Monday, October 15, 2012

My Two Cents' Worth for Columbus Day. A Postage Stamp as Metaphor

12 October

This year, the United States celebrated the legal Columbus Day (Monday) holiday on October 8, but the historical date of the holiday—corresponding to the explorer's first sighting of land in the "New World"—occurred on October 12, an occasion first marked in 1792.

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It's the familiar Romantic scene from old engravings and textbooks (perhaps no longer familiar to the current generation), based on the 1847 "Landing of Columbus" in the US Capitol by John Vanderlyn: European arrivistes (illegal immigrants?) variously grateful or militant, kneel or exult, as indigenous Caribbean Americans (left foreground; background) are torn between cowering and curiosity. And the small crosses on the banners in the center have vanished (though the coat of arms on Columbus's remains). Whether reflecting the pragmatic needs of the engraver's burin or some more deliberate decision, the resultant horizontal lines at least implicitly suggest the flag of the new American nation.

This postage stamp, retrieved from my childhood collection, has had a rough time of things since it was first issued. Thankfully, though, what is a bane to the collector can be grist for the mill of the cultural historian. As if an omen, a seemingly unnecessary and heavy, cloud-like blot of ink from the cancellation (could the letters at left represent Springfield, betokening my future New England life?) neatly and nearly obliterates the figure of the heroic explorer. At some point (presumably since then), the stamp acquired a crease and tear that cut him in half and seem, like a lightning bolt, to pierce his vitals. Today, that stamp looks fussy and outdated, in more ways than one.

It could all be a metaphor for the fate of poor Cristoforo Colombo himself since that apogee of his reputation.

Pity him—and the hapless Italian-Americans, too. Already back at the time of the great Columbian Exposition of 1893, the assault of the Scandinavian-Americans from my native Midwest had begun, for the latter provocatively sailed a replica Viking ship up to the fairgrounds in Chicago. (In our day, it poses a challenging problem of historic preservation. 1, 2.) 75 years later, as chance would have it, Leif Erikson had earned his own postage stamp, after it became clear that Columbus had not been the first European to reach the New World. (And he in any case of course never set foot on the North American continent, whose existence he was not even aware of.)

For a while, the theory that Columbus was a Jew was in vogue in some circles, but by the time the 500th anniversary of his first voyage rolled around, in 1992, when he was increasingly associated only with conquest, forced conversion, enslavement and genocide, rather than "discovery" and heroism, no one in America of any ethnicity seemed particularly eager to claim him. He had become, in the phrase just coming (back) into vogue in that decade, "politically incorrect." (1, 2, 3, 4)

from my office door: humorous take on Columbus as villain, 1992
Anyway, as Newsweek noted in its coverage of the non-celebration in that anniversary year, the fellow who popularized the original "Jewish" theory was a Spanish fascist of the Franco era, and among the "evidence" he cited was Columbus's love of gold. Nuff said. A far more sophisticated variant of that theory (which has its own more respectable antecedents) based on putative further evidence has resurfaced in the last few years, but emphasizing Columbus's alleged desire to find a refuge for "his" persecuted "people," and thus giving his ventures a political-moral motive in keeping with modern sensibilities rather than emphasizing the traditional "discovery" in the service of empire. (e.g. 1, 2, 3)..

It is always fascinating to sit on the elevated shores of historical scholarship and watch the shifting tides of opinion ebb and flow. As I teach my students, history, like literary criticism, is a science of evolving interpretation. And because so many individuals and communities have a stake in it, the historical discipline tells us as much about ourselves as about the past. History, as we nowadays understand it, is about scholarship (as objective as we can make it, though recognizing the unavoidable limits of our necessarily limited perspectives), but also about public consciousness and the inevitable appropriation of the past for present purposes. Thus the rise of fashionable "memory" studies alongside history as such. Not surprisingly, Columbus looked very different to the Americans of 1492, 1792, 1892, and 1992.

Regardless of political persuasion, most historians nowadays would agree: whereas previous generations tended to venerate Columbus by accentuating the "modern" as well as the positive (and we do not wish to take away from his navigational skill and courage), we nowadays tend to see him (like some other figures of that "Renaissance"—or as we more commonly say in the profession—"early modern era") as more complex: more medieval and more transitional, less "modern": less the bold rationalist admiral of the ocean sea, and more the mystic and crusader.

I'll list just one example from this year's more substantive political controversies:

Over at Good, in "Rethinking Columbus: Toward a True People's History, Bill Bigelow explains:
This past January, almost exactly 20 years after its publication, Tucson schools banned the book I co-edited with Bob Peterson, Rethinking Columbus. It was one of a number of books adopted by Tucson's celebrated Mexican American Studies program—a program long targeted by conservative Arizona politicians.

The school district sought to crush the Mexican American Studies program; our book itself was not the target, it just got caught in the crushing. Nonetheless, Tucson's—and Arizona's—attack on Mexican American Studies and Rethinking Columbus shares a common root: the attempt to silence stories that unsettle today’s unequal power arrangements.
For years, I opened my 11th grade U.S. history classes by asking students, "What's the name of that guy they say discovered America?" A few students might object to the word "discover," but they all knew the fellow I was talking about. "Christopher Columbus!" several called out in unison.

"Right. So who did he find when he came here?" I asked. Usually, a few students would say "Indians," but I asked them to be specific: "Which nationality? What are their names?"


In more than 30 years of teaching U.S. history and guest teaching in others' classes, I've never had a single student say "Taínos." So I ask them to think about that fact. "How do we explain that? We all know the name of the man who came here from Europe, but none of us knows the name of the people who were here first—and there were hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of them. Why haven't you heard of them?"

