Kris Lane can’t shake the image of Christopher Columbus covered in blood.
Red fluid — all of it fake — ran down the famed explorer’s statue in downtown Denver after Native American activists emptied their buckets on Columbus Day 1989. Lane, a professor of Latin American history at Tulane University, lived in Denver then.
“The temper of the times was pretty different,” he recalled. “That initiated a conversation.”
Columbus Day controversy has flared up every fall since, this year with new fervor: Columbus statues from New York to Minnesota to California have faced vandalism or removal amid newly heightened debate on Confederate monuments, sweeping up the 15th-century figure tied to genocide and slavery. In an age of toppling statues, what happens to Columbus?
While historians caution against lumping in Columbus with Confederates who came three centuries later, they say Columbus’ holiday and monuments remain ripe for reassessment — whether they stay, change or vanish entirely.
Columbus Day became a national holiday in 1937, decades after Italian-Americans began honoring the Genoa-born explorer as a point of pride. At the time, Columbus served as a canvas for 19th-century ideas of individualism, Lane explained, a man of science who bucked authority as he ventured forth into the unknown.
Historical records show Columbus as less extraordinary, he said, a deluded navigator who stumbled upon the Americas and carried out colonization as usual — no more or less interested in slavery than others of his time. He didn’t seem to arrive with ideas of genocide, Lane said, but massive death stemmed from his encounter.
“Columbus is so ambivalent because he’s so far back in time,” said Lane.
He likens Columbus less to Robert E. Lee than to the more ambiguous Thomas Jefferson, who “owned slaves, was human and had warts. But people agreed to ignore that in order to select somebody who could be a founding father, who represented enough good things we could agree on.”
The horrors of slavery can’t be scrubbed from America’s past, said Douglas Blackmon, a historian and senior fellow at University of Virginia’s Miller Center, but it can be fully factored into the remembrances of figures like Columbus.
And if doing so brings enough dishonor, Blackmon said, it’s OK to stop celebrating them.
“The one argument that has absolutely no validity is that simply because a monument has been standing for a long time, it is ‘a part of history’ and therefore can never be changed,” he said.
“By that logic, it was wrong to have taken down the ‘White Only’ signs over water fountains and restrooms all over the South.”
Similarly, many places have retooled Columbus Day to still mark the date without honoring the man. The Bahamas, where Columbus landed, called it Discovery Day. South Dakotans called theirs Native American Day. Several cities celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day.
Such re-evaluations don’t change history, but they do change how we remember it. That’s according to James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association.
America looks remarkably different than it did that first Columbus Day, he said, and so its collective memory — what matters to citizens — will look different, too.
“Revision is not the same as lying, which people think it is,” Grossman said.
“Revisionism happens when we find new information or ask new questions, when you come up with a different narrative.”
And when monuments aren’t allowed to match our memories, they can burst out all at once, Blackmon said, as seen with debates on Columbus and Confederates today.
“The reason this broad re-evaluation is happening right now is because for most of the past 150 years—while a revolution was occurring in the way most Americans perceive race—there was also an absolute refusal to seriously reconsider how we remember these historical figures,” he said.
Leaving Columbus monuments up lets viewers reckon with his whole legacy, Lane said, good and bad. But, as Indigenous Peoples Day shows, that doesn’t mean the focus can’t be shifted.
“You still have to deal with Columbus,” he said. “But the idea of reckoning, commemoration as reckoning as opposed to celebration is distinct.”
One option is adding statues, said Alfred Brophy, a law professor at the University of Alabama who studies historical memory.
Place a statue of an indigenous woman holding her child at Columbus Circle in New York City, he said, reminding viewers of the those Columbus encountered and enslaved. New plaques could put the brutal parts of Columbus’ story in daylight for all to see.
Lane and Grossman also preferred altering monuments over removing them, whenever possible.
“Burying history is the worst way,” Brophy said. “We’re having this conversation now because the monuments still exist.”
Follow Josh Hafner on Twitter: @joshhafner
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