What History Do Statues in America Preserve?

I had a bit of an aversion to history as a child, struggling to memorize dates. But if you asked me to recall the story of America, I could recite the ubiquitous rhyme with ease: “In 1492, Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue.” It’s funny how those things stay with us. 

We might not remember the year in which Lizze Borden was tried for murder, but the story is renown in America for the infamous rhyme: “Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her mother 40 whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41.” Her story is gruesome, as is that of Christopher Columbus, but both are remembered quite differently.

Children aren’t taught to celebrate Lizzie Borden with any affinity. And, of course not, she is believed to have murdered two people. But somehow the children of my generation grew up with a yearly dose of a sanitized version of Columbus that erased a dark past involving murder, pillage, and rape, with statues commemorating his contributions to American history erected in the backdrop. And now, some claim that removing these statues erases history. 

The daughter of two Azorean immigrants, I grew up 10 minutes down the road from a statue of Infante Dom Henrique (“Prince Henry the Navigator”) in a city where, at a time, more than 49 percent of its residents shared the ancestry of Prince Henry. But I only learned of the man who created the revolutionary oceanic navigation school after leaving Portuguese enclaves for college where I enrolled in a Portuguese Culture class. The statue didn’t teach me — and it did nothing to stop the erasure of Prince Henry in my history classes.

Before college, the only things I learned about Portuguese “explorers” (i.e. colonizers) concerned Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan in World History classes. I was shocked to learn that Christopher Columbus studied cartography in the schools created by Prince Henry in Lisbon, Portugal – the same man who my history classes throughout elementary school conveniently never discussed. 

My mother, having studied in both the island of Sao Miguel, Acores and Ponta Delgada’s sister city: Fall River, Mass., has long expressed her issues to me about the way history is taught in America. In a nutshell, she takes issue with the repetition and failure to provide the context of other historical events in context. Of course, in her words, it can be boiled down to something like: “Esses Americanos teach the same shit all the time.” It’s only as I get older and mature that I have been able to dissect the impact of the repetitive reinforcement of a very particular, singular narrative.

The books we read, through omission, erase history — whether that is the Seneca Falls-to-Suffrage narrative about women in America that makes black women a footnote in the women’s rights movement, the fable of Rosa Parks as the first black woman to sit in the Whites-Only section of the bus after her feet were tired, or even the very notion that Columbus was the first European guy to “find” America. 

Fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin had done it nine months before Parks, but wasn’t viewed as the ideal test case because she was pregnant and unmarried; 18-year old Mary Louise Smith had also done it before Parks. Parks’ story always began with tired feet – not her civil rights work, despite her having raised money for Colvin’s case and having brought the teen into the NAACP Youth Council. 

The fable we were taught throughout childhood has served to transmit the message: America had moved beyond race. As one author put it, “Stripping Rosa Parks of her radicalism while celebrating her as the mother of the civil rights movement became part of a larger move to de-radicalize the legacy of the movement itself.” In this context, it is easy to understand how some have gravitated to peaceful images of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma to condemn uprisings in the wake of black men and women murdered at the hands of police, rather than drawing obvious parallels to the calls for radicalism in the civil rights work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

Historians have discovered significant evidence illustrating that Portuguese navigators knew of lands lying west of the Azores, including a nautical chart, written in Portuguese, dated almost 70 years before Columbus’ first voyage. It seems more than coincidental that one of the ships in which Columbus sailed – the Santa Maria – bears the name identical to the Azorean island of Santa Maria settled (and believed to have been named simultaneously) by Portuguese captains in the 1420s. And, even though the Azores is less than 3,000 miles from the United States, it seems to appear in no place in our American or World History courses — a few scattered, minor dots on a map (often unnamed even when it does appear). 

As a child, we learned that Columbus was refused funding for the voyage by a Portuguese King, and so the Italian got the funding from Spain. The obvious question: Why would the Portuguese refuse a former student? I would venture to surmise that the Portuguese knew the underachieving student didn’t know where he was going and was seeking to “explore” a place in which Portuguese people already went. 

As an Azorean-American, I am now acutely aware of the erasure of Portuguese stories in the history I was taught — even when that learning occurred in small, Catholic schools predominantly attended by students of Portuguese descent. Still, I do not call for the construction of statues in the honor of Portuguese “explorers” who were similarly guilty of many of the same crimes and transgressions for which Columbus is guilty of perpetrating.

I wish only to convey that much of the so-called history some are seeking to preserve — whether it be the Columbus statue in Providence, the “Emancipation Memorial” (wherein President Abraham Lincoln is depicted with a hand raised above standing over a black man kneeling at his feet) in Boston, or the bust glorifying former KKK leader Nathan Bedford Forrest in the Tennessee State Capitol, is an extension of an inaccurate and revisionist narrative. 

Every year we were taught a sanitized history that featured a very particular sing-song version of white male saviorism that centered a very narrow, specific European perspective and stripped icons of the civil rights movement of their radicalism. But just because we were told it dozens of times every year does not make it any more true.

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