The Other Columbus: Which Columbus are you referring to?

It’s wise to unpack what I or you mean when we say 'Columbus'

Scott Woods
Clouds hang over the downtown Columbus skyline as seen from Scioto Audubon Metro Park on Tuesday, October 5, 2021.

I was talking with some people whose opinions I respect a great deal about whether or not our city was capable of caring about Black art. As a Black artist, the topic is pretty front-of-mind for me all of the time.

The conversation had a whole syllabus of observations and evidence that needed to be consumed before we even got to the table that day, as I believe heavy discussions should have an intellectual chip count. “Skin in the game” only gets you so far, usually to the point of personal agenda, so I like a little homework with my debate. I won’t do disservice to those efforts here by trying to encapsulate the subject in passing. That’s a series of essays by itself. Just know that it involved a lot of emailed reading material, an enormous amount of sweat equity and an hour-long video of me ranting in a basement. Again, none of which today’s essay is about, in the specific.

As we were going back and forth — more bartering in a marketplace of ideas than tug o' war — I reiterated the thesis by asking, “Despite everything that’s been said, do you think Columbus cares about Black art?” He said, in light of the amount of work he had committed to such work, it did. 

That response gave me pause. I disagreed with that answer, but the more I considered it, the more I realized that we had skipped several important steps of discovery.

Specifically, and most importantly, I had assumed we were applying the same degree of context to the question. I was perceiving Columbus as a collective entity of persons and communities. He was being a little more pragmatic; that if I am part of Columbus, then what I do belongs to Columbus. As a citizen of Columbus, it is a thing that Columbus can claim. As there is no ombudsman of Columbus culture nor an office to which one declares such discoveries, the effort that each of us expends toward creating, refining and preserving whatever culture exists is effort that the city can claim naturally.

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That’s not an incorrect way to perceive how culture or community building occurs. As I write this, the country is half-celebrating/half-demolishing its annual Black History Month observance. Entry into the canon of that celebration consists entirely of random acts performed by Black people over several centuries and continents. As a Black person, I get to claim a representative connection to the creation of the three-light traffic signal, or at least the genius that invented it, Garrett Morgan. At the same time, any American can claim that genius as an American invention, as well. More, connections can be made to it over as many bubbles of intersection as one’s will (or bias) allows. For all we know, the local union for traffic light technicians has a statue to Garrett Morgan in its lodge.

All of which is a way of saying, I should have clarified certain concepts before we got too far in the weeds.

As I have been writing about what Columbus is or isn’t capable of, it’s wise to unpack what I or you mean when we say “Columbus.” Who are we talking about when we refer to Columbus in a given conversation? Do we mean the civic infrastructure? Do we mean the citizens? Do we mean its business leadership or service sector? And how often should the who in that definition change depending on the what we're talking about? Should politicians ever be let off the hook when we talk about the various issues in the city limits? Aren't the people who are in control of things always in control of things, regardless of the focus?

For my money, we’d all better off perceiving Columbus in discussions less as a thing that must be defined absolutely and more as a lens that should be applied and constantly adjusted. It’s more effort to stop saying, “Columbus doesn’t care about Black art” and instead say something like, “Columbus’ industrial arts complex doesn’t care about Black art,” but it’s worth it. The target and source of conflict is clear. Parameters are built into the discussion to keep it focused. And the rest of the city that the charge doesn’t apply to doesn’t get a bad rap.

(Obviously, if you stack enough of these conversations together you start to make a case for an overall quality of life argument about the city’s ability to be good or equitable or caring. I’m all for that math if the work has been put in. But if you’re in one wack bubble saying, “Columbus is wack,” that’s lazy. If you’re gonna’ run my city down, the least you can do is make a list.) 

This isn’t the kind of question you answer head-on, so much as a magnet that keeps pulling you back to the point. It is the kind of question you bear in mind as you move about in the street or boardroom, answering the world’s problems that, as it turns out, aren’t the world’s problems. It is a context that you apply rhetorically to a given situation, hopefully getting at something akin to awareness. Or better, if you’re really invested, empathy.

Columbus doesn't always mean Columbus. It changes depending on which issue we're talking about. Is Columbus a bad city to live in because its schools are falling apart? Not singularly. There are values and priorities underneath the decision to allow our schools to wallow in disrepair while subjecting its teachers and students to suspect administrative choices that better answer that question. But you can’t get to those answers if you’re always taking a shortcut on the context. Is it Columbus or is it those seven people over there in the suits and ties?

Now let me tell you how my friend was wrong. Or, if not wrong, at least why I could not agree with him in that moment. 

I, as the recipient of the neglect and the devaluing and the targeting in question, get the final say about whether or not whatever help has been committed is enough. You don’t get to give me something and say, “I care,” and have that be the answer to the citywide question.

My friend may care, but that care has to go through a translator, and that translator is converting his care into impact. If the impact of his care is too small, then there are things that he can say and things he can’t. He can say that he cares, but he may not be able to say that Columbus cares because there isn’t enough Columbus in the work. He may give everything he has to the cause, but at the end of the day, if I still suffer, then we have to amend what Columbus means in that formula. He doesn’t get to be Columbus if the solution is in a higher weight class. He gets to be a good person and all of the other wonderful things I can say about him, but he doesn’t get to be the city.   

The truth of the matter is that there is no absolute Columbus. That’s what happens when you live in a place with an identity problem, that wants to be somewhere it is not, that wants that so badly that it cannot stop itself from throwing cultural pearls like Black art in the mud. Homegrown artist? Come back when you’re bigger. Progressive political candidate? You’ll get our vote when you look like you can magically win a race without it, somehow. We have to learn how to talk about Columbus better to get to its truths, and if possible, its solutions. 

909,000 people live here. It’s in politicians’ interest to speak about Columbus as widely as possible because they’re selling things. It is in the interest of its critics to speak about Columbus as specifically as possible so as not to be sold things they don’t actually need or want.

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This is the fourth installment in a series.

Read Part One

Read Part Two

Read Part Three