There is nothing quite like a ‘teacher look’. We will all have experienced them at some point. At once withering, warning and wise, these facial expressions are mastered over long careers, meted out to generations of children about to take unwise decisions or unnecessary risks, or simply for messing about in assembly.

Now Betty Campbell’s visage stares down Cardiff’s Central Square. A new monument positions this formidable lady – Wales’ first black headteacher – if not quite as a mother to the nation then at least headteacher to its capital city. Warm, wise – but with at least a hint of that warning look worn by an experienced pedagogue.

I wonder what she would have made of it. Her family are pleased, of course, and say she would have liked it. 

But there is an aspect to the monument’s unveiling this week that everybody I have spoken to has been keen to emphasise. Elaine Clarke, Betty Campbell’s daughter, told me: “The statue is not a direct reaction to Black Lives Matter.”

Helen Molyneux, chair of the group behind a whole series of planned statues of remarkable Welsh women, also told me of her “mixed feelings” – pride and satisfaction perhaps mingled with fear that the sculpture may be misunderstood, its narrative skewed away from simply putting a remarkable Welsh women on a well-deserved pedestal. 

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But there is no getting away from the fact that between the commission and erection of the first monument to a real Welsh woman, statues have become incendiary flashpoints in a battle of ideas. About history. About who we commemorate and how and why. About the kind of society we want to build. 

The last thing Betty Campbell’s family want is for their mother, a true ‘hidden heroine’ of Wales, to become a token, thought of simply as a representation of ‘a black woman’, undermined by the idea that somehow this monument has been erected in response to events elsewhere. 

Just across the Channel in Bristol, the tearing down of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston by Black Lives Matter protestors made headlines around the world, and led to debates about public artworks and historic monuments from Cecil Rhodes in Oxford to Confederate generals in the southern states of America.

Betty’s family are right to be wary of how this statue will be perceived. 

“It says everything,” Helen Molyneux told me, “that the public chose Betty for the first statue of a woman in Wales.” I know what she is driving at. We are, we tell ourselves often, “a tolerant nation”.

It was even the title of a book, co-edited by Charlotte Williams, Neil Evans and Paul O’Leary, subtitled Revisiting Ethnic Diversity in a Devolved Wales. But what often gets ignored about that volume is everything apart from the title. People conveniently forget its critique, and that its title came with a question mark. A Tolerant Nation? 

That is, are we?

Hope Not Hate recently put out a report finding that while “the vast majority of people in Wales celebrate diversity and community, and are open to difference and change… there is a sizeable proportion of the population who hold more hostile attitudes which contradict the idea of Wales as welcoming, open and tolerant”.

We have a good habit in Wales of celebrating achievements. Like a school assembly in which certificates are handed out and rounds of applause come in waves, we are brilliant at slapping each others’ backs. It’s an important part of building community.

But our celebration events can also become self-congratulatory, and I would like to think that somewhere within the ‘teacher look’ of Betty Campbell as she stares across our capital city’s Central Square at the UK Government building and the new headquarters of BBC Wales there is an element of warning.

Let us be proud that the people of Wales chose Betty Campbell in a public vote to celebrate a ‘hidden heroine’. But let’s also feel ashamed that we have never elected a black woman to the Senedd. 

It is one thing to host a photographic exhibition in our national parliament celebrating the contribution of the Windrush generation to Welsh life. It is another to ensure these community elders are living in comfort and dignity. 

Let’s stop dressing things up with diversity and inclusion and start guaranteeing equity and justice.

When Carolyn Hitt wrote her newspaper column pointing out the dearth of public art celebrating the achievements of the female half of our population, she could not have known that within a few short years an inspiring corrective would be underway. 

The group of women behind the statues campaign are in their own ways also monumental. Their vision and determination flies in the face of centuries of patriarchal control over the public sphere, including public art.

But let’s remember that just as Bristol’s tearing down Edward Colston did not eliminate the legacy of slavery on that side of the Severn, nor should the erection of the Betty Campbell monument disguise continuing racial injustice on this side.

Since January 18, 2019, when it was announced that Betty Campbell had won the ‘Hidden Heroines’ public vote, two young BAME men have died after contact with Welsh police forces. The IOPC has still not released its findings in either case, nor in that of Mustafa Dawood, the asylum seeker from Sudan who died in an immigration raid on a car wash in Newport in 2018. 

BBC documentary A Killing in Tiger Bay and Nadifa Mohamed’s Booker-shortlisted novel The Fortune Men have both served recently as timely reminders of the grave miscarriages of justice that are as much a part of the history of Butetown as the cosy narratives about ‘good old Tiger Bay’.

The Betty Campbell statue was planned as a tribute to a remarkable Welsh woman, and the focus should rightly be on her character, achievements and inspiration.

But until we live in a nation of true racial justice, the monument will inevitably serve as much as a powerful reminder of how far we still need to travel as how far we undoubtedly have come.

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