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Getting Out of An Embarrassing Situation: Replace Columbus with MLK, Jr.

The embarrassment comes from the contradiction regarding the fundamental values that then inform our daily interactions...

by Francesco Ranci

Boston: the Christopher Columbus statue in the North End was beheaded, June 10, 2020. (WBZ-TV)

The argument made by Douglass in 1852 is similar to that of the descendants of the "Native Americans" who do not celebrate "Thanksgiving", and could also be taken as a model by us today when it comes to reflecting on the meaning of "Columbus Day", and of the solemn statues dedicated to the man who was respectfully called "the Admiral".

To be finicky about social problems, embarrassment is always a top concern – if not our top concern -, even if we do not always fully realize it. From facing the mirror to deciding how to dress, or what to deal with during our day, much of our daily behavior can be considered as aimed at preventing embarrassing situations. In any case, since interaction between humans always involves embarrassment at some point, we must also try to manage, and possibly to fix such situations.

In the 1950s, the sociologist Erving Goffman took the example of the vending machine for refreshing drinks usually placed at the time – in the corporate headquarters of large companies -, on the landing in front of the elevator. It could happen to the employee who went to the machine, momentarily leaving his workstation, that right at the wrong time the elevator was unloading passengers – and that one of the passengers continued towards the vending machine, which could be only used by one person at a time.

The right of way of those who were at a distance less than the target — taking into account the pace at which they were moving to calculate arrival time, was apparently suitable to prevent embarrassing situations like “Oh! You go first”, “But no, please, you first!”. On the other hand, Goffman noted that this criterion only applies among people placed by society, or who regard each other, at the same level of “importance”. Otherwise, things can become much more complicated. Imagine that instead of an ordinary colleague it was the boss (or God forbid, a manager of evidently much superior hierarchical level to anyone working there) who came out of the elevator. Then the alternative behaviors available to others may become embarrassing enough to suggest a strategy change, for preventive purposes. As Goffman pointed out, some elevators were already being reserved by some companies for exclusive use by top corporate executives — including, of course, their guests.

Imagine being that moderately thirsty employee and set off on a cruise to the drinks vending machine while (let’s imagine that we’re at Microsoft headquarters) a certain Bill Gates comes out of the elevator at a confident and busy pace, and unequivocally heads towards our distributor of fresh and caffeinated drinks. If our society, including large companies, did not stand on the principle of equality, the criterion of hierarchical order would naturally take precedence over the criterion of distance from the common destination, and the problem would be easily solved to the disadvantage of the subordinate employee. But, as Goffman noted, we live in a “democratic” society and our employee- – supposedly to enjoying a slight advantage in terms of space and time — is therefore embarrassed by the alternative between maintaining his own right of way and giving it up to the more “important” person.

As a social problem, in short, embarrassment arises from a contradiction regarding those fundamental values ​​on which the rules are based which then regulate–or of course they should serve to regulate–our daily interactions. Our most solemn rituals are also affected by it. For example, in the early moves of the speech given by Frederick Douglass on the occasion of the “Fourth of July” of 1852  (“What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”) we find an explicit description of his own “embarrassment”. Douglass explains it with having unexpectedly and recently shifted from the social position of a black slave, working at a Southern plantation, to that of a well-known intellectual invited to give a speech celebrating American freedom and independence, ideals that were claimed in 1776 in the name of the equality of all human beings. Claimed by the white masters, that is, and then by them, but only by them, actually achieved — at the expense of the claims and traditions of the English monarchy.

On that historic occasion, Douglass’s behavior consisted of clearly putting his cards on the table: he denounced his situation as self-contradictory and took a stand in favor of a solution to the conflict. Douglass talks about “your” society to whites, and clarifies to them that if they want instead to consider him part of it, they must abolish slavery — which was reserved by them to the people “imported” from Africa, and their descendants like him. At the very least, they should realize that while whites, like them, “abolitionists” or not, celebrated their independence from tyranny, blacks had to cry. The fact was that the Constitution of 1787 not only delegated every decision regarding the slavery of African Americans to individual States of the Union, but also accepted its principle by establishing Congress’s right to demand a tax “not exceeding ten dollars for each person”. And then postponing until twenty years later any decision regarding the abolition or not of the slave trade.

There are not many other ways to get rid of the embarrassment that ensues from finding oneself in a self-contradiction. The argument made by Douglass in 1852 is similar to that of the descendants of the “Native Americans” who do not celebrate “Thanksgiving”, and could also be taken as a model by us today when it comes to reflecting on the meaning of “Columbus Day”, and of the solemn statues dedicated to the man who was respectfully called “the Admiral” even by Bartolomeo De Las Casas. De Las Casas was, among other things, the author of that “Brief report on the destruction of the Indies”, published in 1552, which clearly denounced the genocide of the inhabitants of the Americas, or “West Indies”, by the Spanish colonizers over the previous decades; including the fact that it was perpetrated in the name of the “highest ideals”. In fact, for Columbus it was meant to gather enough gold to bring the Holy Land under the control of the Pope- – as the Italian professor Pierre Dalla Vigna tells us in his recent book, published in Italy, La distruzione del Paradiso. Meraviglia, orrore e genocidio nella conquista europea delle Americhe (The Destruction of Paradise. Wonder, Horror and Genocide in the European Conquest of the Americas).

Nowadays, we know where the recurrence of “Columbus Day” comes from and where those statues come from: they were an authoritative proposal for a solution to the problem, very much alive at the end of the 19th century in the United States, of having to determine whether Italian-Americans should be considered forever as a “lower race” or if, instead, from that moment — precisely by virtue of the official celebration of 1892 and of the monuments to the Genoese navigator- – these same Italian-Americans could be considered as “American citizens”, and be accepted, or at least to some extent tolerated, among “whites”.

