Mainland U.S. and here in Hawaii–long ago. Statues and monuments play a role in teaching history, sure, but mostly they just honor individuals and events that the establishment cherishes.
In the southern United States, that meant cities and towns wishing to push back against the Civil Rights Era erected a ton of statues to Confederates (the majority of the statues under fire today in the U.S. went up during the Jim Crow era as a way of both reassuring whites who were frightened that a true meritocracy–one devoid of any race-based calculus–was on the horizon and intimidating black citizens who wanted an equal say in society. Removing these statues now sends a powerful message that white supremacy was and remains vile.
The same is happening here. On Sunday, Aug. 20, a group of activists marched on McKinley High School in Honolulu, calling for the removal of the statue of President William McKinley that stands there.
“He led the takeover of Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines and Cuba,” said Khara Jabola-Carolus, co-founder of AF3IRM Hawaii, in this Aug. 20 Hawaii News Now story. “His legacy is painful for people of color in Hawaii and throughout the Pacific.”
It makes sense that AF3IRM is so prominent in this action. As their website notes, they don’t mess around.
“Hawai‘i is not the playground of the new gilded age,” states the AF3IRM Hawaii website. “We are a battleground for indigenous, immigrant, and women’s self-determination. We focus on fighting for improvements to women’s daily lives on all fronts including the legislature, the city council, the courtroom, the boardroom, and the classroom.”
But I digress. As President, McKinley built up the United States as a mighty world power by exploiting the resources and labor of conquered peoples throughout the Caribbean and Pacific. Honoring him now is an affront to our modern notions of justice and civil rights.
Of course, we shouldn’t stop there. If McKinley’s statue should come down, then so should the various statues and monuments honoring Captain James Cook around Hawaii. I can’t think of a more blatant expression of white supremacist imperialism than a statue of Cook (of course, the issue of what symbols to knock down is highly subjective: a friend of the paper, when asked what he’d like to see go, said simply, “Knock down Waikiki and return the kalo!”).
At the same time, how about erecting new statues that honor individuals and events that have been whitewashed? It’s nice that Maui has statues of Queen Ka‘ahumanu (though it’s in a shopping mall instead of public property) and the Chinese physician and revolutionary Sun Yat Sen, but how about one of David Malo? And while we’re at it, put up some sort of monument in Olowalu to commemorate the 100 or so victims of the 1790 massacre there.
“Olowalu is special,” Native Hawaiian cultural specialist Clifford Naeole told me in 2016. “Olowalu is a place with significance. But Olowalu as a place is not really recognized. It needs to have its own sense of place. There needs to be an altar, a temple erected there, just like Wounded Knee.”
Photo of McKinley High School in Honolulu: Joel Bradshaw/Wikimedia Commons