New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is considering ordering the city’s statue of Christopher Columbus removed, raising the question of whether the zeal to remove “offensive” monuments has gone too far.
As NBC News reports, de Blasio has announced a 90-day review by a commission of all “symbols of hate” on city property following the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. In the Charlottesville case, protesters had descended on the city to protest the removal of a monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
For the sake of clarity, I am unambiguously and unequivocally on the side of removing those Confederate monuments. As Mother Jones reported last week, the majority of those statues weren’t erected in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. Rather, they went up between 1900-1915, right as the KKK was experiencing its resurgence and lynchings were a routine part of everyday life. Then, as the Civil Rights movement gained ground in the 1960s, another, smaller surge of erecting Confederate monuments took place.
In other words, those monuments were put up not to “celebrate” history, but to belittle blacks and remind them of who was in charge.
They have to go.
Robert E Lee statue is being covered in #Charlottesville
Retweet support for the 1st step.
— Red T Raccoon (@RedTRaccoon) August 23, 2017
Unfortunately, this zeal to remove “symbols of hate” has produced some rather touchy questions about side issues. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slave owners; should we remove monuments to them? (No, because those monuments were not erected specifically as a middle finger to blacks.) The Pyramids were built by slave labor; should we tear them down? (No, because the Pyramids were, in fact, built by paid labor, as the Guardian reported in 2010.)
Which brings us to Christopher Columbus. You were taught in elementary school that Columbus “discovered America,” even though “America” had been inhabited for thousands of years before Columbus set foot here. What’s more, any claim that Columbus was the first European to set foot in the New World is demonstrably false.
— 1 New York City (@1_NewYorkCity) August 24, 2017
Columbus didn’t “discover” America. What he did do was set into motion the opening up the Americas to the slave trade, introducing European diseases that almost entirely (or in some cases, entirely) wiped out indigenous populations and genuinely making life miserable for everyone that was here before he arrived. As the New York Times reported in 1989, Columbus personally rounded up hundreds of Taino and sent them back to Spain to be sold in the Sevilla slave markets.
Still, history doesn’t always provide us with a clean narrative that can be rendered in art and easily taught to schoolchildren, and until recently, history glossed over or ignored the more unsavory aspects of Columbus’ legacy. Re-examining Columbus’ legacy is a relatively recent thing, and this new scholarship post-dates 1905 when New York’s Columbus Circle was built.
Although no one currently living can say so with certainty, it’s entirely possible (indeed, likely) that Italian sculptor Gaetano Russo, who created the NYC Columbus statue, did so as a genuine celebration of his countryman (Columbus was Italian) and his “discovery” of the New World. Columbus’ statue was probably not intended as a deliberate act of aggression against Native Americans in the way that those Confederate statues were intended as an insult to blacks.
In the case of the Columbus statue, history gives us two competing narratives. On the one hand, America as we know it exists, for better or for worse, because of Columbus. If you are reading this from the Americas and you have European blood in you, you have Christopher Columbus to thank. And that should be celebrated. Alternately, the damage wrought upon the native populations in the Americas by Columbus, and the 400 years of painful history set in motion by him, cannot be ignored or understated. Those things should be mourned, not celebrated.
There are no easy answers to the Columbus statue question, and de Blasio’s commission, regardless of which decision they make, will almost certainly face backlash from one side or the other.
Do you believe New York City’s Christopher Columbus statue should be taken down? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
[Featured Image by Julio Cortez/AP Images]