Editorial: We’re smart enough as a city to leave Christopher Columbus alone

If Mayor Lori Lightfoot were to follow the recent recommendations of the Chicago Monuments Project Advisory Committee and excise Christopher Columbus permanently from Grant Park, logic dictates that she should then immediately rename Columbus Drive. After all, a prominent city street is etched in the public consciousness far more than a statue. People traverse a drive, work on it, walk down it, watch it pop up on their phone. That’s a much bigger deal.

Lightfoot could then declare that the city apologize for its participation in the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and vow never to mention it again. She might proclaim that no city dollars shall henceforth be spent in Columbus, Ohio, until those good citizens see their way toward renaming their city. Same for Columbus, Indiana, its architectural riches notwithstanding.

How could she justify merely mothballing some statue when all of those situations exist? It makes no sense whatsoever.

Such is the absurdity of the task of this committee.

Chicago has a variety of statues representing historical figures. None of them were perfect, all being human. This city long has accommodated a variety of ethnicities with a broad array of political opinions. Statues across the city represent that history.

Few would stand up to a purity test. But that is not the point. These are works of art. The bar for removing them should be higher than the faceless visage of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture who stands atop the Board of Trade building, 45 stories over LaSalle Street.

Most certainly, they should not be carted off as a way to appease extremists who would destroy them. There was a strong public safety argument for temporarily removing Columbus during the tumult of a summer of protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But there was no direct causal link between the riots and the silent statue.

We don’t doubt the commission did diligent work detailing whether being a likely slave owner (Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson) merited the chop or whether a plaque honoring early Chicago settler John Kinzie should also be removed because it “openly prioritizes whiteness.” (If Lightfoot follows that particular recommendation, that should also mean curtains for Kinzie Street). And then there is the tricky question of the bridge reliefs on the DuSable Bridge. Does their position as part of the physical structure of the bridge give them a pass? Not so, said the committee.

The crux of this argument, of course, is whether or not these statues represent some kind of approved view of history, a kind of official narrative that must now be expurgated in the name of equity.

“Monuments are not innocent,” wrote a member of the commission, Ohio State University professor John Low. “We have to understand the role of monuments and other commemorative sites and activities in developing a shared narrative of the past, present and future. These commemorations can ossify memory and create and perpetuate master narratives in which one view of past events is granted legitimacy at the expense of other views.”

Low has a good point. Most statues are erected of and by the powerful. But what he does not acknowledge here is that the removal of statues also creates a master narrative, just one that happens to be more to his liking at this moment. Low wants to control historical memory just as much as the people who erected the statues; he just thinks that he can do so in a more equitable and just fashion. That is fair enough but it must be acknowledged, given that the actual truths of the past are, by definition, absent.

And let’s remember that statues wax and wane in popularity. Historical legacies are anything but stable, especially these days. If Low’s arguments are to be taken on their face, there really ought be an ongoing Chicago Monuments Committee, considering news reports and academic research on an annual basis and whether statue x or statue y are still worthy of their pedestals. It’s all very Orwellian. Statues could be coming and going all the time. Maybe a job for Streets and Sanitation.

Plus there is the argument of individuals versus their contexts. Do you get rid of people because they had the values of their day, even if they also quietly fought against them or triumphed for the good of humanity in other ways? Hamilton, surely, is a prima-facie example, given that he owned slaves but also penned some of the greatest pro-Democracy writings in history. And it’s not many years ago that what is now considered cultural appropriation in art was viewed as a way for progressive artists to pay tribute to cultures other than their own. Do we now take a hammer to all of that?

We’d argue that Chicagoans are smart enough to know that statues reflect the moment of their creation, that saying Columbus discovered America is akin to saying that you discovered our car in the parking lot, already occupied. That most images of Native Americans in statuary were designed to flatter the white settlers and were as patronizing as they were inaccurate. That humans have always painted God to their own liking. And that different groups in this city’s history long have flirted with the extremes of communism and fascism.

All we should need to understand that is the date on the pedestal and a well-functioning school system.

Instead of removing statues, we say make more of them. As global cities go, Chicago is not overburdened with monuments. Some proud cities that have survived all manner of invaders and onslaughts and points of view have them gathering dust on every corner: loved, reviled, ignored but part of the past.

We’re excited to see sculptor Alison Saar’s new Lorraine Hansberry statue, currently on view in Times Square in New York City but eventually headed home to Chicago, where it belongs, given that Hansberry was one of our greatest literary figures.

The statue features a likeness of Hansberry surrounded by five bronze chairs, each intended to represent an aspect of her life and work. The idea is that members of the public choose one to sit in and think.

That is what we should be doing with the city’s fine collection of statuary. Not ripping them down.

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