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Revising history is not wrong

Last week, a Dominican artist unveiled a public piece where she had covered a statue of Christopher Columbus in a sheet painted with native traditional medicinal plants. On social media, it proved to be divisive.  Many argued that the act was disrespectful, as the statue meant a lot for the Dominican identity. Others argued that the statue should be taken down, not only because it features Columbus as a great man, but because it places Anacaona, an icon of the native resistance (even more so of the female resistance) bowing down to him. An acquaintance of mine stated that Columbus receives too much critique, and led me to the question: Should we judge past historical figures with the ethic and moral code we abide by today?

My answer is a resounding yes. One of the great parts about writing history is that it’s written with the benefit of hindsight. We know how what is today came to be, so we can choose to express or highlight the historical narratives most relevant to our present. More importantly, however, history continues beyond when it is written. While we can deliberately pick out the events in the past that are more important to the exposition of the present, we can’t pick out the ones that will be paramount to the state of the future. In other words, we can’t know how to write history for the future, because we’re not fortune tellers. 

In our Columbus case, in the present-day, many have realized that we ought to value the preservation of human life, dignity and culture over any scientific advancement that the encounter of 1492 could provide. As such, we reevaluate the ‘great explorer’ to be such, when he himself taints said exploration with genocide. It’s also important to point out that while our moral codes change over time, these apply retroactively to the entirety of history. We can’t say that genocide of other cultures was A-OK until a certain point in time. Similarly, we can (and regularly do) redeem figures that were torn down or persecuted by a pre-evolved ethical code. Examples include Marsha P. Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, Galileo Galilei and many others. 

Not all revisions of history are created equal however. Refocusing history to fit the context of the present is nowhere near the same as presenting fiction as history. A notable example of this is the now-defunct 1776 Commission. Although it attempts to ‘reframe’ history, it does so by undermining the struggles of minority groups and the working class. In fact, the Commission itself started partly because Donald Trump believed that a “twisted web of lies” was being taught regarding systemic racism. This purpose is explicitly where the report fails. If the revision of history is not an attempt to give better context to the present, then it is of no use at all. As such, any historical document that attempts to undermine awareness of America’s systemic racism and its effects gives no factual frame of reference to the American present-day. Unless you wanted to argue that systemic racism does not exist, and if that is the case, I would love to hear your opinion on class-race disparities. Then again, I hold low expectations for a document with exactly zero sources. 

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