Toppling Statues

06/18/20 - posted by John Martini

I thought I might weigh in on the current controversy about removing statues and 'destroying history.' It hit us all close to home last night when the statue of Christopher Columbus was removed from its perch in front of Coit Tower.

In disclosure, I'm part Italian from North Beach, but I have no respect for the legacy of Christopher Columbus. If you study the history of Italians in 19th century America, Columbus was elevated to nearly saintly status as push-back from the Italian community against rampant anti-Italian racism. (Anyone remember reading about the eleven Italians lynched in New Orleans in 1891?)

Italians needed heroes, especially the generation born in the U.S., and Columbus became the most prominent role model. No one wanted to think about his actual dark legacy in the New World. I know for sure our Catholic school nuns never discussed enslavement of indigenous people or genocidal practices. Just the story about a brave Italian man with his three tiny boats sailing across the vast Atlantic...

Frankly, I believe the Columbus statue's fate was long overdue.

Statues and monuments will come and go, as will geographic place names and street names. But these changes don't erase history; they just reflect our constant learning and re-evaluation of our history. (For example, we are no less a great city for removing the name Phelan Beach and restoring it to China Beach.)

I should be clear I don't want statues of past heroes destroyed; just remove them from places of honor. Do what some eastern European countries have done since the fall of Communism and install the fallen statues of Lenin and Stalin et al in sculpture garden of shame, like Grutas Park in Lithuania, where they can be interpreted as relics of the past.

As Woody LaBounty once opined, maybe we'd all be better off if we just stopped naming things after people. Everyone, it seems, has feet of clay (or bronze?) if you dig deep enough.



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