The Chicago Park District should lead our city in a little straight talk about Columbus

The Chicago Park District should lead our city in a little straight talk about Columbus

When Christopher Columbus first set foot in the “New World,” on an island in what is now the Bahamas, he was desperate to obtain two things:

Gold and slaves.

Columbus needed both, in abundance, to persuade the Spanish monarchs who financed his first voyage to pay for a second. In one report, Columbus wrote that he would bring “as much gold as they need . . . and as many slaves as they ask.”

Columbus and his men enslaved the native Taino, ordering them to deliver a certain amount of gold every three months — or have their hands cut off. Hundreds of Taino were sent back to Europe as slaves.

“Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold,” Columbus wrote in another letter.

Many of the enslaved died on the voyage or upon reaching Europe.

Even a cursory look at the historic record on Columbus makes clear why so many Americans no longer view him as the heroic explorer they learned about in grade school. Armed with new historical evidence, they no longer believe Columbus is worthy of being commemorated with statues. They are calling for those statues to be removed, just as statues of Confederate generals have been taken down in the South in recent weeks.

Here in Chicago, vandals recently defaced statues of Columbus, and anti-Columbus protesters squared off with Italian Americans who were determined to protect the statues as a matter of ethnic pride.

The Chicago Park District must step in and resolve the dispute. The statues are public property, located in public parks. It’s the park district’s responsibility to bring the two sides together.

Time for straight talk

Let’s have some straight talk, in a formal setting, about Columbus and his legacy. And let’s do so in a way that makes clear, however one might judge Columbus, that this town cherishes the contributions of Italians Americans to our city and country.

As Mayor Lori Lightfoot said on Thursday, tearing down the statues right this moment would be unnecessarily “divisive,” but it’s long past time for “honest, hard conversations about the real truths of our history.”

We can do this, as a city, with mutual respect.

The real Columbus

By now, most Americans know that Columbus certainly did not “discover” the so-called “New World,” where indigenous people had been living for centuries before he popped up. He never even set foot in North America.

On his four trips to the New World, he and his men routinely practiced extreme cruelty in their dealings with the indigenous natives they encountered, killing anybody who rebelled and displaying the dead bodies to discourage further rebellion.

Columbus’ voyages opened up the Americas to centuries of exploitation, death and misery for millions of native peoples at the hands of Europeans.

As the Harvard University historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote in a multivolume biography of the explorer: “The cruel policy [of enslavement and killing] initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide.”

Morison wrote that way back in 1942.

On the other side of this dispute are Italian Americans who view Columbus, born in Genoa, Italy, as a courageous explorer whose historical importance is beyond disputed. Columbus’ voyages marked the real beginning of the great transatlantic exchange, they argue, and statues of him — as well as streets and parks named for him — are legitimate symbols of Italian pride.

“His voyages were next to the creation of the printing press in terms of things of importance for humanity,” Louis Rago, president of the Italian American Human Relations Foundation in Chicago, told us.

An unfair lumping together

Along those lines, we’d like to make two last points.

First, while it’s probably clear from the tone of this editorial that we’re skeptical of continued efforts to celebrate Columbus, we would never equate statues of Confederate generals with statues of Columbus.

Those Confederate statues, every one of which richly deserves to be torn down, were erected not soon after the Civil War but decades later, as instruments of racist social control in the Jim Crow era. The Confederate statues were, in part, intentional symbols of white supremacy, pure and simple.

Chicago’s Columbus statues, in contrast — while they offend millions of Americans today — were erected only to celebrate healthy ethnic pride, pure and simple.

Secondly, Italian Americans, as much or more so than other European immigrants, have themselves felt the sting of bigotry. Italian immigrants, especially those of darker skin, once ranked not much higher than Black Americans in the racist social hierarchy of this country.

Consider this:

The first Columbus Day in the United States was celebrated in 1892, barely more than a year after 11 Italian immigrants were lynched in New Orleans.

What is Chicago to do about those two statues of Columbus? And how do we do it in a spirit of healing and unity?

The Chicago Park District has a job to do.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

Published at Fri, 19 Jun 2020 23:16:33 +0000

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