South Carolina removed the Confederate battle flag from its statehouse grounds this summer. Walmart removed it from its stores. Virginia is removing it from vanity license plates. Ridding popular culture of this racist symbol is long overdue, considering the stars and bars first rose to support a treasonous rebellion in support of state-supported white supremacy, manifested in the most grotesque fashion as legally sanctioned enslavement, wanton murder, and rape of black Americans. The flag later had a resurgence beginning in the 1940s, with white supremacists raising it in opposition to civil rights and desegregation. It’s not the Southern heritage of lemonade and hospitality that Confederate symbol represents, but this darker heritage of white privilege and the horrific subjugation of blacks—and no number of Dukes of Hazzard reruns can erase that.
Also this year, the Lancaster, New York school board voted unanimously to change the racist name of their high school sports teams. The original name began its life in the 19th century, referring to the dried scalp-skins of Native Americans which could be exchanged for cash by bounty hunters during a genocidal period of American history. Supporters of the racist name protested and, in a last-ditch effort to keep their town in the middle 1800s, imported a rather random Native American from South Dakota and a Cuban Indian impersonator from Connecticut to testify that they were okay with the racist moniker. The school board, however, feeling the tidal pull of the 21st century—and, probably more importantly, confronting a growing boycott of their teams by other schools— ditched the name.
It seemed like we were finally confronting the enduring symbols of our racist past, albeit with tiny baby steps.
Pecca vestra exponuntur
Photo courtesy of TWC News
Sometime over the Labor Day weekend, someone, or some group of people, painted a rather accurate history lesson on the City of Buffalo’s Christopher Columbus statue, located in Columbus Park on the city’s Lower West Side, adjacent to a neighborhood that hosts one of New York State’s largest urban Native American communities. Three local TV news crews covered the story on September 7 (Time Warner Cable News) and 8 (WIVB and WGRZ), all contextualizing the incident as vandalism and asking viewers to snitch out the writers to police, with two reports broadcasting a tip line number.
The writers painted the word “rape” across the front of the statue’s base, “slaver” on one side, “genocide” on another. Most interestingly, they wrote the Latin phrase “pecca vestra exponuntur,” which translates to “your sins are exposed,” across the back of the base. All three television crews chose to ignore this last message; one (WIVB) also ignored “slaver,” while another (TWC) misstated it as “slave,” which would reverse the meaning. None of the reporters expressed any understanding of the context of the story—why, in the run-up to Columbus Day, these messages appeared, or why other writers have been painting similar messages on this statue for decades.
To quickly recap the history behind the Columbus myth: The character of Christopher Columbus, “the great discoverer,” was created in 1828 by the American writer, Washington Irving, as a piece of historical fiction based on the life of Cristóbal Colón. Colón, along with other members of the “voyages of discovery,” kept logs and took meticulous notes in journals, leaving a strong record of evidence describing events from multiple perspectives. These logs and journals exist to this day in the Spanish archives and paint a pretty damning picture of Colón. Far from being the fabled explorer who argued to an unbelieving world that the earth was round, Colón actually lived out his life arguing that it was pear-shaped even though the concept of a round earth was well accepted by 1492. His most significant contribution to history was as the father of the transatlantic slave trade, who presided over a brutal reign of murder and rape shortly after arriving in the new world.
When he did not find gold in the Caribbean, Colón looked for an alternative commodity to satisfy his investors and win funding for subsequent voyages. That commodity turned out to be his hosts, the Taino people. Colón, impressed by their friendliness, generosity, and peaceful nature, wrote in his journal that “They are the best people in the world and above all the gentlest.” What this meant, he wrote, was that “with 50 men they could all be subjected and made to do all that one might wish.” The Taino, he explained, were “fit to be ordered about, to sow, and do everything else that may be needed.”
Colón captured up what he described as “seven head of women, young ones and adults, and three small children” to bring back to Spain as cargo, along with exotic birds and fruits. This act by Colón, who claimed previous experience as a slave trader in Africa, laid the precedent and foundation for one of the darkest chapters in world history—the transatlantic slave trade, which, after most of the indigenous population in the Caribbean was worked to death or killed by genocide and disease, thrived bringing captured Africans to the Americas. The journals from Colón’s voyages graphically document acts of rape and depraved brutality, beyond the pale even for 15th-century Europe. There is no place in any American city for a statue of this man, much less a holiday in his honor.
The TWC reporter sought his explanation for the Columbus statue “vandalism” from a confused passerby, who explained to viewers that the writers must be “ignorant people with small minds” who “do stupid things,” which, he added, “doesn’t make any sense.” Seeking out folks for comment based solely on the fact that they are clueless on the subject matter seems to be a forte of Buffalo television news reporters.
