Fall Follies, Myths and Statues

Fall Follies, Myths and Statues

Autumn brings us changing leaves, but it also brings the opportunity to   review some of the myths that lie at the heart of our nation’s foundation.
It offers the opportunity, in transition and change, to question ourselves and the lessons we teach and the ways that our teaching shapes national myths.
What toddler cannot recite the ditty, “In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Universal as it is, it embraces a set of racist assumptions — that Columbus’ sailing had any more significance than that of the average White man jumping in a boat and getting himself lost. If we review Christopher Columbus objectively, we’d simply see him as an arrogant European gone mad. How the heck did he think he discovered a darned thing, when all he did is badly navigate his boat into other people’s countries.
    In the parlance of Generation X, “Whatever.”  Except we have to be much less indifferent about the ways that the myth of Columbus has been commemorated in statues around the country. The National Italian American Foundation reports there are 63 tributes in 44 cities found in 15 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Some of these places, like Washington, D.C., have as many as a dozen symbols to Christopher Columbus. I’d guess if we added all the statues and symbols to African Americans in this country they’d hardly add up to 63, especially if we removed the ubiquitous Dr. Martin Luther King from the roster.
Indeed, statues are used as cultural leverage, as ways of telling a story. And the story that is told, if one rolls around the United States, is that Columbus discovered America —  which was sitting around just waiting to be discovered. He then discovered ways to make America pay. Finally, his supporters discovered an American mythology that reinforced the notion that a misguided Italian could discover — as opposed to encounter — a world that already existed.
Several weeks ago, we celebrated Columbus. But we are far less likely to celebrate the other folks whose lives and sacrifices are at the foundation of our nation. Indeed, even as we celebrated Columbus, we were closing doors on alternative interpretations of our nation’s formation.   Recently, a government committee decided there should be no new statues or monuments on the National Mall because it is “too crowded.” Sounds benign. But if the Mall and other museums and statuary sites are crowded, it is because someone has allowed White folks a monopoly on our history.
The Joint Task Force on Memorials on the Mall, that area of Washington, D.C., that runs from the Lincoln Memorial to the U. S. Capitol, says it would ban new memorials except for those already approved, and is encouraging those who want to commemorate key persons or events in history to do so in other parts of the District of Columbia.
But the Mall is the most visited part of Washington, D.C. Sprinkling monuments throughout the city might improve some neighborhood aesthetics, but may not draw the tourists. Realistically, citizen groups don’t raise millions of dollars simply to build statues. They also want people to see the statues and monuments, to appreciate the role that some, perhaps forgotten, have played in history.
There are 31 memorials in the restricted area of the mall, the area where the Joint Task Force —  which includes the National Capital Planning Commission, the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Memorial Commission — says there can be no new construction. There are another 66 memorials in the area that surrounds the restricted area. If the proposed regulations are approved, the only shot that new memorials will have to being near the mall will be on U.S. Capitol grounds because that land is controlled by the architect of the Capitol.
Although I know that race played no role in the decision to restrict new building on the Mall, my racial hackles went up immediately. That’s because the African American experience is simply underrepresented on the Mall right now. The fact that our slave labor has been the foundation of this country is unrecognized. Our war experiences are unmentioned, except as part of other tributes to veterans. Our outstanding leaders have no place, today, on the Mall.  As millions of tourists do each year, one could walk through the Mall and never know of the many African American contributions to United States history. Yet there are 63 tributes to Columbus around the country.
To invoke Gen X again, I am not a “playa hater.” If Columbus did anything, he ought to get high props for it. At the same time, the fact is that old versions of history have strangled new versions, and the myth of an exploratory Columbus plays the nation cheap. More than that, it seems that the dominance of the Columbus myth crowds out all kinds of other stories. And it seems that some of the stories that are crowded out need telling in statuary, in song, in thanksgiving.
Los Angeles-based sculptor Tina Allen has lifted up Alex Haley, Ron Brown and Sojourner Truth in her work. She is one of a few African American sculptors on the cutting edge of the conversation about the power and placement of statues. Here is what the rest of us need to understand. There are all these tributes to Columbus because all around the country, over a more than a century, people bought the myth that the misguided vassal “discovered” America. What would happen if we believed that the African American contribution deserved statuary recognition? How better could we shape the landscape if we could get folks to buy into our myths and our reality?                                                                     



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