In the midst of protests and mass organizing around a serious overhaul of our country’s policing and systemic racial oppression, America has found itself back in a familiar dialogue about statues of problematic figures in our history. Across the country, groups are damaging, defacing and tearing down statues of Christopher Columbus, who for many is a figure inextricably tied to some of the earliest systematic oppression and genocide carried out on this land. Earlier this week, the City of Detroit removed its bust of Columbus, which had been on display at Jefferson and Randolph since the 1980s.
Jamon Jordan, a historian and educator and tour leader of Black Scroll Network History and Tours, says the Columbus statue in Detroit was originally erected as a way of honoring Italian residents and Italian immigrants coming to Detroit in the late 1800s. Since then, Jordan says, Columbus has come to be understood as a deeply problematic figure. “Columbus’ legacy, the legacy of European discovery – the feeling that nothing is important until Europeans ‘discover’ it – that legacy is a problem,” says Jordan.
Bill McGraw, a longtime award winning Detroit journalist and editor, says Columbus isn’t the only problematic figure being publicly celebrated in the city of Detroit. “If you take down Columbus, there’s a lot of other ne’er-do-wells” with statues and names immortalized in Metro Detroit,” says McGraw. He points out that many of the city’s street names commemorate slave owners. “If you want to do something about that, you might want to start with Woodward and Jefferson,” says McGraw on ridding the city of racist figureheads.
Meghanlata Gupta covers tribal news in Michigan for Bridge Magazine and is the founder of Indigenizing the News. She says that Columbus is a glorified figure in America, and feels the problematic aspects of his influence are often ignored. “Columbus didn’t discover America. We’ve been here stewarding these lands and these waters,” Gupta says of Indigenous peoples and American history. Gupta has been thinking a lot about the failures of the American education system and has been contemplating what a national curriculum on Indigenous peoples’ issues and history would look like. “What would it look like to have every 3rd and 4th grader learn the history of every Indigenous tribe in your area,” asks Gupta.