By Yohannah Franco
When the annual Columbus Day parade marches up Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue next Monday, Angelica Hill, FCLC ’18, will not be in the crowd. A senior at Fordham College at Lincoln Center, Hill passes by the Columbus monument on 59th Street every day on her way to class, and she says she doesn’t like what she sees.
“I think we need to acknowledge the consequences that Christopher Columbus had on this country,” she said. “I think that is way more important than celebrating his accomplishments.”
Oct. 9 marks the 80th year since Columbus Day was instituted as a federal holiday in celebration of the early explorer’s discovery of the “New World.” But as parade participants bustle in preparation for the world’s largest celebration of Italian-American culture, the festivities are shrouded by an escalating national debate about monuments and other historical celebrations of controversial figures throughout American history.
Hill said that reevaluating what the nation and city celebrate in their holidays and memorials would be a positive step towards understanding America’s past and redefining cultural values. Pointing to Fordham University’s Lowenstein building behind her, she said it shouldn’t only be known as “a rich white guy’s building.”
“If it was renamed to something like an indigenous leader or a Native American tribe,” she said, “it would change our values, I think, of the city.”
A few days after the violent clash that culminated between far-right groups and protesting activists on Aug. 16 in the Charlottesville riots over the removal of a
Confederate monument, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a new commission in New York City that would investigate “all symbols of hate on city property.”
A major candidate for this review is the 76-foot monument of Christopher Columbus, which looms at the center of Columbus Circle in Midtown Manhattan. Erected in 1892 in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in the Americas, it is a famous yet controversial NYC landmark. Some political and cultural groups claim it is a celebration of the spirit of exploration and the contributions of the Italian-American community. Others protest that it is a problematic symbol endorsing a legacy of racial discrimination, violent exploitation and white supremacist conquest of indigenous peoples.
In the span of a month alone, there have been four recent cases of vandalism on statues of Columbus in the greater NYC area, as reported by NY Daily News and NY Post. The last was on Sept. 25th at Columbus Circle.
Near this monument, Italian-American brothers Dominic and Giovanni Poli, who had immigrated to the United States as children, spent their sunny weekday afternoon strolling around and taking pictures of the famous attraction. Aware of the mounting criticism surrounding the memorial, they say they stand against Mayor de Blasio’s recent commission which may take action against landmarks of its kind.
“They should just leave history alone,” Dominic said. “Whether you agree with it, or you don’t agree with it, you know, that’s your opinion, that’s your prerogative, but you don’t have to destroy or take down. You can’t change history. It is what it is.”
“If it were not for him, we wouldn’t be here today, so he did a lot of things,” Giovanni added.
Italian-American communities have been a major force in the outcry against the renaming of Columbus Day, with many seeing the change as a threat to their cultural heritage and legacy of contributions to American culture.
Dominic said that taking down reminders of a troubled history — such as Columbus’ unjust treatment of indigenous peoples — is not the solution to fixing its problems, nor is it justifiable when weighed against the accompanying accomplishments.
“Today, it’s like a whole different world and we know so much more… [but] I don’t think they should change history, regardless of what they did,” he said. “Even some of the American presidents lived on plantations and had slaves, but that was the norm in those days. So you can’t blame them, you know. They didn’t do anything wrong in those days, it wasn’t considered wrong, that was the normal thing to do.”
Christopher Dietrich, Assistant Professor of History at Fordham College at Rose Hill, would disagree that removing national memorials can lead to creating a revisionist history of America.
“I think the first step to understanding this is that Columbus Day, as well as statues celebrating Confederate leaders, themselves were revisions to history,” he said. “The first Confederate statues didn’t go up during the Confederacy, they went up at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century when you have sort of the ‘Lost Cause’ movement begin. Columbus Day didn’t become a holiday until 1937.”
Since these commemorations were instituted for various political or cultural reasons at different times, Dietrich says, “these ideas that these are sort of august historical artifacts that have always been there, it’s just not. That’s not true.”
Los Angeles recently joined the growing ranks of American cities officially renaming Columbus Day to “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” in response to activist protest, with the LA City Council announcing the calendar change on Aug. 30th. Professor Dietrich says that this is a step in the right direction of correcting – not revising – history.
“That day shouldn’t be dedicated solely to a dramatic interpretation of the achievements of one explorer,” he said. “Instead, it should serve as a way for the nation to understand a more complex past, one which began the centuries-long destruction of Native American people and their cultures.”
In response to the protests against “erasing history” by removing Columbus from his hero’s pedestal, Dietrich says that remembering the forgotten past is far more important than remembering what is constantly at mind.
“Native American history is still far less studied and understood than the standard narrative of American exceptionalism,” he said. “It would be better for us to study history from a more pluralist, multicultural perspective.”
Native American groups have been actively speaking out against what they believe is the national glorification of a symbol of white supremacy, enslavement and genocide. The American Indian Community House, a non-profit cultural and social services organization which has served indigenous peoples in the NYC area since 1969, has recently launched a #notmyhero social media campaign on its Facebook page in protest of the upcoming Columbus Day. Some of its members will also be participating in the 2nd Annual Anti-Columbus Day Tour, which will be led by the Decolonize This Place activist organization at the American Museum of Natural History on Oct. 9.
Hawk, an elderly member of the Iroquois nation and a New York native who goes by one name, says he spends much of his time at the community center in Lower Manhattan. He says that the main motivation for the Native American community’s push for the renaming of Columbus Day is the misrepresentation or lack of representation of indigenous peoples in American culture.
“I can show you at least 10 or more wooden Indians – not all of them outside tobacco stores, but most of them,” he said. “How would you feel if that’s the only way they see you every day in life?”
Hawk recounted some of his own experiences as a Native American in what he says is a discriminatory culture where his people are largely forgotten. He said that one day as he reclined alone on a park bench, deep in distressed thought, a young girl walked by and asked aloud to her mother whether he was a real Indian.
“She says, ‘No, all the real Indians are dead,’” Hawk said, followed by a long pause of silence.
To this day, Hawk says, the indigenous population suffers from the devastating effects of European colonization of their culture and livelihood.
“Colonization has meant the breakup of our families without a bye or leave and the only ones who pay for it are victims all throughout life, as long as they live, and once you break up the family it never comes back together again,” he said. “They just abrogate a treaty and say, ‘now we’re taking your land.’” This is some kind of idiocy.”
Hawk says that the basis for this law, the “right of discovery,” has always been completely unfounded.
“I got news for you,” he said. “Columbus, by far and away, was not the only one who discovered America.”