By Edith Morgan
Disclaimer: I am not Italian, nor Catholic. I am simply a resident of Worcester, here since 1967.
So how do I feel about the vandalizing of the statue of Christopher Columbus outside Worcester’s Union Station?
Worcester is home to a great multitude of statues, military markers, war memorials and other statuary. We have seen the Burnside statue – or “Turtle Boy” – in downtown Worcester; the Major Taylor statue outside the Worcester Public Library … the Vietnam War memorial in Green Hill Park, the Korean War memorial, The World War II memorial at Brittan Square, the Citizens of Color World War II Honor Roll by Lincoln Square – all on public property.
We also have religious statuary on various religious properties and some statuary on private properties.
Worcester is replete with sculptures of all sorts, with different meanings and histories.
In my own home, I have a small replica of Michelangelo’s Moses and a brass Buddha, both gifts. My own religious tradition forbids making “graven images,” and so I have naturally looked at these as works of art, or expressions of the beliefs of others.
But I was also raised in the belief that we must respect what others value and that if these things represent imperfect or even evil lives and beliefs, it’s my job to try to educate people – or at least get them to see how others see them. It was never my assumption that if something offends me, I could simply decide to deface or destroy it.
The Christopher Columbus statue outside Worcester’s Union Station was recently defaced with a can of red paint. City workers power-washed it (almost) clean. Columbus statues, all over America have been toppled or defaced after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police and America’s ensuing reckoning with systemic racism and subjugation of peoples.
So, let us look at Christopher Columbus: for me, he was a historical figure who believed, against most of the people of his day, that the earth was round, and he could find a shorter way to India by water. Remember: it was the royal family of Spain, not Italy, that funded the voyage that led him to these shores. (That is why we still mistakenly call our indigenous peoples “Indians.”)
Voyages of explorations were common in those days – many triggered by the desire to get to the spices and other riches of Asia. Actually, we are not named Columbia, but America, after Amerigo Vespucci. So I am not sure what the defacing of Columbus really means, except that someone, or some group, feels a need to express hatred for whatever they think Columbus represents. I personally do not believe this is the way to express that, as there is no educational value to this behavior, and there are numerous better ways of opening conversations with the descendants of this particular historical figure. We might all find out that the genocidal behavior of the early settlers here was not peculiar to Italians, nor was it unusual for the time (or even for our time!).
Holding just white people responsible for slavery is really a very narrow view of history: it seems that we humans, every time we achieve power over our fellow humans, set about enslaving them. And many of our greatest monuments and works of art were created by the captives of the rulers: the pyramids were built by slave labor, the great cathedrals of Europe by serfs and peons, and I do not think the Great Wall of China was built by the Emperor’s own hands. Look anywhere in the world, and you will find the great creations commissioned by the rich and powerful, but not made by them.
We have only very gradually crept out of the grasp of the rich and powerful and the idea that all men (and lately, also women) are created equal. How many millennia did THAT take?
So, I do not believe in defacing or destroying what may be works of art, unless their creators see that they are inappropriate. I do not want to see a repeat of what my family left in Europe in 1933 – the book burnings, the vandalizing of Jewish stores, our synagogues and homes and, finally, the attempted extermination of those deemed “inferior.”
Let us think carefully about what history REALLY teaches.