The fact that news producers chose to broadcast this embarrassing idiocy speaks volumes not only about the crisis of journalism but about the epidemic of ignorance regarding issues of racism. One of the most noticeable aspects of white privilege is the privilege to remain ignorant of, or just not give a damn about, the persistence of racism. TWC’s interview subject concluded that “The statue isn’t bothering anybody and has been there for years.” The ignorance exemplified by this reporting clues us in to why it’s still there.
Boston’s anti-Columbus gangstas
Of course Buffalo doesn’t have a monopoly on bad journalism—or on Columbus statues. Earlier this summer someone covered part of Boston’s Columbus statue in blood red paint, writing “Black Lives Matter” across its base. “Boston’s News Leader,” WCVB, also framed their televised story on the incident as one about “vandals” who “tagged” the statue, as if “Black Lives Matter” was an artist’s tag rather than a message. Their story begins, “The paint has since been removed, but a lot of questions and frustration has been left behind.” Their confused on-air interview subject goes on to ponder, “Why here? It just seems so out of place.” The paint incident follows an earlier beheading of the same statue.
Adding to the reporter’s seemingly insurmountable confusion was the fact, she reported, that “The vandalism follows numerous similar attacks on Confederate monuments across the South.” Apparently unaware of the connection she just made, she went on to give a report about statues of historic Confederate racists recently being “defaced” in Texas, South Carolina, and Virginia, though, she explained, “It’s not clear who is behind the vandalism,” or, by inference, why someone would want to deface a racist symbol.
There are Columbus statues and place names around the United States; only George Washington has more cities, roads, parks, etc. named after him. As more people continue to become historically literate about the Colón legacy, the continued existence of these tributes has become more controversial and offensive to larger segments of the population.
In Buffalo, TWC interviewed Niagara District Councilman David Rivera on camera about the writing on the Columbus statue. Rivera promised, “We’re going to be looking at what we can do to find the folks” who did the writing. The TWC reporter also claimed in their report that “with Columbus Day approaching next month, Rivera says the statue’s historical value should still be respected.” In an interview for this column, Rivera denies this interpretation of what he said, which doesn’t appear on-camera on TWC’s televised report. Instead he explained that he is fully aware of the history surrounding Colón and is sympathetic to complaints about the statue and the name of the park.
Bring it on
Rivera went on to explain how the Buffalo City Council voted unanimously in June of this year to change the name of an island in the Niagara River from Squaw Island to Unity Island after Seneca Nation leaders complained about the racist and misogynist name—a name that dates back more than three centuries. Rivera’s complaint about the painting of the Columbus statue, he reiterated, is against the method of protest, which he considers damaging public property, rather than the sentiment of the protest or the accuracy of the message. Yes, “Columbus” was a rapist and slaver, but the statue honoring his legacy is protected public property. Rivera suggests that activists protest legally and petition the city government with any demands or complaints regarding the statue.
Buffalo’s Columbus statue, like others around the country, is literally anchored by a deep foundation. Once erected, it’s hard to muster the funding and political capital to tear such things down, no matter what they represent and whom they offend. Rivera uses the Unity Island case, however, to argue that city government is open to responding to protests and petitions. What they would be willing to do, however, would likely depend on the strength of the protests and political threats generated by such protests. Anything is possible. The Unity Island name change came after more than three centuries. In historical terms, the Columbus statue, despite being anchored in stone, is just an adolescent, dating back only 63 years.
Given our nation’s history, many cities are saddled with such racist infrastructure. As the political class in the country becomes more diverse, there increase the demands to end the whitewashing of American history and challenge the mythology that distorts the teaching of history. How municipalities deal with this infrastructure is revealing. Government officials in Alabama still refuse to change the name of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, for example, despite the fact that the high-visibility bridge, scene to historic 1965 police attacks on civil rights protesters, is named after a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.
By contrast, the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts erected a monument near their historic rock, honoring the National Day of Mourning, which is a Native American alternative to Thanksgiving. Cast in bronze, the monument explains why many Native Americans don’t celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims, referencing how, to Native Americans, Thanksgiving “is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their culture.” The Plymouth monument goes on to explain that the national Day of Mourning honors “Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today…as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience.”
In a similar vein, Neto Hatinakwe Onkwehonwe, a Native American arts and cultural organization, erected a monument in Buffalo at a public park at the mouth of Lake Erie. The Neto monument offers an alternative to an older municipal monument emblazoned with a historically contentious narrative about warlike Indians. Five years ago, however, the City of Buffalo hired a Missouri restoration firm to renew its Columbus statue.
In an era when Confederate flags and racist team names are regularly being challenged around the country; when the narratives on other historical monuments meet empirical challenges cast in bronze and stone; and decades after Eastern Europeans demonstrated how statues, in their case hundreds of statues of Lenin, can be torn down, our Columbus statues continue to stand tall as enduring symbols of racism beyond the reach of change.
Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and critical media studies at SUNY Buffalo State. His columns are available globally through syndication and are archived at mediastudy.com.