Staring up at the gorgeous statue of Christopher Columbus, I could only think one thing: When do we tear this shit down?
Today, much of the nation will “celebrate” Columbus Day. I place that word in quotes because few Americans will think of the day beyond gratitude for a long weekend.
However, a growing number of us are fed up with celebrating a man who was no better than a lost pirate. Cities and states across The U.S. are replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day.
It’s amusing that a Italian-Americans were a major force in pushing for this holiday given that Columbus worked for the Spanish. I can understand why they felt the need at the time but I think it’s time to reconsider what was overlooked.
(TW: rape, violence, child abuse, sexual abuse)
Many historians still portray Columbus as a heroic and laudable figure and defend criticism of him by saying he was “A man of his times.” This suggests that all others would have acted as barbarically as he did. However, if we examine the reaction of his contemporaries, we can see that -even back then- many were horrified by his actions:
…he sent some 500 slaves to Queen Isabella. The queen was horrified–she believed that any people Columbus “discovered” were Spanish subjects who could not be enslaved–and she promptly and sternly returned the explorer’s gift.
In May 1498, Columbus sailed west across the Atlantic for the third time. He visited Trinidad and the South American mainland before returning to the ill-fated Hispaniola settlement, where the colonists had staged a bloody revolt against the Columbus brothers’ mismanagement and brutality. Conditions were so bad that Spanish authorities had to send a new governor to take over. Christopher Columbus was arrested and returned to Spain in chains.
I called Columbus a pirate for, even though he did not steal from ships, he lived a life of theft and violence. He lived for his own greed and ego- murdering, raping, and enslaving as he went. There is nothing here for us to celebrate; this is not anyone to admire.
We cannot heal our nation without acknowledging the past. We’ve still yet to reconcile with the brutality of our origins. As we tell these fairy tales of a hero, we hide a monster whose actions helped to foster an environment of subjugation, rape, abuse, slavery, and murder.
One day this summer, I found myself at Columbus Circle in Manhattan. I’d been there many times but I’d not truly thought about the name of where I was until I crossed into the area where his statue is planted.
Staring up at the gorgeous statue of Columbus, I could only think one thing: When do we tear this shit down? Though I did mean that I wanted to literally watch a wrecking ball smash Columbus, I also wanted it to be as simple to smash away all that we’ve devoted to his memory and what it means to us.
It was clear to me in that moment that the need for the Black Lives Matter marches I’d been participating in were directly connected to maintaining these myths.
The myths prop up white supremacy with the lies of the noble intention of those who invaded. There was never nobility. It was a continuation of the Roman tradition of conquering.
We hold contrary views in these narratives:
- Our origins aren’t worse than anyone else’s (Other people have stolen land)
- Our origins are better than everyone else’s (We believe in “freedom”)
We may believe in freedom but we have never extended freedom to all. You may as well say “I love you” to someone you’re abusing. Do the promises and words stop you from hurting if you’re being hit?
In individual families where there is abuse, the child who is abused covers for the abuser. The rest of the family enables the abuse by going ignoring, or excusing, the abuse.
In my early 20s, I learned a friend of mine had been sexually abused by her father. As far as I was aware, the abuse began during her teen years. She would speak about her father as though he was the most amazing man who’d ever lived. She spoke of him heroically in ways I’d never even use to speak of my own Dad.
I remember thinking, “I know this man has abused you.” At the time it puzzled and upset me. I had no idea how much she had been manipulated to maintain that lie.
Years later, I found out that he’d actually started sexually abusing her as a young child.
When she was ready to acknowledge it, her family became angry with her. By merely speaking the truth she was the one “destroying the family with lies.” The reality is she was destroying a lie with truth.
That is what we must do: Destroy lies, and myths, with truth.
Our nation cannot move forward and heal until the enablers are ready to acknowledge the abuse of the past and the harm it’s still causing to this day. Wounds have not been healed. The damage has never been tallied because it’s still occurring.
Every time we state that we must hold on to the noble dream of past villains we continue to harm the ones who were abused. We’re gaslighting all of those in our population who’ve inherited the emotional scars of terror and death and who continue to face terror and death.
Imagine being told that this is your country while simultaneously being asked to celebrate the people who murdered your ancestors.
The enablers of the lying myth are fiercely invested in maintaining the lie of our “heroes” and of obscuring what the past really was.
When Bree Newsome took down the Confederate Flag, I saw people defend a flag with more passion than they’d ever defended the right to live of any person of color (so much for being “right to life”). Some unfriended me when I stood in support of taking down the flag. It’s a flag, not a person.
We face a time of reckoning with all of our past symbols, songs, and myths. Now is the time to ask ourselves if those lies and symbols matter more than actual living human beings?
Must we keep holding onto old things?
I loved watching the show “Clean House.” They’d visit hoarders who were living in untenable situations because they were emotionally attached the the past as it was represented in objects they’d kept.
You can’t move forward while also holding onto the past.
It’s good to grow. It’s good to move forward. If we keep defending the past “heroes” with the caveat that “they were products of their times” can we then admit that the times were bad? Can we finally put some distance to them?
I’ve loved the myth of America and the dream of a land where everyone is free and can live their dreams. It sounds beautiful. I wish for this place which never existed. What is the exceptional quality of our freedom if it doesn’t exist for all?
Since Donald began his campaign, I’ve said that the answer to “Make America Great Again” is Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again.”
In the poem Hughes details all of the Americans who have been failed by the dream. Yet, Hughes states with hope at the end:
“America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath—America will be!”
I also would still love to see this country be that “America” I’ve heard about. I want it to be a land which lives up to the promise and the hype sold by it’s marketing team (marketing team=school books).
If we want to move closer to becoming a nation which respects all people, we must stop lying about the nobility of the wealthy white men who founded this country.
Thomas Jefferson was capable of writing about beautiful ideals but living up to them proved much more difficult. He wrote extensively about the evils of slavery while never managing to free more than a handful out of hundreds of his own slaves. Love his words? Sure. Admire the man?- problematic.
In truth, if we admire the words of Jefferson, we can find instruction which lends itself to this well needed demolition and recreation:
“whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness”
We need to tear down the statue but we also need to tear down all the romanticism of the past. These lies and myths pretend that genocide and slavery were not the foundation of this country’s “prosperity.” In this instance, the quotes are to remind us that prosperity has always been reserved for only certain groups.
We can’t keep the name “Columbus Circle”. When I started to think about all of the things we’ve named after Columbus it’s rather daunting to think of replacing all of it but it’s vitally important that we do. Leaving them there allows us to continue the lie that he ever deserved such regard.
As a nation, we are only in control of those homages we created. What new name can we use for “District of Colombia?” If you’re already feeling the resistance to this change remember- even old “New York” was once “New Amsterdam.”