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Philadelphia’s Christopher Columbus statue is out of its box, and so is the hard truth we still must address

We have yet to fully confront a reckoning with our nation's history that is still underway.

In a 2020 TEDx Talk, historian Hasan Kwame Jeffries described what some people do when they learn about the more problematic aspects of American history.

Rather than addressing the ugliness directly, Jeffries said, some try to excuse the sins of the past, including “just making stuff up.” Others try to “rationalize it” by going so far as compartmentalizing the truth. Then there are those who “pretend the past didn’t happen” — even when presented with well-documented historical records.

For the past couple of years in South Philadelphia, though, they’ve tried a different approach: Hide the hard history in a box, paint it the green, white, and red colors of the Italian flag, and hope for the best.

In this case, the history comes in the form of the 22-foot statue of Christopher Columbus in Marconi Plaza, which has been the subject of a two-year legal battle over whether it should be removed and placed in storage. The statue has been boxed in plywood since June 2020 to deter protests.

On Sunday night, Philadelphia complied with a Commonwealth Court order to remove the box that has concealed the statue. Some of the statue’s most ardent supporters were so excited that they kept pieces of it as souvenirs.

Coincidentally, the next day, Richmond, Va.’s last Confederate statue was removed. The statue of Ambrose P. Hill, a Confederate lieutenant general in the Civil War, was plucked up by a crane and deposited onto a flatbed truck after a series of court challenges by his indirect descendants.

By my scorecard, that’s a win for Richmond and a loss for Philly.

But whether you’re booing or cheering, both events represent a kind of reckoning with history that is still underway — for Columbus, it was the false narrative about him discovering America, and for Hill, it was the false assertion that there was some nobility in the Confederacy’s attempt to destroy the nation to preserve slavery.

After watching his TEDx Talk, I called Jeffries, who’s a professor at Ohio State University, to chat about what recently transpired in both cities, and why addressing the truth in our nation’s past remains a lightning rod.

For starters, he said, quoting his friend, the literary performer and educator Regie Gibson, “Americans actually hate history.”

“What we love is nostalgia,” Jeffries said, “stories about the past that make us feel comfortable about the present.”

And nothing makes those afraid of change feel more comfortable about the present than denying anything uncomfortable in our past — or if they do, dismissing it. And that includes any whiff of genocide by a white supremacist while claiming the anti-racist wokes are trying to erase history.

“Nobody is erasing history,” Jeffries told me. “What you’re actually doing is correcting history. Because these monuments — whether it’s Columbus or Hill or Robert E. Lee — they were erected based upon a lie. That somehow Christopher Columbus was this noble seafarer — that’s a lie.”

A lie that’s still standing in South Philly.

Picking up on my frustration, Jeffries said it’s easy to feel like we maybe got ahead of ourselves during the historic racial justice protests of June 2020 following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Two years later, any sense we might have had of forward momentum is feeling a lot more like unrealized promises.

Still, Jeffries said, the movement mattered because it advanced the national conversation about police violence and other calls for change.

“That was real,” Jeffries said. “What we did not anticipate, but should have, is the response from those who benefit from preservation of the status quo. That’s what we’re dealing with now.”

“To use a military metaphor, it’s a war, and you lost this battle,” he said. “Hopefully, it’s not the last battle in Philadelphia.”

Philadelphia officials haven’t decided whether to appeal the Commonwealth Court ruling. The city has 30 days from Friday’s decision to file an appeal.

But for now, it will consider adding more context to the statue, including adding a plaque or signage to the statue that “recontextualizes Columbus’ complex history.”

On Tuesday afternoon, I took a drive over to Marconi Plaza, where Columbus stood unboxed once again. Unlike the clashes that occurred in the summer of 2020, all was quiet.

The few people who were around were more interested in getting their dogs to go in the park that surrounds the statue, and a man skateboarding nearby said he’d barely noticed the box had been removed.

It’s probably best that the box has come down — because if we learned anything from the summer of 2020, it’s that we have a duty to do more than just hide away the worst parts of our history and hope for the best.