Showing posts with label monument. Show all posts
Showing posts with label monument. Show all posts

Monday, November 16, 2020

Grant group investigates curious reappearance of US President in Guinea-Bissau island 'ghost town'

From GMA newsletter, vol. XVI, no. 1, fall 2020, at 4, my photo at right.
Earlier this year, I wrote about the short, strange life of statues in Guinea-Bissau, and, in particular, the strange-upon-strange birth, disappearance, and re-creation of a statue of U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant in an abandoned park in the "ghost town" of Bolama Island.

In March, I reported that, since going missing mysteriously in 2007, the Grant statue "was recovered in pieces, and authorities ultimately restored him."

Not quite so.

Grant Monument Association (GMA) President Frank J. Scaturro (Twitter), by day an attorney and historian who is vice-president and senior counsel at the Judicial Crisis Network, noticed that my March photo of the statue did not look like the original.

Your intrepid blogger visits the cane rum distillery in Quinhámel,
Guinea-Bissau, in March. (RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Scaturro and the GMA dug into the mystery of the statue's reappearance in the middle of the barren park that was once Guinea-Bissau's glorious "Praça Ulysses S. Grant."  (As to why there is a monument to a U.S. President at all on this West African island, see my March post.)  The pieces of the original statue never have been recovered.

A March 2018 photo shows a still empty pedestal.
(Helena Maria Pestana CC BY-SA 4.0)
The latest GMA newsletter (vol. XVI, no. 1, fall 2020) explains how the present likeness of Grant came to be in 2018:

This occurred at the initiative of then-Governor Quintino Rodrigues Bone. Approximately 100,000 CFA francs (roughly U.S. $180) were spent from the local government fund to obtain supplies for the work—a harness, cement, gravel, and colorless paint. With these materials, a local artist, Luizinho (Zinho) Ká, constructed a cement statue. He did not receive any compensation for his work.

....

According to the State Department, there is local interest in replacing the cement statue with a new bronze replica of the destroyed statue, but no funding to do so.

My dispatch from Guinea-Bissau came just before the cancel-culture toppling of monuments across the United States.  Sadly, the fall 2020 GMA newsletter also reported the vandalism and toppling of a Grant bust in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in June.

Scaturro said, "It is ironic that a monument to Grant was restored in Guinea-Bissau soon before another was torn down in San Francisco. Americans who do not respect our heritage can learn a lesson from the people of Guinea-Bissau."

Anyone can join the New York-based Grant Monument Association or visit the General Grant National Memorial in New York (check for covid updates).  Scaturro wrote in a statement on Grant's civil rights record:

As the principal author of Union victory during the Civil War, Grant was the principal enforcer of the Emancipation Proclamation.  As president, he secured laws that enforced the recently ratified 13th and 14th Amendments and acted decisively to ensure the ratification of a 15th Amendment that would ban racial discrimination in voting. His achievements included five enforcement acts, the creation of the Justice Department, and the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which desegregated various modes of public accommodations and transportation. Grant repeatedly employed military intervention to enforce Reconstruction and crushed the 19th-century Ku Klux Klan. Among America’s top leaders, from military commanders to presidents, none has a more sweeping record on civil rights.

The GMA hosts periodic programs of interest to the public and historians.  On November 19, at 7 p.m. US EST, the GMA will host an online colloquy, "A discussion of the partnership between General Ulysses S. Grant & General William T. Sherman," featuring General David Petraeus and Ulysses S. Grant Association Executive Director John Marszalek.  GMA members receive registration information.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Ciao and shalom, it's Columbus Day

It was painful and offensive to me to see the Columbus statue in Baltimore ripped down and thrown into the harbor on the Fourth of July.

I appreciated Trevor Noah's Daily Show commentary on Columbus Day, aired last week, because he recognized the meaning of the holiday to the Italian-American community.

Noah excerpted a Vox video (story), from 2018, which gave a good concise summary of how the Columbus holiday came to be.

The video describes "the legend of Columbus," and it is a legend.  Italian-American immigrants, such as my grandparents, came to embrace a legendary Columbus who bore little resemblance to the real historical figure.  Which is not to say that the legend lacked real meaning for real people.  There was a time when Italian-Americans were a "non-white" minority in America, Noah acknowledged.  The community reached out to adopt, and partly to create, a galvanizing icon.  

I studied Columbus quite a bit as an undergrad majoring in Spanish-language literature during the quincentenary of "the Discovery."  As best as we can know Columbus, which is not much, given a paucity of surviving and conflicting accounts, the truth must be that he was complicated.  People are.  He had a multiplicity of motives, some more morally laudable than others.  And probably he wasn't the sweetest sort of guy.  Crossing the Atlantic Ocean with a potentially mutinous crew of adventurers in 1492 was a rugged business, if not recklessly suicidal.  But Columbus did not invent Euro-centrism, Caucasian supremacy, or slavery.  The cultural arrogances and inhumane institutions of the 15th century were certain to encircle the globe aboard every ship that departed the continent.

Columbus statue (Brent Moore CC BY 2.0)
So my family, arriving in America in the 20th century, embraced a legend.  It wasn't a terrible choice of legend.  The first Italians to populate Baltimore sailed from Genoa, which is where Columbus probably was from.  My grandparents, who also came to America by boat, from Tuscany, revered Columbus well before the dedication of his Little Italy statue in 1984.  Through their Italian-American organizations, they contributed to the creation of the statue, which was made of marble and crafted by an Italian sculptor.  President Reagan and the mayor of Baltimore dedicated the statue in Baltimore's Little Italy, where my family first lived after immigrating.  When I was a kid, I was taken to Little Italy when my family volunteered and participated in religious rites and Italian-American festivals.  Later, and for many years, my uncle played the character of Columbus in Baltimore's Columbus Day parade, which started and ended at the Columbus statue.  I remember him decked out in cartoonish royal robes, standing atop a float mock-up of the Santa Maria, waving to smiling people, of all colors, who lined the streets.  

He stopped when it became dangerous to be Columbus.  Dangerous to celebrate our history in America, however reimagined and romanticized.

I'm not opposed to taking down statues of Columbus.  I've advocated for "fallen monument" parks, as abound in former Soviet states, Hungary's being the most well known.  They're immeasurably valuable to teach history.  They proffer powerful evidence that, try as we might to be good and to do right, morality has proven a stubbornly mutable ambition in the human experience.  

But taking down Columbus in Little Italy should have been a decision made by a cross-section of community stakeholders, not by a mob.  An effort had been under way in the Italian-American community already to raise money to move Columbus elsewhere.  The mayor of Baltimore promised prosecution of the vandals on July 9, but I've found no report of any arrest or charge to date.  The Italian-Americans who contribute still, vitally, to Baltimore's identity deserve better.  They deserve respect, right alongside every other community that has built Baltimore as a vibrant and diverse city.

As Noah observed, American history is now populated by many Italian-Americans who don't need aggrandizing legends to demonstrate greatness.  It's not too late to create the commission that should have been and to start talking about how to honor immigrant history and the City of Baltimore at the intersection of Eastern Avenue and President Street.  I don't know who, or what, might, or should, stand in "Columbus" square.  I do believe that if we work at it, we can find, or make, an icon that my grandparents would have appreciated, and at the same time raise a testament to a new story.