Why the Columbus Statues Should Stay

Columbus

I am in complete agreement with this piece by Laura Ruberto and Joseph Sciorra. (And it is not just because I am half Italian).  If we are going to make an argument against Robert E. Lee statues because of the Jim Crow context in which they were erected, then we can make an argument for Columbus statues based on the same principle–the meaning Italian-Americans gave to these statues at the time many of them were erected.  (I also blogged about this here).

A taste of Ruberto and Sciorra’s piece at Process:

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Italian immigrants saw the American idolization of Columbus as a way to deflect the onslaught of xenophobic and racial prejudice and violence they encountered, and for which they were relatively unprepared, as new arrivals in the United States. They bought into and contributed to a specific Italian reading of Columbus in relationship to their brutal experiences of bigotry. Italian Americans built their emerging identity as provisional whites out of this hagiography.

The connections between Columbus and Italian Americans developed in great part through the work of Italian immigrant prominenti, ethnic leaders who served as intermediaries between WASP elites and the working poor and who supported an upper-class notion of Italian national identity. These included Angelo Noce, a publisher who spearheaded the first declaration of Columbus Day as a state holiday, in Colorado, in 1907, and Carlo Barsotti, a banker and newspaper editor who solicited funds from primarily working-class immigrants to erect New York City’s Columbus monument in 1892. These leaders, many from northern Italy, “argued for full inclusion as Americans based upon an imagined ‘Italian’ heritage of civilization and whiteness,” as historian Peter G. Vellon reveals. In Columbus, they perceived a tool by which to forge an Italian national identity which did not exist among the vast majority of immigrants from southern Italy whose geopolitical affinities were to their local villages. By perpetuating ideas of a united Italian community based on racial hierarchies and a grand history of an assumed, singular Italian civilization, the prominentiimposed elitist notions of a unified Italian American community that was removed from working-class understandings of history and social formations, and that relied on Italians aligning themselves with a white majority. At the same time, the prominenti devalued and inhibited a whole host of Italian working-class cultural expressions that became more and more associated with ignorance and vulgarity—from undermining the practice of Catholic street feasts to belittling the use of Italian regional dialects.

The quintessential prominente, Generoso Pope, was instrumental in cementing Italian Americans to Columbus. A powerful businessman and influential newspaper owner in New York City, Pope was pro-Fascist. He used his Italian language daily Il Progresso Italo-Americano during the 1920s and 1930s as propaganda for the Italian dictator, and he led Columbus Day gatherings at Columbus Circle where audience members made the fascist salute (and anti-fascist Italian Americans protested both vocally and physically). Critical in securing the Italian American vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt, he later lobbied FDR’s administration for an annual national Columbus Day, eventually proclaimed in 1937.

Significantly, many Columbus statues around the country were commissioned, paid for, and built by Italian immigrants. The statues were not created—as in the case of Confederate statues—to impose political dominance over others; on the contrary, the monuments were a means to gain entrance into a racist society under the cover of whiteness. Theirs was no doubt a troubling, but all-too-common, approach to assimilation. Contributions of small change from working-class Italian immigrants helped underwrite statues like the grandiose marble one dedicated in 1892 in New York City or the smaller bronze one erected in 1930 in Easton, Pennsylvania. In some communities like Easton and Richmond, Virginia, the Ku Klux Klan actively campaigned to prevent the placement of Columbus statues in public spaces in opposition to Catholics and “foreigners.” In short, these monuments were historically contested sites where Italian immigrants sought visibility in the remaking of local landscapes and the larger political sphere.

Read the entire piece here.

5 thoughts on “Why the Columbus Statues Should Stay

  1. I don’t think anybody has argued for taking down the Confederate statues BECAUSE of when they were erected — that fact just makes the point a little more clear — they are monuments to those who fought a war for white supremacy.

    And Columbus was a genocidal thief, regardless of what later Italian-Americans made of him. If someday the schoolchildren of Bavaria decide to raise a statue of Hitler to promote the dignity of Bavaria, I hope someone tells them “No.” Surely someone else’s statue could be placed on those pedestals.

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  2. There is an even earlier context here. The Columbus statue that was defaced in Baltimore back in August was erected in 1792 to commemorate the tercentenary (and was one of, if not, the first monuments erected to Columbus in the United States). Those celebrations throughout the new country in the fall of 1792 served the primary purpose of helping to establish Columbus as the discoverer of America, in an attempt to help create and foster a national origins myth that transcended the British Empire. That is, that statue, and others erected at the time, were part of nationwide public celebrations intended to help foster national unity and establish historical and cultural independence from Britain to go along with the new nation’s political independence. (The obvious though interesting paradox here being that the Columbus statue that was destroyed in Baltimore was originally erected with intentions and in a context that were decidedly––though, of course, not entirely––anti-colonial.)

    In other words, in addition to being a statue of Columbus, it was also an important historical artifact in the development of early American nationalism. Losing sight of the fact that these monuments are simultaneously historical artifacts (and historical texts) seems to me to lead to a lot of ahistorical thinking on this issue. One could then certainly make an argument that such an “artifact” or “text” should be in a museum or archive and not in public (as many have argued should be done with Confederate statues) but one cannot make an argument justifying defacing or destroying them. That would be no different than arguing that it was okay and morally justifiable to destroy primary sources that made pro-slavery (or pro-colonial) arguments.

    Of course, the meanings of monuments and statues (like the persons and events they commemorate) change over time, but understanding the intent and context behind their erection is equally important. The question, as it seems to me, then is: Do we think monuments need to come down because of the purpose behind them and what they intended to commemorate OR do they need to come down because we deem the individual depicted to be morally deficient or egregious relative to our own contemporary standards? The former is historical thinking; the latter is ahistorical (or, at best, anachronistic), and, as historians, we should be promoting historical thinking, or, at the very least, we should not be promoting ahistorical thinking.

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  3. Also, while respecting the context of why statues were erected is indeed important, I think the modern context is important too. It seems that most modern Americans seeing a Columbus statue would place it in a very different historical narrative than that of Italian-American civil rights. That does not seem to be the case with the Confederate statues where both the original patrons and the contemporary audience would broadly share the same historical reference point (i.e. the Civil War and its related causes), even if disagreeing about how to judge that event.

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  4. But is racially-construed ethnocentrism ok when it is done by minorities, even when pursued for very understandable reasons – i.e. to talk in the same racial language as those hostile to their rights?

    I am reminded of the observation by C.S. Lewis: “Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny hey thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions.” (Introduction to Athanasius, On the Incarnation”)

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