Healing from the Past: Why Columbus has to go.

Staring up at the gorgeous statue of Christopher Columbus, I could only think one thing: When do we tear this shit down?

Today, much of the nation will “celebrate” Columbus Day.  I place that word in quotes because few Americans will think of the day beyond gratitude for a long weekend.

However, a growing number of us are fed up with celebrating a man who was no better than a lost pirate.  Cities and states across The U.S. are replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day.

It’s amusing that a Italian-Americans were a major force in pushing for this holiday given that Columbus worked for the Spanish.  I can understand why they felt the need at the time but I think it’s time to reconsider what was overlooked.

(TW: rape, violence, child abuse, sexual abuse)

Many historians still portray Columbus as a heroic and laudable figure and defend criticism of him by saying he was “A man of his times.”  This suggests that all others would have acted as barbarically as he did.  However, if we examine the reaction of his contemporaries, we can see that -even back then- many were horrified by his actions:

…he sent some 500 slaves to Queen Isabella. The queen was horrified–she believed that any people Columbus “discovered” were Spanish subjects who could not be enslaved–and she promptly and sternly returned the explorer’s gift.

In May 1498, Columbus sailed west across the Atlantic for the third time. He visited Trinidad and the South American mainland before returning to the ill-fated Hispaniola settlement, where the colonists had staged a bloody revolt against the Columbus brothers’ mismanagement and brutality. Conditions were so bad that Spanish authorities had to send a new governor to take over. Christopher Columbus was arrested and returned to Spain in chains.

I called Columbus a pirate for, even though he did not steal from ships, he lived a life of theft and violence.  He lived for his own greed and ego- murdering, raping, and enslaving as he went.  There is nothing here for us to celebrate; this is not anyone to admire.

We cannot heal our nation without acknowledging the past.  We’ve still yet to reconcile with the brutality of our origins.  As we tell these fairy tales of a hero, we hide a monster  whose actions helped to foster an environment of subjugation, rape, abuse, slavery, and murder.

One day this summer, I found myself at Columbus Circle in Manhattan. I’d been there many times but I’d not truly thought about the name of where I was until I crossed into the area where his statue is planted.

Staring up at the gorgeous statue of Columbus, I could only think one thing: When do we tear this shit down?   Though I did mean that I wanted to literally watch a wrecking ball smash Columbus, I also wanted it to be as simple to smash away all that we’ve devoted to his memory and what it means to us.

It was clear to me in that moment that the need for the  Black Lives Matter marches I’d been participating in were directly connected to maintaining these myths.

The myths prop up white supremacy with the lies of the noble intention of those who invaded.  There was never nobility.  It was a continuation of the Roman tradition of conquering.

We hold contrary views in these narratives:

  1. Our origins aren’t worse than anyone else’s (Other people have stolen land)
  2. Our origins are better than everyone else’s  (We believe in “freedom”)

We may believe in freedom but we have never extended freedom to all.  You may as well say “I love you” to someone you’re abusing.  Do the promises and words stop you from hurting if you’re being hit?

In individual families where there is abuse, the child who is abused covers for the abuser.  The rest of the family enables the abuse by ignoring or excusing the abuse. Every person in the family must lie to those around them, to each other and even to themselves about what it happening.

When the adult child is ready to acknowledge the abuse, the family becomes angry with them.  By merely speaking the truth the abused becomes the one “destroying the family with lies.” The reality is that they are destroying the lies with truth.

That is what we must do: Destroy lies, and myths, with truth.

Our nation cannot move forward and heal until the enablers are ready to acknowledge the abuse of the past and the harm it’s still causing to this day.  Wounds have not been healed.  The damage has never been tallied because it’s still occurring.

Every time we state that we must hold on to the noble dream of past villains we continue to harm the ones who were abused.  We’re gaslighting all of those in our population who’ve inherited the emotional scars of terror and death and who continue to face terror and death.

Imagine being told that this is your country while simultaneously being asked to celebrate the people who murdered your ancestors.

The enablers of the lying myth are fiercely invested in maintaining the lie of our “heroes” and of obscuring what the past really was.

When Bree Newsome took down the Confederate Flag, I saw people defend a flag with more passion than they’d ever defended the right to live of any person of color (so much for being “right to life”).  Some unfriended me when I stood in support of taking down the flag.  It’s a flag, not a person.

We face a time of reckoning with all of our past symbols, songs, and myths. Now is the time to ask ourselves if those lies and symbols matter more than actual living human beings?

Must we keep holding onto old things?

I loved watching the show “Clean House.”  They’d visit hoarders who were living in untenable situations because they were emotionally attached the the past as it was represented in objects they’d kept.

You can’t move forward while also holding onto the past.