Italian-Americans appreciated the proposal by making it their own and identifying themselves in the anniversary of the landing, and in its main character. Celebrating Colombo represented, and still represents for many Italian-Americans, giving a signal of collective commitment to American society and receiving in return a public and official recognition of the value of at least some of their cultural values and traditions — and their positive function in the historical development of the United States of America. Such history of the country was back then written from the “white” point of view only. Among other thousand of things, this “racial” membership was a requirement to obtain citizenship according to the law of 1790, which remained on the books until 1951– that is, well after the events that led to the institutionalized celebration of Columbus.

Italian Americans celebrating at the Columbus Day Parade

However, at the same time of the proliferation of the statues of Columbus, in the United States it was acknowledged that the “conquest of the West” had ended. And with it something else was now running out: namely, the individualistic frame of mind on which, “for better and worse”, as Jackson Turner wrote in 1893, the “democratic” social order and American culture as a whole were built – starting from the first contact between “explorers” and “primitives” to then retrace the stages of European civilization, first agrarian and rural and then industrial and urban. In short, the “frontier” was gone. The concept could be applied to Puerto Rico, Cuba or the Philippines, but, at that point, its “nefarious” aspects were beginning to be taken into greater consideration. Colonialism was after all the opposite of the meaning of the battle for independence from the English king, which was fought by the American colonies in the name of the principle of equality.

About a century down the road, the contradiction which was silenced in 1787 returned to the surface. “But how”, the assemblies of delegates asked in various States at the time of ratifying the Constitution, “acquired our freedom, do we impose slavery on others?” Although it was only Rhode Island to ask for a clear abolition perspective to replace the notorious paragraph 9 of article 1 (the one that as we have seen, postponed every decision on the slave trade to 1808, in the meantime taxing the “importation” of people). A few decades after 1892, the Governor of California Culbert Olson proclaimed one of the first “Indian Days” – a clear ancestor of today’s “Indigenous Peoples Day”, which is explicitly opposed to “Columbus Day”.

Let’s skip a few more decades, and we find that when Martin Luther King published his book Why We Can’t Wait, in 1963, exactly one century after the abolition of slavery in the United States of America, he dedicated the first chapter to explaining that what he defines as the “Negro Revolution of 1963” stems from the awareness that a century had passed since the emancipation of slaves, signed by President Lincoln, but that the term “freedom”, in the ears of their descendants, had meanwhile acquired a “mocking and empty sound “. In the same way, Frederick Douglass had asked his abolitionist friends, a few years before the Civil War, if their invitation to give a speech for the” Fourth of July” was a mockery.

In 1986, after visiting the three monuments erected in different islands of the Bahamas archipelago where it could be assumed that the Columbus landing had occurred, Stephen J. Gould (in an essay entitled “A Cerion for Christopher”) noted that the event was still solemnly celebrated, five hundred years later, with official ceremonies praising the new era of “peace among peoples” that it was claimed to have inaugurated. But rereading the diaries of Columbus himself, and the other sources of the time, it was quite clear to him how it was instead a genocide. Even the Ponce de Leon expedition, much celebrated in American schools as the “discovery of Florida”, was instead an expansion of the practice of “collecting” new slaves. Such slaves were to replace the Caribbean ones, already exterminated between 1509 and 1512 under the leadership among others of Ponce de Leon himself, then Governor (or “civilizer”, from the “western” point of view) of the island of Puerto Rico.

It may be useless, or perhaps not, to mention at this point the news reports of removals, provisional or definitive, of the statues dedicated to Christopher Columbus in the United States of America. Clearly, each historical figure participates in the culture of his time and favoring one means, of course, damaging another. We know that a more mature way of dealing with such issues would be to rely on thought and memory, not on flags or symbolic representations of a single person placed on a pedestal so that it looks like something more than a regular human being.

There are no substitutes for our words if used honestly, avoiding to privilege partisan interests by hiding them under a layer of high-sounding praise and claims to the common good. On the other hand, we can only approach such an objective by taking one step after another, starting with taking into consideration the meanings of the symbols that represent the values ​​shared in our society from the point of view of all those who are part of it, or that we want to include in it.

From this point of view, today, to worthily represent the values ​​of the “American dream”, which were at the time, and still today are at least in part represented for Italian-Americans– and not only for them– by the figure of Christopher Columbus with his courageous challenge to the dominant opinion in Europe which was contrary to the possibility of navigating to the Atlantic to the West until reaching Japan, it does not seem to me that we can identify a better witness than Martin Luther King Jr., with his appeal to us not not judge each other by skin color.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Against racism, when in every corner of the world “Columbus” represents European colonialism, we may want to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr., and take him as a reference  point for judging people their mutual behaviors, and the values ​​they are informed by. Starting from their consistency–or not–with the incipit of the Declaration of Independence of 1776, and avoiding any hypocrisy regarding the formulation of the “rights” to which it alludes, on which we know well to have, at times, different opinions among us. And, above all, avoiding turning our gaze away from it, when we encounter a situation that for us, because of an unresolved contradiction between our reference values, is embarrassing.

A Martin whom I would like, also being myself an Italian, and an Italian-American, to remain among us human beings, alongside his Coretta and their beautiful children, as they would have liked. Without having to get on a pedestal that separates him from everyday life, with its gazes and gestures, and its supposedly “small” embarrassing situations – never really so small–but often manageable by reaching out to each other, even with the small degree of awareness and mutual trust that we can actually afford.

Translated by Francesco Ranci

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