This blog posting was written not long after protests and violent clashes erupted over a statue of Christopher Columbus in the summer of 2020 in the “city of brotherly love.” The status of the monument is in currently flux, due to a court ruling that placed a temporary “stay” on its removal from Marconi Plaza in South Philadelphia. A lawyer who represents a group of local residents who want the statue to remain called this decision “not just a victory for the Columbus Statue, [but] a victory for civilized society.” Statements of this kind raise issues about memorials of this sort, which – like many confederate statues across America – enshrine and celebrate highly contentious figures from history. Taking such debates as a cue, in this blogpost I want you to think about the assigned readings from the “age of exploration” by viewing them from two divergent perspectives, as outlined below.
1) First, you might consider what, exactly, the “truth” is concerning Columbus’s journey, and the account of that journey. Or, you could ask similar questions of “truth” about the texts written by/about the conquistador Hernan Cortes, Bartolome de las Casas, and the work known as the ‘Florentine Codex.’ What are some of the main obstacles to really knowing the “truth” on the issues and details presented in these texts? If it is, perhaps, “inevitable” that the writing of history takes sides, what are the ramifications for our understanding of these texts from the “age of exploration” – and, more broadly, for our comprehension of power as articulated in the various historical works we have studied so far in Unit One?
2) Next class, we will be considering the subject of the Enlightenment, a concept that Immanuel Kant famously explained by saying that “Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage” (or, perhaps, “immaturity”). Kant criticized “man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another” and encouraged his fellows to think critically and question accepted “truths” and structures of power. In what ways, then, are the authors of the texts assigned for class today “enlightened” – or not? To borrow from the lawyer’s statement above, how are these accounts presentations of “civilized” society – or not? Alternately, you can again think broadly here, and highlight a truly “enlightened” idea that we have covered so far in class. What made this notion so revolutionary in its own day and age? As a member of “civilized” society in the twenty-first century, how do you respond to such “enlightened” thinking?