I still recall that sunlit afternoon the telephone rang and on the other end was the immortal Baltimore City Councilman Dominic “Mimi” DiPietro, a man who broke new linguistic ground whenever he surrounded an idea with the English language.
Mimi, for example, thought news media folks were “news meteors.” He told a nosy reporter one time, “You’re trying to scruple me.” When his brother had an intestinal operation, Mimi exclaimed, “They must have pulled four feet of testicle out of that man.”
On this particular day, though, he was calling to complain about a brand new statue of Christopher Columbus. These days, lots of people are complaining about lots of Columbus statues, owing to our newly heightened sensitivity to history, politics and race.
But this was the early 1980s, before we’d even seen the Columbus statue now sitting just west of Baltimore’s Little Italy. Mimi was chairman of the committee that raised money to build the statue. He was looking at blueprints he’d just received. He thought he was being cheated.
“The statue,” he said, “ain’t got no fingers or toes. For this kind of money …”
It seemed like a small matter to me, and in its final rendition the statue is fully digitized. But as committee chairman, it was a big deal to Mimi. He didn’t want to be blamed for any missing limbs. So I offered a little perspective.
“Councilman,” I said, taking note of a famous piece built roughly 2,000 years ago, “it’s not such a big deal. After all, look at the famous statue of the Venus de Milo, which not only doesn’t have fingers, it doesn’t even have arms.”
“Don’t look at me,” said Mimi, officially setting the record straight. “I wasn’t on that committee.”
I bring this up today for a few reasons. One, I wish to lighten the mood a little bit. There’s so much anger in the air today, and we need to cool off for a moment. When Mimi’s statue went up, the national narrative was that Columbus discovered America, and most people left it at that.
Similarly, lots of people looked at memorials honoring Confederate soldiers and somehow didn’t give it much thought. It seems astonishing in today’s atmosphere that we’d have a statue of the racist Chief Justice Roger B. Taney outside Maryland’s statehouse or name a park after Robert E. Lee. Or even more amazingly that we’d still have a state song, “Maryland, My Maryland,” that champions the Confederacy and crucifies Abraham Lincoln.
So we’re catching up now.
All across America, people are yanking down statues that have honored bigots, slaveholders, traitors and murderers.
The last category includes Columbus, whose treatment of North America’s indigenous people included enslavement and murder.
Yes, it was five centuries ago. Yes, it was a far more brutal and primitive time.
But genocide is genocide.
And there are people in Baltimore now threatening to make up for lost years. They want to tear down three different Columbus statues. In recent days, several dozen Columbus defenders have called on Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young to provide protection for the statues.
The Columbus defenders say there’s not enough evidence connecting Columbus to any atrocities. Also, they say, let’s not forget that he’s the one who connected the Old World with the New.
These days, we’re all wondering where the line is drawn between heroes and villains. Should we honor George Washington as our first president or shame him as a slaveholder? Do we tear down a statue of Lincoln standing next to a kneeling slave he’s just freed because the slave looks subservient?
Some calls are easier than others. In the current climate, it sometimes feels as if we’re not just tearing down statues but tearing at each other. Let’s at least give ourselves a few moments to talk things out before there’s real blood in the streets.
Those statues aren’t going anywhere in the meantime.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, including “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).