Taking Christopher Columbus into consideration

Taking Christopher Columbus into consideration

Taking Christopher Columbus into consideration
LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 12: A statue of Christopher Columbus is covered in red paint at Belgrave Square Gardens on October 12, 2021 in London, England. The defacing of the statue appears to correspond with the Columbus Day holiday, which is observed in many nations around the Americas on October 12. In the United States, the holiday is commemorated on the second Monday of October.  (Photo by Rob Pinney/Getty Images) (Rob Pinney/Getty Images)

I'm sure many individuals have vivid recollections of the sculptures that were toppled or removed in the summer of 2020. My first impression was that this would be an excellent moment to become a sculptor. Consider this: With 3D printing, you could outdo all those marble carvers and bronze casters of old — and perhaps even branch out to portrait busts and tombstones. But I wanted to become a historian a long time ago, and after many years in that field, it was too late.

Instead, the historian in me took over, and since I specialize in Italian history, I couldn't help but wonder why, following the horrific police murder of George Floyd, Christopher Columbus became the most frequent single subject of rising American iconoclasm.

Because racial hatred endures as a legacy of slavery, it is unsurprising that there have been attacks on Confederate monuments. However, the campaign swiftly engulfed the country's many statues honoring Christopher Columbus – a historical figure most closely connected with Italian-Americans and, in recent decades, Native American complaints. According to one count, 35 sculptures of Columbus were demolished or removed in 2020, while Robert E. Lee, a more plausible target, placed in second with only eight monuments lost.

Because I had written about what Columbus truly did in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, as well as the history of Columbus festivities in America, I had numerous media queries that summer, but my talks with friends were as essential. One Black acquaintance, in particular, expressed anxiety that the George Floyd "moment," which had galvanized public attention for a few weeks, was being hijacked by a Native American problem.

I believe he had a valid argument. Columbus monuments are excellent television fodder, especially when decapitated, as in Boston, or surrounded by a ring of muscular Italian-Americans wielding weapons, as in Philadelphia. One of the great ironies of that summer was that so many of the cities and towns that were discussing what to do with their Columbus monuments and school vacations had a history of racial profiling in police encounters.

I could observe in real time how in cities like New Haven, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, or Waterbury, Connecticut, and West Orange, New Jersey, where a serious review of policies governing policing and traffic stops would have been helpful, local politicians and activists instead engaged in distracting, protracted, and poorly informed pillow fights from my vantage point in New Jersey and from conversations with reporters in other states who called about Columbus. The memory of George Floyd wasn't treated well.

But where are we at this point? Not that it will make everyone happy (far from it), but I have a tendency to believe that President Biden lessened the sting of the Columbus controversy when, for the first time last year, he declared by presidential proclamation that Indigenous Peoples Day and Columbus Day should be observed on the same day. The anniversary of Columbus's landing on an island in what are now the Bahamas, on October 12, 1492, remains, at least so far, the most significant known date in human history, despite the fact that we consider it as a Monday holiday (and hence a "moveable feast").

In the future, a more recent event — the first nuclear weapon exploding, the moon landing, the discovery of DNA, or quantum computing — may theoretically be conceived to bear greater weight, and we can of course hope that there are many more millennia of human history to come. There were other tremendously significant discoveries in the past, such as the taming of fire or the discovery of agriculture, but we don't have a date for them. We do, however, know exactly when Columbus arrived. And he accomplished more to affect the history of the globe, for better or worse, than anybody else by uniting the Earth's two big continental masses, as well as its human populations and animal and plant species.

In the midst of the accusations and recriminations that have been swapped about the US holiday in recent decades, we should recognize that the debate is essentially a result of the date's significance. It should never be forgotten how horribly devastating it was for indigenous peoples in the Americas. But it also made possible an ongoing and (knock on wood) generally successful experiment in self-government that would never have happened in Europe. It should also not be overlooked that the year 1892 signified a readiness to accept new classes of immigrants, the majority of whom came from Italy at the time.

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