Opinion: Anti-Blackness on a Pedestal – Why Columbus Statues Must Come Down in Columbus
Juneteenth commemorates the date enslaved peoples in Texas finally received word that they were free, nearly two months after the defeat of the Confederacy. Some 155 years later, many statues of Confederate leaders remain standing.
Only now, in the aftermath of the brutal murder of George Floyd (and countless others) at the hands of the police, at a moment of reckoning for our nation, is there finally some renewed momentum for the removal of symbols of the Confederacy. Albeit no less abhorrent than Confederate monuments, statues of Christopher Columbus remain prominently displayed across our community. These anachronistic effigies, it should be widely appreciated by now, are affronts to all.
As Columbus State Community College finally prepares to remove its statue, let us turn our attention to City Hall and the Statehouse. It is well past time for us to remove such prominent municipal monuments to a man who enslaved more than a thousand people and sold girls as young as nine and ten into sexual slavery.
In 1492, Columbus set sail on behalf of the Crown of Castile. Half a millennium after Norse explorers successfully reached North America and more than three centuries before the founding of our city, its namesake left Europe seeking a faster sea route to the land of my own ancestors, the Indian subcontinent. Columbus initially landed in the Bahamas, though he continued to maintain until the end of his life that he had reached Asia.
It was John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto), a Venetian, who discovered the coast of North America in 1497, sailing under the flag of Henry VII of England. During the American Revolution, however, the mythology of Columbus was manufactured and advanced by colonists in search of an origin story to displace the British.
In his four voyages to the Americas, Columbus sailed first to the Caribbean and eventually reached coastal Central and South America. The direct and immediate legacy of these trips were centuries of Spanish colonial rule. In his own role as viceroy and governor for the Spanish crown, Columbus was known to be so exceptionally cruel and inhumane that 50,000 Indians chose to commit mass suicide rather than submit to his authority. His brutality even extended to the Spanish colonists themselves, for which Columbus was consequently briefly imprisoned after his third voyage.
Columbus was a Genoan who fathered children with a Portuguese wife and a Castilian mistress. The largest wave of Italian immigrants to the U.S., on the other hand, hailed from the Mezzogiorno (southern Italy). When they left the Italian peninsula, it is likely they culturally identified most closely with their strong regional identities and were, in some regards, transformed into Italians only upon their arrival at U.S. ports of entry. In fact, many of the immigrants and refugees who began settling in Columbus in large numbers around the turn of the last century were fleeing the heavy tax burdens and post-war ravages of the Risorgimento (Italian unification).
Statues of Columbus represent a personage who bears no direct relevance to the storied contributions of Italian Americans in and to our city. With respect to both history and lineage, the thread connecting contemporary Italian Americans back to Christopher Columbus is virtually nonexistent.
In the late nineteenth century, Columbus was consciously appropriated and embraced by Italian Americans at a time when they faced tremendous bigotry and violence, and when the “whiteness” of darker-skinned southern Italians remained suspect. Columbus is an emblem of an ultimately successful act of aspirational whiteness – and, as such, also represents a deliberate distancing from Blackness and the Black struggle. Monuments of Columbus should be understood as monuments to anti-Blackness.
Moreover, consider that in addition to the 6% of Ohioans who today identify as Italian Americans, 1% are of Puerto Rican origin, and it is the latter who may lay claim to having a closer connection to the legacy of Columbus. When Columbus reached the Caribbean, his first encounter with indigenous peoples was with the Taíno, an encounter that culminated in genocide. Among the contemporary descendants of those Taíno who survived are present-day Puerto Ricans, peoples whose ancestry also happens to be nearly one-third Sub-Saharan African, a reflection of the contours of an Atlantic slave trade that shipped some twelve million Africans to the Americas.
In 2020, statues of Columbus can be seen only as symbols celebrating the enduring, intertwined histories of racism, brutality and genocide that underlie European colonization of the Americas, as civic tributes to oppression. If you believe such a description does not apply here, simply ask yourself what became of the peoples of the Miami, Delaware, Wyandot, Shawnee, and Mingo nations who inhabited this area prior to the establishment of our city. (And, let us not forget that the clay for the bricks used to build the Ohio Statehouse, where one of the Columbus statues still stands, came from the remains of the Mound Builders’ mound that was once at the corner where High and Mound Streets intersect.) The removal of Columbus statues presents a collective opportunity to demonstrate our solidarity with the claim that Black and Indigenous lives matter in our community.
For me, an Ohio transplant now living on the east coast, facing the ignorance and smug condescension often displayed by “coastal elites” toward our home state, I am often eager to point out Ohio’s important role on the Underground Railroad. I happily note that even the name of our professional hockey team is a tribute to the fact that Ohio provided more troops per capita for the Union than any other state. When Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, it was to an Ohioan, Ulysses S. Grant, who as President pushed for ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment and aggressively prosecuted the KKK.
The place I currently reside, New Haven, Connecticut, is home to a greater proportion of Americans claiming Italian ancestry than any other U.S. city. New Haven has nevertheless recently announced its own statue of Christopher Columbus will be taken down, that it has no place in a public park. Having grown up in Columbus, I was filled with pride when the City announced two years ago that Columbus Day would no longer be celebrated here. Now, the statues must go, too.
If ever we are to become, as we so proudly proclaim, “the land of the free,” then we must pause to honestly and critically confront our past and our present in their entirety. As we approach Juneteenth and Independence Day, let us continue our work of sculpting a better, more inclusive society by removing these sculptures of a brutal murderer and slave trader.