CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS, ROBERT E. LEE, AND BEYOND

15 June 2020

  Last week, two statues of Christopher Columbus were destroyed, one in Virginia and one in Massachusetts. While both were acts of vandalism (which I don’t condone), I appreciate the sentiment behind the action. Having monuments – and a National holiday! – dedicated to a man who, blatantly and without remorse, killed, tortured and enslaved thousands in the Caribbean has been inexcusable from the start. To top it off, he didn’t really “discover America,” as we think of it, today!

   We’ve done quite a bit over the years to get rid of things that offend us. Statues of Confederate generals are coming down everywhere. Buildings that were named for slave owners or other racists have new monikers, now. Confederate flags are disappearing from sight. Colleges and professional sports teams that once had names offensive to Native Americans are now just offending Lions or Tigers or Bears, oh boy! Athletes and movie stars who did bad things later in their lives have had their names and all their good achievements hidden from public view. We’ve tried hard to protect our ears from naughty words, substituting “bleeps” for speech. It’s quite a record.

   Unfortunately, we’ve only just begun. Our landscapes and our culture are still brimming with offensive things. How do we offend thee? Let me count the ways.

    Native America: Changing a few names of football teams hardly begins the necessary clean-up. Probably 95 percent of the movie and TV “Westerns” ever produced portray Indians as the evil instigators of murder and mayhem against innocent and harmless Whites – which is not only offensive to Native Americans, but is historically highly inaccurate. Early American novelists (like James Fenimore Cooper) painted a picture of savage blood-lust. There are hundreds of statues erected and towns named for early military personalities whose only claim to fame is that they were “great Indian fighters.” Undoubtedly, there are  statues somewhere of President Andrew Jackson, one of the principal instigators of and cheerleader for the Native American genocide.

    Blacks: Clearly, we’ve made a start, but the outstanding offenses are still immense. For example, many of our “founding fathers,” in both the South and the North, “owned” slaves. This included 12 of our Presidents, eight of whom “owned” slaves while serving as President. These eight were also the ones who kept the most slaves: Jefferson, more than 600; Washington, over 300; Jackson, 200; Taylor, 150; Madison, 100; Monroe, 75; Tyler, 70; and Polk, 25. None freed any slaves during their lifetimes. Washington claimed he would like to emancipate his, but they were really his wife, Martha’s, so he couldn’t. Jefferson raped at least one of his slaves, and had children by her.[1] His own writings make it clear that he saw Blacks as inferior and – although he often talked about abolishing slavery – didn’t believe they could ever be “set free:” He didn’t feel the two races could ever live together because of "deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites--ten thousand recollections by the blacks of the injuries they have sustained--new provocations--the real distinctions that nature has made, and many other circumstances which divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which would never end but with the extermination of one or the other race." If statues of Robert E. Lee deserve to be taken down, what about those of our Revolutionary “heroes” whose views and actions were just as offensive?

    Last week, the classic movie, “Gone with the Wind” was pulled from the screening lineup of HBO Max, because of its depiction of slavery. Apparently, it is not gone forever but (in the words of the news release) “it will return with new material added for the purpose of providing context and addressing the film’s historical shortcomings.” My mind tells me this is probably not a good idea, but, good or bad, we should recognize that GWTW is just the tip of a very big iceberg. As is the case with Native Americans, the movies and TV are rife with scenes of Blacks shown as ignorant, incompetent, subservient, and/or happy with their lot in life. White dancers in blackface are found in nearly every musical made before 1960. Books are no better. For example, Harriet Beecher Stowe is venerated for her campaigning against slavery, including her world-famous novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Yet, it was clear that Stowe did not believe in the equality of Blacks and Whites, used stereotypical, denigrating language when talking about Black characters in her book, and expressed the belief that freed Blacks should be sent to Africa.

    Hispanics: The treatment of Mexican-Americans and others of Latin origin has been as derogatory in movies, on TV, and in books as it has been for Blacks and Native Americans. Although California and much of the Southwest was their home before it was “American,” they have always been treated as interlopers, unwanted except when crops need to be harvested. We got rid of the Frito Bandito in commercials, but there’s still much to be do in how a larger and larger percentage of the American population are portrayed.

    Other races: Most of the books I grew up reading in the post-war 1940s and 1950s were full of dialogue about the horrible “Japs” and others against whom we fought in World War II. They weren’t offensive to me as a 10-year old, who was only excited about the adventure, but they certainly are, now. Still, should we scrap the otherwise wonderful “Limberlost” stories of Gene Stratton Porter because of derogatory statements made by characters in the books?

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   I could go on with this, and talk about more of the offended groups: women, Jews, LGBT, even the American Loyalists who were treated like traitors because they didn’t want to go to war with England. However, I think the notes above are plenty to show what an immense job we have ahead of us if we were to correct even a few of the most pressing problems of discrimination and bias in the United States. Right now, the big issue is police reform. I think we’ll get something out of all the  protest marches and publicity – bans on choke holds, restrictions on tear gas, maybe more discussion of the issues. On other fronts, I suspect we’ll see more statues come down; some films and TV shows quietly disappearing from the view lists; some significant films given the proposed GWTW treatment; and maybe some famous books dropped from high school and college reading lists. I don’t think we’ll see much more than that. As Americans, we have convinced ourselves  over generations that we do not have any long-term prejudices, that everything we have done has been right and justified, and that there is nothing morally wrong with us as individuals or systemically wrong with the nation. We have proven over and over again that, while we might get excited enough to have a successful space race to the moon, we’ll never be able to get together to solve our basic societal problems.

   Say I’m wrong; what would you do about some of the issues I raised?

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[1] “Rape” may seem like a strong word. After all, it seemed that the slave and her immediate family got preferential treatment in the Jefferson household, and it’s possible that she was a willing partner. Except, of course, she wasn’t. No matter how she or Jefferson felt about their sexual relationship, in his eyes and in the eyes of the law she wasn’t a person – she was property – and property can’t say “no” to its owner. And, no matter how he felt about her in his lifetime, Jefferson made no move to “free” her.


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© Sanford Wilbur 2020