History Debunked on Bristol University’s Statue to Henrietta Lacks

There was news yesterday that Bristol University had put up a statue of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman outside its medical buildings. This was accompanied with rather grandiose statements hailing her as the mother of modern medicine. This surprises me, as you would expect from such a description that Lacks herself was a doctor, surgeon or biologist of some kind. As Webb’s video shows, she was actually none of these. She was an ordinary Black American woman, who died of cervical cancer. What makes her different is that cells were taken from her body, cultured so that the line has carried on, and were studied by doctors and biologists. This has led to a number of cures and treatments for diseases like the Polio vaccine. Some of this research was done at the university. Hence the statue. I think the decision to put one up to her may well have been influenced by a book that was published about her a few years ago, The Case of Henrietta Lacks.

Webb considers that the statue is part of a general campaign to pull down monuments to White men and put up statues instead to Black women, even if their contribution to British history and culture is actually quite minor. He talks about a monument put up in Wales to honour a Black headmistress. He feels that while the woman would hardly warrant a statue if she were White, at least she did something more worthwhile than Smiley Culture. He was a pop star in the 1980s who was promoted yesterday as a hero of Black British history in an article in the Metro by Alicia Adjoa. But Culture’s end was rather less than heroic. He committed suicide after being caught importing a massive amount of cocaine. Bristol, in his view, is trying to put up a statue to a Black person to replace the one of Edward Colston, pulled down by Black Lives Matter protesters.

There is indeed pressure to put up statues of great Black British figures. The argument is that there are too few monuments to Black people and that this doesn’t represent to the diversity of contemporary British society. The problem is that while Blacks have been present in Bristol since the 16th century, they’ve only been here in large numbers since the Empire Windrush. And the majority of Black Britons led largely humble, unspectacular lives. Hence the fact that many of these statues honour people, whose achievements, while worthy, are relatively small.

I also think the statue has been erected for reasons quite specific to Bristol University. The University has considerably benefited from donations from the Colston charities. This, not surprisingly, is resented by Black activists, and so the University responded a few years ago by appointing a Black woman to be its first professor of the history of slavery. As far as I can make out, her job is really to work out what to do with the money from the Colston charities in the way of anti-racism and pro-Black policies.

The University was also in the local news this week for having set up a bursary solely for Black students. BBC Points West announced that the current Black population on campus is only less than 3 per cent of the total. This seems to me to be a response to another accusation. Bristol has a large Black population. I don’t know what the situation is now, but London, Birmingham and Bristol were the cities with largest Black populations in the UK. But the number of Black students at the university was small. The problem with this criticism is that Bristol, as one of the country’s leading universities, has, or used to have, very high entrance standards. Blacks perform less well academically than the other races, and so consequently have less opportunity to enter further education without the benefit of such affirmative action programmes. Also, when I was at school back in the 1980s you were actively discouraged from applying to the university in your home town. Thus it wouldn’t have mattered how large Bristol’s Black population were, they would have been advised by their teachers at that time to apply to universities and colleges elsewhere. Of course, this has changed somewhat with the ending of the student grant and the introduction of tuition fees. More students are applying to local universities through the sheer necessity of keeping costs down by staying in their home town.

Now the statue of Lacks is all very well, but I feel that if statues are going to be put up, it should be to people with some connection to the city. If we’re talking medicine, perhaps the first Black nurse to serve in one of the city’s hospitals. Or the person or people who started St. Paul’s carnival, if there isn’t one already. My mother also remembers there being a Black Bristolian boxer of her parents’ generation. A statue could have been put up of him as a local sporting hero. You could even go back to the depictions of Black Bristolians published in the 19th century.

While these people wouldn’t have been great scientists, they would at least have had a genuine connection to the city.

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