ArticleA brief history of protests, takedowns and counter-proposals to the commemoration of Christopher Columbus in the United States
Christopher Columbus infamously dominates our US history and cultural identity. The figure of Columbus is glamorized as a hero, cultural icon, and the great discoverer of America across textbooks, memorials, place names and more. In contestation to his mythical valor, nation-wide protests for racial, indigenous, and LGBTQ+ justice have accelerated dialogue about who gets celebrated, and whose histories become immortalized in American’s built-environment. While there’s plenty of info about the “greatness” of Columbus, this Zine seeks to highlight the opposite: We Never Wanted Him Here!
The Audit the Streets project at the Data + Feminism Lab aims to audit the “American heritage landscape” using our database of street names, monuments, statues, and other markers of history, in order to highlight national disparities in commemoration practices. Along the way we’ve started to research and visualize patterns of Columbus commemorations and counter-Columbianism in the landscape, with particular focus on counter-memorials and contestations from marginalized groups whose legacies and contributions have been omitted since the start of Columbus’s rise as an American imperial icon.
In our Zine we highlight 3 notable and historical moments, or case studies, of counter- Columbianism over the years:
The first erupted in 1893 — at the World’s Columbian Fair in Chicago.
At the Exposition Columbus was “presented in terms that appealed to the practical Anglo-American mentality of the gilded age,” but it also revealed the problematic components of this legacy and myth (Schlereth P 26). There was much recorded opposition to Columbus Exposition from Indigenous groups, African Americans, and upper- and middle-class white women. This Zine highlights the incredible efforts by Ida B Wells, Frederick Douglas, and colleagues to protest the exclusion of African Americans from the fair’s organizing and exhibitions. In protest, Ida B. Wells wrote and distributed 20,000 copies of the informational pamphlet titled: “THE REASON WHY — The Colored American is Not In The World’s Columbian Exposition.”
The next case study spotlights the Turtle Island monument erected in 1992 to memorialize many names and tribes of Indigenous groups, cultures, and values native to Berkeley, CA. In 1992, Lee Sprague, a Potawatomie and member of the Little River Bank of Ottawa Indians, designed the Turtle Island Monument for Berkeley’s Civic Center MLK Park. In his design Sprague writes, “The Bronze Turtle in the center of the monument symbolizes the creation of Turtle Island … Many of the tiles have the names of Nations and Peoples who are Indigenous to Turtle Island. Many of the tiles are blank, representing the Nations and Peoples who are no longer here and the languages no longer spoken on Turtle Island.” Under the Turtle is a time capsule, which reads:
WE DEDICATE THIS MONUMENT TO THE SEVENTH GENERATION
OF OUR CHILDREN’S CHILDREN,
WE GIVE TO YOU OUR THOUGHTS, HOPES AND DREAMS
FOR THE FUTURE OF ALL OF CREATION ON MOTHER EARTH
As early as the 1970s, activists have called to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day, a day to mark both the persecution and contributions of those who had occupied the continent long before Columbus’s arrival. Today, over 70 cities celebrate Indigenous People’s Day.
In the third case study we forefront 2020’s waves of Columbus monument removals and statues of other colonizers across the globe.
Over 35 monuments to Columbus have been removed as of 2021. In the summer of 2020, international uprisings following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McCain and more African Americans led to renewed discussions about the role of monuments and commemoration. Some monuments were removed by force: a statue in Baltimore was torn down and dumped into the Inner Harbor; a statue in Boston was beheaded; a statue in Houston had its hand cut off (referring to Columbus’s treatment of the Taino people, who were punished by having their hands cut off if they failed to gather enough gold). Other monuments were removed by order of the local government, in places such as Chicago, Hartford, and Philadelphia.
Here you can find an inventory of take-downs from the Confronting Columbus project:
Unfold the zine to reveal a map of existing Columbus and Columbia memorialization sites and names, including cities, streets, buildings, monuments, natural landmarks, and more.
Our team found a tremendous Columbus place-naming prevalence across the nation amounting to: over 3,500 streets, over 1,000 buildings, nearly 500 schools, nearly 200 monuments and nearly 1,000 other features in the landscape. By contrast to nation-wide magnitude of Columbus commemorations, the map accentuates the three case study moments of counter-protests and contestations from coast to coast.
In our map design we were inspired by old maritime maps with mythical themes, including elaborate illustrations and navigational lines, some of which we sourced at the Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library. These visuals aligned with our understanding of Christopher Columbus and his discovery of the Americas as a myth.
The Columbus myth is shaped by an extensive history of efforts to glamorize and strategically revise his story to serve as a model of imperial ambitions of the US, and to shape ideals of American manifest destiny. These myths include our perception of Columbus (we have no images of him, so we don’t know what he really looked like), and in embellished depictions of his aristocratic dress and status (he really wore the drab dress of a late fifteenth-century ship’s pilot).
While European historians accurately captured images of Columbus’s eventual arrest, disgrace, removal as Spanish colonial governor, his return to Spain in prisoner’s chains, and other tragedies he faced in death, these facts are all but erased from America’s monuments, busts, and history books.
This Zine literally marginalizes the Columbian Myth, and instead enlivens critical moments of American Counter-Columbianism.
The zine is on display in the Leventhal Map & Education Center’s current exhibition, Bending Lines. The gallery at the Central Library in Copley Square is free to the public and open six days a week; learn more about visiting in person.
Right now, our zine is available digitally, at various bookstores and by request. We would love to put the zine in more bookstores and libraries and classrooms.
If you are interested in copies for the zine for your bookshop or library or classroom or organization or event, please send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org — we have a bunch of copies ready to send. Zines will also be available at future D+F Lab events.
We list here a few organizations whose work has touched on decolonizing the built landscape, advocating for indigenous people’s day or generating awareness of Columbus’ problematic legacy. Feel free to suggest other organizations to us or donate to a local activists group in your area.
Elizabeth Borneman is a writer, designer and graduate of Comparative Media Studies at MIT.
Lily Xie is an artist and a second year masters student at the Department of Urban Studies + Planning at MIT.
Hua Xi is a writer and artist. Their writings have appeared in The Nation and the Boston Review
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