Columbus Day//Indigenous People’s Day
Another Columbus Day is coming (October 14th yall), and with it a perpetuation of the white lies (emphasis on white) we tell our children and ourselves. This year, I urge you to stop, to reconsider our practices and to start telling our children and ourselves the ugly truth. Because in the case of Columbus and other colonizers and slave owners, the truth is ugly as hell and the lies we tell do hurt.
Christopher Columbus was genocidal, racist, a rapist and a slave owner. This is not new information. Many people are aware of the actual legacy of bloodshed left behind by Columbus. Entire peoples, like the Taino in what is now known as Puerto Rico, were wiped out through the brutal practices of Columbus and his men and the diseases they brought with them. Columbus was one of the initiators of the colonization and imperialism of the Western hemisphere. It was the colonists who attacked, enslaved, raped, killed, and stole from the indigenous peoples in North and South America, as well as then created the desire to build the massive slave trade from Africa.
In Richmond, our statue of Christoper Columbus, on Boulevard, is just one of many pieces of public art that pay homage to men who don’t deserve the honor. Columbus day is just another reminder of the complexities of racism and how that current runs strong in 2013.
Recent upsurges in public art and murals have created some controversy, but the content has mostly included tame cartoon-like pieces. We’ve seen a John Smith mural, but also a (smaller) Gabriel Prosser mural. We’ve also had the new placement of a giant confederate flag along I-95 to greet people as they head into Richmond. You can not go 6 months in Richmond without encountering some issue with race and the public arena. Some issues get more attention than others, but we should not be blinded by new issues and forget about our longstanding problems. Everyone who has balked at the idea of the confederate flag on 1-95 should be on board to balk at the Columbus and Confederate statues as well. We can’t all fight every battle, but in the case of racism in public art in Richmond, all these battles are connected and therefore the same battle. The statues and murals are just statues and murals, sure. But as long as we let them stand, the statues are visual reminders of the lessons being taught and stories being told in our homes and in our schools.
In 2008 someone vandalized the Columbus statue- using red paint to symbolize blood on his hands and painting slogans behind it. Repeatedly, almost yearly the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Ave. is vandalized, with slogans such as ‘no hero’ and ‘beefcake’. The mural of Robert E. Lee along the Flood Wall was successfully fire bombed in 2000. These pieces of public art are visual symbols of the values our society upholds.
Resistance to these values and these symbols has to go beyond vandalism to the statues or murals to be effective. I would never (for legal reasons) encourage vandalism or any illegal act, but historically speaking, acts of vandalism or historical re-framing of these pieces of public art tends to initiate public discussion of the issues at hand. But to graffiti is not enough – the statues still stand. What will it take to get rid of the statues and murals? What will it take to get to the roots of racism in Richmond? We just have to start.
What seems to be forgotten in our public dialogue, is that the stories we tell through our public art are important. When our stories gloss over historic racism, we are recreating that racism in our modern world. I’m white, so I can’t speak for People of Color, but I can consider how it might feel to see images of people responsible for the suffering of your ancestors celebrated as heroes – not good. We can try to say we aren’t supporting what Columbus or John Smith or Jackson did, but as long as we keep those statues up the City of Richmond is declaring our support. Put the statues in a museum if you must preserve them as artifacts (Sons of the Confederacy that’s all you). But get them off of the streets. Get them off OUR streets.
Personally, I would go so far as to question why we have any statues of racist white men, and why we continue to spend any public money on them. Which would put me in the ranks of Richmond political figure Sa’ad El-Amin, who tried to eliminate the public money that gets spent annually to maintain these memorials to the suffering of People Of Color and indigenous folks.
Our children should learn the truth, so they can navigate the world with more accuracy and understanding. Our children should learn about the indigenous folks and folks of color who did and still do stand up to oppressors like Columbus – the real heroes of this world.
There are many important issues connected to Columbus and public art and racism in Richmond. This article really only deals with the tip of the iceberg. Which is pretty telling, because there are many local issues mentioned here.
We shouldn’t teach our children outright lies, and we shouldn’t candy coat history. Doing so hurts all kids, hurts indigenous children and children of color more, and ensures that racism and the imperialist mindset will live on through another generation.
Every little bit counts. Do what you can. Make Richmond better.