It’s good to grow.  It’s good to move forward.  If we keep defending the past “heroes” with the caveat that “they were products of their times” can we then admit that the times were bad?  Can we finally put some distance to them?

I’ve loved the myth of America and the dream of a land where everyone is free and can live their dreams.  It sounds beautiful.  I wish for this place which never existed.  What is the exceptional quality of our freedom if it doesn’t exist for all?

Since Donald began his campaign, I’ve said that the answer to “Make America Great Again” is Langston Hughes, Let America Be America Again.”

In the poem Hughes details all of the Americans who have been failed by the dream. Yet, Hughes states with hope at the end:

“America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath—America will be!”

I also would still love to see this country be that “America” I’ve heard about.  I want it to be  a land which lives up to the promise and the hype sold by it’s marketing team (marketing team=school books).

If we want to move closer to becoming a nation which respects all people, we must stop lying about the nobility of the wealthy white men who founded this country.

Thomas Jefferson was capable of writing about beautiful ideals but living up to them proved much more difficult.  He wrote extensively about the evils of slavery while never managing to free more than a handful out of hundreds of his own slaves.  Love his words?  Sure.  Admire the man?- problematic.

In truth, if we admire the words of Jefferson, we can find instruction which lends itself to this well needed demolition and recreation:

“whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness”

We need to tear down the statue but we also need to tear down all the romanticism of the past.  These lies and myths pretend that genocide and slavery were not the foundation of this country’s “prosperity.”  In this instance, the quotes are to remind us that prosperity has always been reserved for only certain groups.

We can’t keep the name “Columbus Circle”.  When I started to think about all of the things we’ve named after Columbus  it’s rather daunting to think of replacing all of it but it’s vitally important that we do. Leaving them there allows us to continue the lie that he ever deserved such regard.

As a nation, we are only in control of those homages we created.  What new name can we use for  “District of Colombia?”  If you’re already feeling the resistance to this change remember- even old “New York” was once “New Amsterdam.”

The Danger of Hero Worship

Our world has lost an artist who inspired and affected people across age and cultural boundaries.  As we have mourned and reminisced over the loss of David Bowie, many of us have become aware of stories that might threaten the memories we cherish.

Important dialog is taking place on the internet, in blogs and in comments. Like most important dialog, it makes people uncomfortable.

Did David Bowie rape a 13 year old girl? From what I’ve been reading, it seems likely.

Instead of dissecting the past in terms of what one individual may have done (as many  have done with others like Woody Allen and Bill Cosby) I will examine why we, as a society, and as individuals, don’t want to look.

Many people live in fear that if they begin to examine these issues, they will lose something they love. They fear they will no longer be able to enjoy the art and music that has shaped and deeply impacted their lives.

They also wish to hold onto the person who inspired them as an untarnished hero.  Rather than lose something precious to them, they turn away from the discussion, altogether.

Artists are not their art.  Art exists independently of the artist.  

I come from a family of artists and musicians.  Never once have I felt that the art I create comes directly from me.  I’ve felt that art moves through me.  What intention I have when I make the art, if I have intention at all, may have little to no bearing on how the art is experienced by others.  The art is its own, after it is birthed.  Because of my own feelings toward my creations, it’s been easy for me to view art independent from the artist.

I can read the dialogs of Plato and still find instruction despite the fact that his culture would have had little room for my voice, as a woman.  If a book, concept, or quote stands on its own, I can use it to feed me apart from how the author may have intended.  I can read Enlightenment thinkers who were never able to live up to their own beautiful ideals and still find inspiration.

There is, of course, a valid concern that we may not want to give monetary support to living artists, musicians, writers, and entertainers, if we feel they did abuse people, or may still be abusing.   Each person can examine whether they want to remain patrons of any individual, though I’d ask those same people to give as much thought regarding each dollar they spend in any regard.   I doubt any of us is unscathed by connection to exploitation in this way, even when we try (we should still try).

However, I don’t think we need a moral crisis over the consumption of art. If you’re looking for art/music only from saints, you will likely be left with no art and no music.

Artists are people.  People are complex.

Do we need to lose our heroes? Maybe. Or, perhaps we need to redefine what “hero” means.

Hero worship relates in some fashion to family pride and nationalism.  It draws on the same desire to protect that which we hold dear as though it were a part of our own body.  We have difficulty finding fault in any person, or group, to whom we’ve developed that kind of attachment.

Hero vs. villain is a flawed notion, as presented in our culture. We deify our heroes and view attention brought to failings as an offense.  I’ve witnessed this reaction, in the past year alone, in regard to criticisms of  Bill Cosby, Jon Stewart, various political figures, and police officers.  It appears that people are allowed to either love or hate someone.  Yet, finding flaws can be a high form of love when we ask, “Can you do better?”

