I was fortunate enough to spend time with my parents this July 4th weekend when this video of protestors in Baltimore pulling down Christopher Columbus’s statue went viral. First, because it happened to be Spencer’s video, a good friend from high school 1, and so it caught their attention, and second because they asked me why people were tearing down Columbus’s statue. What’s wrong with Columbus?
The thing is, my parents both have voted for democrats my entire life. Their politics have consistently been center-left. My fiancé is half Haitian. They should know about Columbus and how he treated the Taino on Hispaniola. They should, but they don’t. Because although I had classroom conversations about Christopher Columbus: Hero or Villain, they did not. When they were in school in the 60s and 70s, Columbus was a fully fictionalized, canonized, rehabilitated hero of American folklore. While controversy over Columbus’s legacy has shown up in campus newspapers, short local news stories, and opinions pieces each year in October, it’s easy to miss, forget, and ignore.
When we keep monuments to historical figures in every major city, the controversy is drowned out by the ubiquity. These monuments do not cause us to wrestle with history, they allow us to ignore it. We assume the presence of these celebrations are endorsements, and they make it seem as though the controversy is out of the mainstream and unimportant. We can live on with the folklore, because if things were really terrible, why would there be a statue in every city?
These statues must come down. There is no contextualization that will cause folks passing by to grapple with history when they see these bronzed men staring down from their pedestals. Tearing them down has already caused more conversation about the legacies of these individuals than the statues that dot this country.
Don’t mistake the statue for the history. The statues themselves are modern, and they don’t mark a significant history themselves. They are the constructed folklore of America constructed, a physical manifestation of an ahistorical narrative meant to build national, white pride. We can learn about the canonization of Columbus and the discrimination of Italian-Americans without maintaining public monuments throughout our cities. We can keep a few in a museum, and talk about Columbus not as some grand explorer who “discovered” an occupied land and started centuries of theft and slavery, but instead as a flawed man lifted from obscurity and shame to generate pride among another people who were being mistreated by the dominant white, protestant American nationalists.
The statues must come down. They celebrate a rebellion to maintain slavery. They were built not as monuments to shame, nor as monuments to history. These largely 20th century inventions are a justification for the South and the United States as a whole to continue to refuse to have any kind of truth and reconciliation or reparations for the sins of their nation. It was about not feeling the shame and defeat, but instead restoring pride in their actions to subjugate, past and present, black people.
We don’t need to celebrate these people. We don’t need to cling to imagined heroes that we created to reinforce narratives we need to shed. We don’t need these statues.
Funny how we’re both in Baltimore after growing up in New York. ↩︎