This ignorance is an artifact of historical silencing—rendering invisible the lives and stories of entire peoples. It's what educators began addressing in earnest 20 years ago, during plans for the 500th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the Americas, which at the time the Chicago Tribune boasted would be "the most stupendous international celebration in the history of notable celebrations." Native American and social justice activists, along with educators of conscience, pledged to interrupt the festivities.

In an interview with Barbara Miner, included in Rethinking Columbus, Suzan Shown Harjo of the Morning Star Institute, who is Creek and Cheyenne, said: "As Native American peoples in this red quarter of Mother Earth, we have no reason to celebrate an invasion that caused the demise of so many of our people, and is still causing destruction today." After all, Columbus did not merely "discover," he took over. He kidnapped Taínos, enslaved them—"Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold," Columbus wrote—and "punished" them by ordering that their hands be cut off or that they be chased down by vicious attack dogs, if they failed to deliver the quota of gold that Columbus demanded. One eyewitness accompanying Columbus wrote that it "did them great damage, for a dog is the equal of 10 men against the Indians."
(Arizona's policies in areas ranging from border enforcement to education have raised charges of bias against legal immigrants and other members of the Latino@ population. The Amherst Select Board in 2010 approved a boycott of Arizona based on its in our view discriminatory immigration law.)

As in past years, students at Hampshire College vented their rage against Columbus by reducing the above argument to provocative but ultimately simplistic (and of course harmless) denunciations:

Fuck Columbus, Celebrate Indigenous Resistance
Columbus Slavery
Columbus Genocide
(and once more, for good measure) Fuck Columbus, Celebrate Indigenous Resistance
Bill Bigelow's point is well taken, but the reductionist chalk slogans on sidewalks cannot capture the complexity of either his critique or Columbus's achievement and legacy, which were necessarily more mixed and nuanced. The so-called "discovery" was fraught with moral shortcomings and consequences, short-term and long-term, of which we are nowadays all too aware. At the same time, it was of epochal significance on a historical, cultural, and even biological level. It is not simple to separate the two categories.

Already back in the 1970s, for example, in the great novel, Terra Nostra, the celebrated Mexican author and diplomat Carlos Fuentes argued that Latin America could not be made whole until it fully acknowledged its Spanish as well as indigenous roots: or, as he put it, erected a monument to Cortes as well as Montezuma. He and Octavio Paz managed, controversially, to come together on that general point on the occasion of the 1992 anniversary.

History may indeed be in many ways (to cite Gibbon paraphrasing Voltaire) "the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind," but to reduce it to that would be to render it one-dimensional.

A three-dimensional rendering of Columbus from the heyday of his popularity was also in the news on the occasion of the holiday. Whereas the artist Christo calls new attention to familiar sights by "wrapping" them, Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi achieves a similar effect by "fabricating domestic environments around artworks and public monuments." His latest project, sponsored by the Public Art Fund: construction of a living room around the 1892 Gaetano Russo statue of the explorer that, atop a pillar, dominates New York's Columbus Circle.

Visitors who ascend the scaffolding enclosing the monument can thus behold it at eye-level rather than from 70 feet below. (The scaffolding also serves a practical purpose: when the exhibit closes, conservation of the monument, at a cost of one million dollars, will begin.) Nishi's purpose, he said, involved art, as such, rather than history and politics:
"It's not my intention to say something about Columbus; rather, I want to change the sculpture from public sculpture into a completely different thing," Nishi said.
Others saw it differently. I was surprised (though perhaps I should not have been) to see that an Italian-American organization, rather than applauding the attention (not to mention, the originality of the artistic conception), chose to criticize the installation:
Rosario Iaconis, chairman of the Italic Institute of America, commented on the project before it opened.

"Columbus was a man of the Renaissance, an exemplar of that civilization. This, is foolishness. This is not art. If it's his particular vision, it's a skewed vision, so I, again with due respect to Mr. Nishi, I think he stumbled on his project. 
He was not alone:
“Why did they have to choose such a beautiful and symbolic landmark for such a trivializing display and then obfuscate its absurdity by calling it 'art'?” asked Andre’ DiMino, president of the One Voice Coalition, an Italian-American non-profit dedicated to combating discrimination within the community.

“It just adds insult to injury to cover it up on Columbus Day – a day of national pride,” he said.

While the Consul General of Italy is personally interested in this exhibition, she understands that some people won’t embrace it.

“It's normal,” said Natalia Quintavalle. “It happens every time when you have a sort of expression of contemporary art like that which intervenes on something old which represents much for Italians and Italian Americans in New York."

Others argue that from a civic participation point of view the exhibit is out of character artistically with the area.
“Covering it up entirely obscures it from people walking by who wish to see it on the street,” said Frank Vernuccio, a board member of the Enrico Fermi Cultural Committee, a Bronx non-profit that promotes Italian culture. Vernuccio does not intend to visit the exhibit and he encourages the city to take it down as soon as possible.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg disagrees with the objections. “You can't see it from the street and here you can get your eyes 10 inches away,” he said at the opening preview in September. “We would have had to cover it to do the restoration anyways.”
It's somehow fitting: even on a purely aesthetic plane, a reminder of the earlier veneration of Columbus cannot escape controversy—even if it now comes from his admirers.

* * *


The result of the Spanish and Portuguese conquests of the Americas, as brutal and thorough as they were, was not a matter of the mere obliteration of one culture and "imposition" of another. One way to experience and understand the resultant fusion of indigenous and European cultures is through the music. Herewith a small selection:

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