Certain people in our society have bonded to the concept of police in general and glorify the officers in abstraction, while others find all police to be villainous.  Neither group are able to view police as individuals.  The nuance of the individual is also lost with those who will bond to one political party, and malign another.  Read any comment section on a political article and you’ll find ad hominems of: “That’s what I’d expect from a (insert “Republican” or “Democrat”) like you.”

Furthermore, it’s important that we examine which groups we, as a society, readily and consistently vilify.  I’ve seen many people share articles  showing that rowdy white people at sporting events are portrayed as “revelers” while rowdy people of color protesting are portrayed as “thugs.”  We can witness statistics which bear out that people of color are policed in ways that white people are not; it’s impossible for me to imagine a black militia being allowed to take over a portion of Baltimore and claim it as their own.  I don’t believe the response from authorities would be at all the same as we’ve seen with the militia in Oregon, even if the occupied area were uninhabited.

If we are able to search for excuses for our heroes, who essentially are strangers to us, how can we fail to extend the same understanding to those who are, actually, equally unknown to us?  In all of these circumstances, people are seeking to prove that a person is good, or bad.

In truth, there are no good people. There are no bad people. This oversimplification is a false dichotomy.

In a strict definition, a good person would find it impossible to do something bad and a bad person would, likewise, never do anything good. That’s just not how humans are.

Yet, there is good action, and bad action.

Good and bad are what we do, not what we are.

As individuals, we are all made up of the sum of *all* of our actions. But that doesn’t come out to a grade at the end. It’s more like each action still lives on, with all of its consequence attached. Each of us should appreciate that all our own actions play out in this way.

It’s important that we focus on the culture (that’s us) that supports these events rather than singularly focus on any one individual.  In what way does our society prime young women to offer themselves to men, sexually?  In what way do we prime men to treat women as something which exists for them? In what ways do we still excuse the men and blame the young girls?

Do we treat a young girl who has been with a rock star with a similar attitude that we treat a young boy who has been with any older woman: you were so lucky.   When we do this, our reactions make it harder for a person who was harmed to say, “This wasn’t what I wanted,” even to themselves.

I wonder how much of what our culture does relates to family dynamics within households.  I know of too many situations where a child was abused and if the child wished to speak out, the rest of the family condemned them and essentially said the victim would be the one ruining the family.   It seems like we still get angry at the ones who are telling us they’re hurt.  This is part of what is meant by the term “rape culture.”

If you start to read articles, you’d be hard pressed to find any musician of the 70’s era that isn’t linked to sex with teens. Given the way the music and art scene is described, even if one could argue Bowie wasn’t involved with any 13 year old, he was certainly surrounded by friends who were.

This means everyone around, at the time, was aware of what was happening.

I watched a video of Dinah Shore interviewing Iggy Pop where he talks about cutting himself with a bottle while on stage to punish himself because he feels guilty about leaving a 13 year old girl stranded, at the airport. Bowie is sitting next to him during this interview. I had a bad feeling about what that might imply even before reading anything about Bowie’s possible involvement with a minor. Yet, Dinah Shore doesn’t seemed fazed one bit.

I don’t believe we have to abandon art because the artists have done things we abhor but we do need to have the courage to look at what has happened so that we may say “how did/does our culture foster this?”

If I have a friend I love who has done something wrong, I will call them out on it. It doesn’t mean I’m saying, “You are bad.” I’m saying “This *action* is unacceptable.”  Similarly, we can condemn an action of a beloved artist of any kind and still make use of whatever they created that had merit.

I think it’s important we call out those artists who may be currently harming someone, or who have yet to own to past abuse.

For artists who have passed on, we must accept that genius does not equal greatness in terms of ethics. It never did. It also doesn’t equal a pass.

If we can separate the art from the artists, perhaps we can allow ourselves to look more closely at things which we may not want to, and ask questions, and have conversations about these topics.

Understanding that Bowie was an addict, and owned to harming those around him while an abuser, I’d like to think he regretted any action he took, or failed to take, regarding other abuse around him. I’d like to think that. Is it true? I’ll certainly never know.

It’s hard for me to reconcile a man so evolved in so many ways, championing so many virtues, who would fail so glaringly in this one. Yet, sadly, it’s not uncommon in our society.

For me, I don’t want to look at the past with accusation and say “they.” I want to look to the present and the future to say “We” can do better.

I think we are already doing better because, in my youth, these conversations were not happening. Women were always blamed for anything bad that happened to them. Let’s, at least, safely discard that concept and move forward, with courage, to face the failings of heroes so we can all learn to be better.

I don’t think we have to abandon the art. I do think it’s necessary to abandon the hero.



*Correction: an earlier version of this piece asked if Bowie “had sex” with a 13 year old girl.  This has been corrected to properly state this as rape.