A recent article in the Journal Inquirer reminds us that a monument is in the eye of the beholder, that one person’s hero may be another person’s villain. With the Columbus Day holiday edging nearer, that’s a good reminder.
In this case, the Manchester newspaper was zeroing in on a statue in Windsor of John Mason, an English settler who helped found Windsor, Old Saybrook and Norwich. He also, not so incidentally, led a night raid in 1637 that wiped out the Pequot Tribe. From our centuries-in-the-future vantage point, such exploits may not be considered moments of honor, but on the other hand, had he not done so we all might not be here. Ours is a great nation, indeed, but built at the expense of other peoples. We do ourselves no favors by ignoring it.
A year ago, a great deal of national self examination was taking place about what to do with monuments built to honor those whose actions were also subject to scathing criticism. Prominent among them were the Confederacy’s heroes, like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, but there was also the slave trader for whom Boston’s Faneuil Hall was named and, yes, Christopher Columbus, who, as one article put it, “opened the Americas to European domination.”
One of the more sensible responses to this generalized hand-wringing of a year ago came via historians who warned against the temptation to tear down a monument just to satisfy the political impulse of the moment. “I am very wary of a rush to judgment about what we hate and what we love and what we despise and what we’re offended by,” Yale historian David Blight told the Associated Press.
“By taking monuments down or hiding them away, we facilitate forgetting,” said a University of Alabama law professor, Alfred Brophy. “There is value in owning our history.”
Yes, there is. But history is also malleable: heroes can become villains depending on who is telling the story.
The Journal Inquirer report highlighted what often gets referred to as a teachable moment, or in this case a teachable monument. Central Connecticut State University students had a chance to take in the Mason monument and its history, and offer suggestions about what might be added to the monument about Mason’s actions during the Pequot War. “I don’t agree with tearing down statues, but we need to teach the whole story,” said one student.
Outside the occasional classroom field trip, a statue for someone like Mason is not likely to draw that much attention. Columbus is a different story. Even a casual observer would recognize the name, even absent much knowledge of the history.
And every year the national holiday increasingly draws controversy. There’s a movement to replace Columbus Day with “Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” and some municipalities, including Los Angeles, have stopped honoring Columbus. Last year, Columbus statues in Middletown and New Haven were defaced, joining a growing list of places across the country experiencing similar occurrences.
It was in this atmosphere that Southington, a town with considerable Italian-American heritage and pride, unveiled a new Columbus monument. Given the national atmosphere surrounding the holiday, it came as no surprise that the unveiling ceremony was crowded and divisive.
There may be no resolving the dispute, but a valuable perspective was offered a year ago by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio: “You can debate the historical figure of Christopher Columbus, but you can’t debate the contribution of Italian-Americans to this country.”
So consider it Italian-Americans Day, and keep the statues for good use as teachable monuments.
Reach Jeffery Kurz at 203-317-2213, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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