“Should Italian Americans be angry that Christopher Columbus statues have been taken down or defaced in recent days?” This was the question posed of me by the esteemed editor of La Voce. Hmm….
The list is indeed imposing. A Columbus statue in Richmond was tipped over, set aflame and then dumped in a lake. In Boston’s North End and in Camden Columbus was beheaded. Red paint was thrown or graffiti was sprayed on his statues in Houston, Miami, New London, and New Haven. At the Minnesota State Capitol a Columbus statue was pulled down as Native Americans danced around it. These events all took place within a brief space of days after the killing of George Floyd by a an out-of-control police officer on May 25, 2020. Of course it was not only statues of Columbus that were being targeted. The iconoclasm began with statues that commemorate major figures or anonymous soldiers of the Confederate States of America. And as the media spread pictures internationally of these protests and statue-topplings, the statues of persons associated with the slave trade or brutal colonialism came down or were removed or defaced in places as far flung as the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Belgium. Closer to home, in Philadelphia a statue of Italian American Mayor Frank Rizzo was removed. Even a statue of Mahatma Gandhi was vandalized in Davis, California. All of these actions took place in the brief space of 14 days after the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. What to say?
My first instinct was to think of the immediate impact on what really matters–the Black Lives Matter movement. Copycat attacks on a widening array of statues that are, after all, just symbolic, risk weakening or diluting the real measures that are needed to correct realities for minorities to which the American people give the appearance of at last waking up. Recognize that this is a sad and critical moment for our fellow citizens who are African American. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis—it happened just six blocks from where my sister once lived—has galvanized the country, moving it toward dealing in constructive ways with long-festering issues in police behavior toward minorities, with a seriousness I can’t recall having seen before. Many cities, beginning with Minneapolis, are taking serious steps to reform police behavior. Politicians nationwide, and in both political parties, have recognized the need to confront racist attitudes that in the past were too often swept under a rug. While there were incidents of looting in some American cities in the wake of protests after Floyd’s deaths, in Black-majority Baltimore and Newark, where looting would have been expected until just recently, there was none at all. The whole country has reached a turning point on the issue of race, and the opinion polls confirm it. The issues at hand are so powerful that the armed forces are registering disagreement with their incendiary Commander-in-Chief about unnecessary domestic deployments. And against his wishes they are even pushing to re-brand a series of military bases in Southern states that were named after Confederate generals.
So my thought on first hearing of these assaults on Columbus statues was, “No! Let’s not allow this moment for African Americans to pass! Leave Columbus out of this!” The idea that George Floyd’s death could become an excuse for another round of recriminations between Italian Americans and Native Americans is simply nauseating. As I pointed out in an article a few years ago, both groups were the victims of atrocities in the years around the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage. They need to find ways to get along, and, above all, the present situation is not about them. Even worse for Italian Americans would be a round of recriminations with African Americans. Leave the Columbus statues alone, and if you don’t like them being damaged, realize there are more important, longstanding issues at play.
Yet still, on further reflection, it has to be said that Columbus is still a part of today’s story. As a historian who has spent a lot of time studying him, I can say that he won’t be going away. Not even if the Columbus holiday were to be eliminated (which would require an act of Congress, and that’s improbable, at least in the near future). I’m not generally in favor of destroying historical statues or monuments—I’d prefer to see more of them, and more from recent times, too–but even if all the remaining monuments to him were to be destroyed, Columbus would still be with us. And the reason is straightforward: October 12, 1492 was the most important date in human history, at least since the invention of agriculture. From that date the world that we now live in had its beginning.
So Columbus will always be with us. He remains a fascinating historical character. A swashbuckling mariner, he was no stranger to sea-battles, piracy and the African slave trade before sailing to the Americas. He was an exceptional ship’s captain under trying and often desperate circumstances. He made enemies in his lifetime and he’ll probably continue to make new ones after we are gone. A recently discovered letter confirms that from the new lands he’d discovered he planned (an impossible) crusade that would conquer the Holy Land from the East. Muslims, too, might have reason to join the conversation….
Things like that are always happening to major historical figures. But what matters most of all, and is likely always to matter, is that Columbus brought the European patterns of chattel slavery and the dispossession of native lands to the Americas. These remain the twin “original sins” of the conquest, and the sins, likewise, of the American republic. From a historian’s point of view, knowing the human societies involved and their values, it is very hard to imagine how things could have turned out differently. And so they happened. And their long-term effects, material and psychological, are still with us, as we saw recently in Minneapolis. We can’t escape the world Columbus “made,” but we can keep trying to improve on it.