What do Christopher Columbus and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have in common? They are the only individuals who are honored with their own national holiday in the United States. Aside from the holiday and a common faith in the Christian Bible, their motivations, impact, and legacies are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Dr. King, is arguably the most influential human rights advocate of his time. He spent most of his energy advocating for laws that would contribute to the liberation of his people. It is through this path that he was repeatedly threatened, beaten, incarcerated and ultimately murdered. Christopher Columbus is often remembered as the Italian navigator who ‘discovered’ the New World. What is less talked about is his direct impact as the governor of Hispaniola (modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), a Spanish colony that was established through rape, torture, murder and made sustainable through slavery. Columbus’ governorship of Hispaniola laid the foundation of white supremacy in the western hemisphere.
People have used monuments and public spaces to celebrate heroes for millennia. Many consider having their likeness represented in stone as the closest thing to immortality. Regime changes are often marked with people pulling down large statues of icons who were previously regarded in the highest light. Video media in the 20th century captured iconic moments such as statues of Lenin falling as the Soviet Union came to an end; the same can be said about Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.
The significance of monuments is larger than their present physical narratives in our daily lives. It’s about who controls the narrative.
I was in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, 2017 to protest the gathering of White Supremacists at the Unite the Right Rally. It was immediately clear to me that these men were arranging in military formations and arming themselves with machine guns, clubs, and riot shields not to simply protect the physical statue of Robert E. Lee. They were protecting the narrative of oppression that he represents. A Southern Poverty Law Center report states that there are 718 Confederate Monuments in the United States. Most were erected in the 1920s-1950s when Jim Crow laws were in full effect. The monuments were a physical representation of a system that was actively working to maintain the socially constructed idea that one superior race will perpetually rule over another. Public spaces in the South insidiously veil the celebration of slave masters as ‘southern pride’. Black people throughout the US are left with no choice but to look up at people who risked their lives to ensure the enslavement of their ancestors while enduring oppressive policies that are contemporary reconstructions of slavery in many ways.
With Columbus it gets more complicated. In New York City, the statue of Christopher Columbus at Columbus Circle was erected in 1892. Its purpose was to celebrate Columbus’ legacy as a fundamental pillar to our contemporary society. In the 21st century, more than 1 million Italians line New York City’s 5th Avenue for the annual Columbus Day parade. Italian Americans, who initially faced widespread discrimination, successfully changed their narrative, which ultimately improved their condition over time.
False narratives. It is usually the winners of wars who whitewash their sins and control the narratives of others. As the governor of Hispaniola, Christopher Columbus recorded in his own diary that “there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand.” I did not learn that in school. Much of mainstream America is unaware of the fact that 80-100 million indigenous people were killed across two continents in the era of European Colonization. Aside from the fact that people lived in the western hemisphere for millennia before Columbus, many American history textbooks fail to mention Chinese navigator Zheng He’s exploration in the Americas and Leif Erickson before him. There are accounts of ships from Mansa Musa’s Malian Empire landing in the Caribbean as well. In 2018, most African Americans carry the last name of a slave master, myself included. Our history, has been intentionally altered and erased to fit into the necessary framework that an ‘inferior’ race should be controlled.
Narratives matter. In 2018, you can be accused of sexual assault by multiple victims and still make it to the White House and Supreme Court. The foundation of a patriarchal system that oppresses vulnerable populations started in the Western Hemisphere with Christopher Columbus. It continued with the founding fathers. The same men that were ostensibly motivated by mantra that ‘all men are created equal’ owned other human beings. It is this twisted ethos that lays at the foundation of our country’s laws, systems, processes and culture. These narratives are reinforced by men oppressors like Columbus being honored with monuments and holidays. Even the name America after Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, ignores the original name Turtle Island, the name that the North American continent held for generations before white colonizers stepped foot in the Western Hemisphere.
I started Movers & Shakers with the specific goal of disrupting the white patriarchal narratives that impact the lives of the oppressed on a daily basis. I thought it was important to start at the origin. For this reason, we advocated for the removal of the statue at Columbus Circle. We held various demonstrations and teach-ins including a pop-up slave auction to connect him to the genesis of the transatlantic slave trade. I ran the 2017 New York City Marathon in chains to highlight the issue.
With augmented reality, we see a larger opportunity to democratize the narratives of people of marginalized communities in a way that has not been done. New York City memorializes slave owners in public spaces and specifically focuses on the ‘accomplishments’ of white men. There are 155 statues of men and 6 of women. With augmented reality, we can highlight the narratives of those intentionally left out without permission. We can use this energy to challenge who we celebrate and highlight how these narratives perpetuate oppression. Germany is a model example of a country that has confronted its dark past. There are no Nazi monuments, their school curricula claim responsibility where it is due, and their government has paid out more than $70 billion in reparations to survivors of the Holocaust. In 2018 it would be absurd to see a monument of Adolf Hitler anywhere.
Our country’s narratives preach freedom, but our systems practice oppression. The celebration of Dr. King and Columbus highlights this paradox. If we are all really going to be free, we should truly confront our history. It starts with Columbus.
Glenn Cantave is an activist, performance artist, and social entrepreneur who uses immersive technology to highlight the narratives of the oppressed. Through his non-profit Movers & Shakers NYC, he organized a pop-up slave auction performance piece/augmented reality exhibit, and ran the NYC Marathon in chains. He is currently working on an augmented reality book based on the true story of Christopher Columbus and an Augmented Reality monuments tour in New York City.