Fall of the Conquerors

July 24, 2020 at 2:20 pm (By Amba) (, , )

Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot had two statues of Christopher Columbus removed from Chicago parks and neighborhoods last night. The immediate rationale was public safety: the statues have become flashpoints for confrontations between police and demonstrators; and, in improvised attempts to pull the heavy statues down, people could get hurt. But, after “an inclusive and democratic public dialogue about our city’s symbols,” in the mayor’s words, you can bet those patriarchs will not be back on their pedestals.

I am totally down with seeing these statues disappear from literally lording it over the public square (yes, I’m aware that there have been ignorant excesses of iconoclasm as well as instances of payback targeting monuments to abolitionists). I would be happy to debate anyone who disagrees.

If we are serious about making this the inclusive and equitable country that it potentially is, about fully extending the promises of the Founders to everyone whose ancestors were drawn here by those promises or driven off or dragged here in violation of them, then yes, we DO have to rewrite history from multiple points of view, and we DO have to stop being unquestioningly presided over by the “heroes” of conquest, colonization, and genocide.

We can’t expect historical figures to have had our perspective,* [see UPDATE below], but it’s time to take an unflinching look at their perspective, and to admit that for most of them, racism was an inextricable strand in it that qualified and tainted whatever noble traits they may have had or deeds they did.

Yes, this change is disorienting when you’ve been taught standard American mythology since you were a little kid. The resistance to it is as intense as if we were losing our civic religion and identity. We are! I am all for it. We’re coming into a bigger-hearted one, and the spirit of the old one is being reborn in unexpected ways as a living part of it (see Hamilton, or AOC invoking the dignity of Congress to call out the fellow representative who insulted her).

I hope the statues reappear in dedicated sculpture gardens where their value as artifacts of history, educational aids, and, in some cases, works of art is preserved.

*UPDATE: This made me think again about that statement:

These ‘historical figures’ were significantly outnumbered by their dead. They were a tiny minority of their own population. Yet we treat them as if they are the only people in history.

When people say, “we can’t judge historical figures by the standard of our time’ what they mean is ‘the monsters did not think themselves monstrous”. What they mean is ‘colonized lives don’t matter’. Because these human beings, living at the very same time, certainly knew that these were monsters. I don’t mean in an abstract political-issues-of-the-day sense, I mean in a very real sense of ‘They’re killing me and selling my children’.

It’s as if we write about serial killers, but only from the perspective of serial killers. . . .

A few thousand Europeans colonized millions of people across the world. They laundered this theft by simply rendering the victims subhuman, an injustice we continue to this day.

We talk about historical figures and historical standards as if these millions of people simply did not exist. . . .

These perspectives matter. All of the lives that were silenced by the whip or the noose before, they are silenced by armchair historians today. People talk about a whites only history where only white feelings mattered, and because white people didn’t feel bad, it simply wasn’t bad.

This simply isn’t true. It was bad. The people living it knew.

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