Rockaway's Own Defends Columbus' Legacy as "Heritage"

On August 24th, politicians and citizens joined forces at Columbus Circle to protest the mayor’s decision to review every statue on city property and remove “symbols of hate”. The location is home to a statue of Christopher Columbus, the area’s namesake, which has been there for over 100 years and is on the list to be reviewed. Over the course of the demonstration, residents stood up to defend the statue and question the mayor’s potential decision to remove an important figure in Italian American culture.

The Mayor’s review and the subsequent demonstration are in response to the deadly events that occurred in Charlottesville, VA, where Neo Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and other white supremacist hate groups rallied to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, a general in the Confederate army. The events in Charlottesville has sparked a national debate over the importance or lack thereof of preserving historical figures with unsavory backgrounds. In Baltimore, Mayor Catherine E. Pugh removed all confederate monuments in the city overnight to avoid a similar situation.

During the demonstration, Rockaway Council Member Eric Ulrich (R-Queens) spoke about the erasure of Italian American history and praised the impact of Italian Americans on the American way of life. He also claimed that every man and woman of Italian descent should be outraged that the statue could be removed, including Mayor de Blasio, whose maternal grandparents immigrated to the United States from Italy. His words garnered cheers from the crowd, but his comments perpetuated a dangerous claim: that the removal of the Christopher Columbus statue is an assault on Italian American heritage. By promoting this dangerous false equivalency, Ulrich is essentially race baiting. He’s attempting to make the issue about erasing Italian heritage rather than what it is: removing symbols that honor a racist, mass murderer.

Most of us were taught in school that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America in 1492. It’s evident by the popular rhyme, “In August 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. October 12th, they sighted land, And set their feet upon new sand”. However, as our country advances, we’ve had to question how a person can discover land that people were already living and thriving on? That is the case with Columbus. Even more so, after he didn’t “discover” the new world, he wreaked havoc on locals and natives in the Caribbean through enslavement, rape, and exploitation. In fact, Columbus was sent from the Caribbean back to Spain in shackles due to the crimes he committed. Though he was later pardoned for his crimes and some argue that his voyages to the Americas sparked a new wave of exploration, his crimes outweigh his contributions. Columbus cannot be excused as “a man of his time”. His actions were inexcusable then and they’re inexcusable now.

For the Italian Americans who truly feel that their heritage is being threatened, maybe a better tactic would be to nominate an actual Italian American who has made contributions to the city and the country. To be clear, Christopher Columbus never even set foot in North America. How about Anthony Fauci? A Brooklyn born scientist whose life’s work has greatly furthered our understanding of HIV/AIDS? If we want to go the showbiz route, how about Frank Sinatra? Honoring Italian American heritage doesn’t have to be synonymous with racism. We must ask ourselves, if we’re defending racists, mass murderers, and genocidal people, is that how  we want our heritage remembered?