The Rap Against Christopher Columbus Statues Overlooks Their OriginsRoundup
tags: racism, statues, genocide, monuments, public history, Columbus, Italian Americans
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of the forthcoming The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America, to be published by Johns Hopkins University Press.
History matters. If nothing else, the past two months of protest against monuments have taught us that. But history is particular to time and place. And when we lose sight of its specifics, we end up distorting the past to fit our present-day presumptions.
That’s what’s happening in the monument protests, which have mostly targeted statues of Confederate leaders and Christopher Columbus.
But Confederate and Columbus memorials have very different histories, which are getting collapsed in the heat of our moment. Put simply, the Confederate statues were built to celebrate white supremacy. And the Columbus monuments were erected to challenge it.
Columbus statues arose during the same years, but they aimed to rebut white racism rather than to further it. And the bigotry they targeted wasn’t against blacks, but against another despised minority group: Italians.
As immigration from Italy swelled, white Protestants decried Italians in much the same racial idioms they used to demean African Americans. As noted by New York Times editorial writer Brent Staples in a column last year, they were called “swarthy,” “kinky-haired,” and so on.
Descended from Hannibal’s invasion, the hateful theory claimed, Italians were “white n-rs” who disguised their true race when they came to the New World.
Celebrating Columbus was a way for Italians to counter these prejudices and to place themselves at the heart of the American story.
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