Another Columbus statue vandalized, bringing the count to six – five on the east coast (Astoria, Baltimore, Buffalo, NYC, Yonkers) and one in Houston – since Charlottesville. Not the first and presumably not be the last. Beheading, defacing … symptoms of American iconoclasm, promulgated by the removal of Confederate monuments? Personally, I am against the destruction of historic symbols (good, bad, or ugly), yet I understand the action and reaction of Americans, a people living through a current, political, social and cultural climate that resonates some of the most negative aspects of this country’s relatively young history.
Present day America, a nation built on immigrants, continues to take pride and venerate the symbols that represent ethnic communities. So, Mayor Bill De Blasio’s decision to include Christopher Columbus, an Italian-American icon, among statues to be removed from public spaces – “because of the tremendous concerns about it” – has stirred a controversial debate. Even for us neighbors in New Jersey, where monuments of the explorer can be found from Atlantic City to Williamsburg, it is a lively debate. Politicians, actors, and many others have chimed in on debate, and for this reason, I decided to take a step back and listen the many voices.
On the cusp of a new academic year, I reached out to former students, to gauge their opinion on the removal of Columbus’ statue. The response rate to my unscientific survey was impressive at 79%. Clearly, many wanted to have a voice. Almost all of them had studied Italian with me at some point of their academic career at the University, and 82% identified themselves as being of Italian heritage, and a significant number of them, 78%, want to keep the statue in Columbus Circle.
The comments from respondents aligned with what we’ve read previously in La Voce di New York and elsewhere about the symbolism of the Genovese explorer for the Italian American community. Passionate and reflective their comments, these former students weigh the pros and cons of this hot issue.
One respondent said, “history, good or bad, must be remembered. We must not forget what has built the path for today’s America.” Another contemplates those sensibilities that have permeated political correctness. “ ‘Too’ politically correct can be dangerous to our ‘freedom.’ Why is it even a question whether the Columbus statue should be removed? – challenged this respondent – It’s most likely because it ‘offended’ a person, group of people, religion, etc. For that reason, it is possible that the Columbus statue will be removed, resulting in ‘offending’ the people who support it.” Someone once said “Freedom is always freedom for the one who thinks differently.”
Those who support it are in fact many Italian Americans, who have launched various campaigns to save Columbus. One respondent recalled the origins of commemorating Columbus, a year after the “brutal lynching of Italian Americans that were stereotyped for being criminals or an inferior race.” Another shared what Columbus means to their nonna: “She says that the Columbus statues and Columbus Day pay tribute to the hard work, blood, sweat, and tears that Italian Americans shed to build this country.” Celebrating Columbus is equal to celebrating heritage: “If we get rid of monuments or celebrations, you take away history as well as pride for our culture.”
There were also comments that align with historical revisionism – defined as “a way of interpreting past events not in the social and moral context of their time, but in accord with the ever-changing contemporary values and mores” – presented in another piece in La Voce. This is not lost on my former students: “A person’s action from the past cannot be judged based on modern standards.”
Sensitive to other ethnic communities in the U.S., one respondent commented “what he had done to the indigenous people was inhumane and unjust to say the least, but one has to think about the year in which it occurred. We, as a nation, as people have gained so much knowledge about respect and admiration for other’s cultures because there is a better understanding of different cultures, religions, and ideologies.” This same person also suggested “if the topic is very much up for debate I wouldn’t see the problem with replacing the Columbus statue with another influential Italian who gave hope and inspired millions of not only Italians, but Americans as well, connecting two great nations.” Lest we forget that there is a wealth of Italians who have contributed and continue to contribute to America…
This same solution was offered by some respondents who believe the statue should go. If we review the data for those participants (the 18%), the numbers are surprising. Ninety-three percent of these respondents are of Italian heritage, and only 7% are not of Italian origin. Even for Italian Americans, “Columbus’s practices were atrocious. – stated a respondent – We should not continue to idolize a man with his history, as it gives Italians negative attention. We should replace statues of him with impactful and non-controversial Italians and Italian Americans.” The connection of Columbus to Italy was also raised: “I’ve never understood why Italian-Americans have chosen Columbus – questioned a respondent – I don’t automatically think ‘Italy’ when I think of Columbus.” Moreover, the significance of a monument was also questioned: “A statue is not a symbol of the impact our heritage has made into society, we have Little Italy, stores, families, and everyone’s lifestyle.” They also reiterate key arguments: “I think that a statue that honors an individual who contributed to the mistreatment of natives to the Americas does not have a place in this country. Regardless of the origins this individual has to Italy, NYC is known as the hub of different cultures and traditions of which might have been affected by this settler in the new worlds.”
Despite the unequivocal support for keeping the statue of Columbus, it is clear that a not all people of Italian heritage are supporters of the monument. Moreover, one respondent, in a separate exchange, shared that as a result of this controversy, he recognized that perhaps he, as a former teacher of Italian, did not spend enough time in his lessons discussing Italian American heritage. Would educating students on the role of Columbus within the Italian community make a difference? Would revisiting the Italian curriculum to teach Italian American heritage in tandem with introductory language and culture courses provide more awareness of symbolism in the community? Perhaps there is a need to dialogue about what Italian means in America that is equally as important as what it means in Italy.
Shall we use the old cliché and call the debate on the Christopher Columbus monument a ‘teachable moment’? Surveying former students on this issue offered moments of reflection and a reminder that we should never waver from our moral obligation as educators to address issues with honesty, sensitivity, and empathy.