OPINION | Columbus memorials belong in museums, with Robert E. Lee’s

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After the deadly events occurred in Charlottesville, Va., a far-reaching debate has been launched over whether Confederate monuments across the country should be removed from public spaces.

An indisputable symbol of slavery, oppression and racial discrimination, the approximately 700 statues of Confederate leaders have recently become the subject of controversy. These statutes emphasize the presence of a running sore that has never healed.

{mosads}The monuments evoking the Civil War are not, however, the only point of contention. In addition to the call for the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate memorials, another case has recently hit the headlines: the request, in Chicago, for the removal of the 2000-year-old Roman column commemorating fascist general Italo Balbo.

 

It was gifted to the city by former Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini in 1933 to honor Balbo’s transatlantic flight from Rome to Illinois for the Century of Progress World’s Fair. The monument constitutes only one of the latest cases meant to prompt us to rethink our past.

This list, as we know, is quite long, and is not about to stop growing. Like Donald Trump, we might even be compelled to ask ourselves, “who’s next, Washington, Jefferson?”

Although fueled by demagoguery, the argument raised by President Trump is beneficial to the debate as long as it allows us to go to the root of the issue and reflect upon the deeper meaning behind the removal of the disputed monuments.

If the reasons for the takedown of any controversial statue are ethical and transcend the boundaries of any specific armed conflict, then it would be the perfect time to address the historical role  of the person who represents the embodiment of the “original sin” in American history: Christopher Columbus.

Viewed by many as a symbol of progress and technical innovation, the Italian navigator is in fact much more than that. Landed for the first time in the Caribbean in 1492, Columbus planted the seed for European conquest, which is referred to in Western scholarship as the “age of discovery.” This led to the outset of a long-term imperialist race to exploit and settle the New World.

The centerpiece of this exploitative system would soon become the trans-Atlantic slave trade, a tyrannical practice of subjugation that went hand in hand with the underdevelopment of the African continent and of the indigenous people of the Americas.

As pointed out by prominent historian John Henrik Clarke, Columbus “laid the basis for Western racism, misconceptions about people and extensive use of organized religions as a rationale for the enslavement of people.”

The literature exposing Christopher Columbus and the lengthy crimes he set in motion is massive and still expanding. However, despite a widespread awareness of his responsibility in the genocidal conquest of the New World, few have officially demanded, over the last years, the relocation of the statues erected in his honor on U.S. soil.

Early in 2017, students at Pepperdine University succeeded in having their Southern Californian Christian school remove the monument dedicated to the Italian explorer. The students maintained that the memorial constitutes “a culturally insensitive form of international exploration,” and deemed the presence of the statue a prioritization of “nominally esteemed university donors above the cultural acceptance and personal experience of marginalized students.”

The university’s president eventually bowed to the wishes of the activists, and decided to move the monument abroad to Pepperdine’s sister campus in Florence, Italy.

The Pepperdine students’ activism was far from being pointless. Whatever its scale of operation, the outcome of such initiatives would not overshadow the achievements of a man whose explorations drove epochal changes in the history of the world, but rather suspend a tradition of glorification of colonial oppression that is no longer in synch with the majority of the public opinion.

For this reason, like Robert E. Lee’s, Columbus memorials also belong in museums, a place where historical facts can ultimately be exposed in all their complexity and multiple ramifications.

In the wake of the Charlottesville confrontations, a further sign of discontinuity would therefore be constructive in the current debate over our heritage and moral values. It would also be an encouraging step forward to a more shared historical narrative. Does the U.S. have a Columbus problem? Yes, it does. But a sincere and thoughtful discussion about it can certainly help solve it.

Fadil Moslemani is a lecturer in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at the University of Chicago, and a contributor on history and literature to Italian daily newspaper, Il Manifesto.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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