Whom do we celebrate, and why?
In light of the recent debates surrounding statues, and today as national holiday recognizes Christopher Columbus, who is celebrated on one of the most famous statues in our city, it is past time to examine the significance of those whom we literally put on a pedestal, elevated to prominence and even reverence.
In Columbus Circle, many New Yorkers see more than a chiseled marble figure – they see years of celebrated oppression. As the ACLU recently argued, removal of statues themselves won’t solve any problems, but it would suggest that we are ready to deal with the truth.
That the statues elicit such visceral response on both sides is a clear indicator that they symbolize something deeper, something of importance. It is why there is such a fierce, passionate debate about these symbols. It is why they marched in Charlottesville. To deny that there is deeper meaning behind the confederate statues is to minimize what the battle is about. In that sense, the emotional responses to the Christopher Columbus statue are no different.
Christopher Columbus has been a source of pride to Italian-Americans for many generations. The Columbus Circle statue in particular was given as gift at a time in this country when Italian-Americans were being disparaged, even killed, because of their heritage. That perspective of pride must be considered and validated as part of this discussion. In fact, everyone’s humanity should be validated, including those, such as indigenous descendants or even myself, who see Columbus as a symbol of genocide and oppression. Those people should not have to be subjected to not only the reminder of that dark history, but also the celebration of it. Herein lies the contentious flashpoint.
No mere mortal can survive the lens of purity. No one. From Mahatma Gandhi to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., none can withstand that level of scrutiny. We all have “stuff” that would be highlighted under such a lens, but that truth should not disallow honest discussion about who we deify and why. And a holistic discussion is what’s required here. Imposing black and white litmus tests only perpetuates false narratives and feeds an atmosphere of division. This much has been made clear nationally in recent months. We all should welcome Mayor de Blasio’s commission to have an honest dialogue about these important questions, in these important times. The question then arises – what framework do we use, and how objective can we make it?
I believe we should create a box labeled ‘redemptive qualities’ and put all the things we praise about someone in it. Our task is then to do the best we can to see if those qualities outweigh all of the other ”stuff.” Admittedly that’s easier for some figures than others, but it serves as a starting point for dialogue. Additionally, and equally as important, we must further contextualize the larger conversation. As we look around the city, too often we see statues and figures that do not reflect the diversity of people and experience that makes up this country, and certainly this city. Making matters worse, the horrors that many of these people committed are rarely publicly discussed, much less stated in a manner commensurate to the heroic figure we are idolizing.
Case in point: it took me three years and two administrations to get a plaque placed in Wall Street marking the open air slave market that was sanctioned by the City Council at the time. While that acknowledgement was rightfully celebrated, this sentence is probably the first time you’ve heard of it, and the majority of the city and its visitors never have. You would likely walk by it without taking notice as well.
The commission, then, must consider context and diversity of who remains and who is put up on our landscape as well. And while historical context is important, it is also essential that we do not excuse the actions of our historical figures perpetrated in their own times by acknowledging that they could not live up to “today’s standards.” Acts of genocide and oppression have always been morally wrong – the condoning of it in its time depended on the group that was being oppressed and attacked. I trust the commission to conduct an honest review of our memorialized figures and their actions.
The quintessential points here are about honesty and truth. Even with Columbus. What goes in his redemptive box? Much of what people have historically said of him has been in error. Just recently, a sitting elected official referred to Columbus as having founded this country. Another described him as not purely an explorer, but a warrior against Native Americans who weren’t receptive. The first is just concretely untrue – he never set foot in North America, in fact the continent is named after another explorer entirely. The second, too, is patently false.
Let me be clear; I continue to strongly support the removal of the statue – yet I understand the need to truly remember and recognize the need to celebrate Italian pride. What is decided relative to Columbus should reflect an honest examination of the realities of his history.
The mayor’s commission has an important job amid a tense political environment. For that reason, I believe 90 days might be too short of a window to properly address every figure in the city. No matter one’s stance on the substance, this discussion is too important and magnified at this time to not be handled with all the necessary care. As the ACLU put it, the real figure on display here must be truth. Even those that don’t want any statue removed will admit that without people like myself advocating for removal, we would be neglecting an important conversation on whom and what we celebrate, today and all days.
I look forward to New York City once again leading the discussion.
Jumaane Williams represents New York City's 45th Council District.