THE CONTINUING CONTROVERSY OF COLUMBUS DAY

Shiny Happy Columbus

Growing up in the 80s, elementary school in New Jersey meant Columbus day was the unofficial start of fall. Even though Columbus Day and Thanksgiving book-ended Halloween, they sort of glommed together.

To an eight year old boy with a fertile imagination and a tendency not to question adults (boy, did that change) I had it in my head that Columbus comes to America, sticks a flag in the sand, gets the Indians all civilized; meanwhile the British party on Halloween and get to feeling a little inadequate, and within a month’s time they are in New England having, a feast with the grateful Indians. Cut to next scene and I’m watching holiday themed cartoons and drawing hand turkeys during arts and crafts. I didn’t know what the real context was any more than I knew why pretending my hand looked like a turkey was so important to the teachers. Every damn year. Look, kids! Your hands look like poultry.

New Jersey revered Columbus. He was the trailblazing first pioneer and an important icon for the parents of the Italian girls and boys. As well as I can remember, my view of Columbus didn’t change until after school, in college replaced the magic with shock, then outrage, and then with a new magic.

Failed Reality TV Star Columbus

I don’t think I gave Columbus Day too much thought once I aged out of hand turkeys. So, in college, surrounded by students raging against a lifetime of lies passed down by the system, all of the controversy hit me at once. Leif Erikson, a viking, “discovered” America 500 years earlier. Certainly much cooler. Cooler hats. Erickson seemed to know what he was doing. He established a settlement and made trips back and forth, hopping between Greenland and Iceland in boats almost small enough for the Santa Maria to use as dinghies. (I exaggerate, but the long boat had no cabins and no hulls with ample storage for food and supplies.)

Cross-section of the Santa Maria

Magic bad-ass party sled

The Indians were here all along. I awoke to the significance of their presence in the same sharp, embarrassing way I was awakened to the presence of the other people in Genesis. (If Adam and Eve were the first people, where the hell did all these other people come from?) I had just never thought about before. Or maybe I did. Maybe I asked my teacher and she gave me an icy glare in answer. The Indians were here all along. Columbus and his men abused and killed them in the name of God. I was disgusted.

Also, Greenland is icy and Iceland is lush and green. But whatever.

Historical Columbus

Cristoforo Columbo (a name that got the Ellis Island treatment like so many immigrants who were introduced to America by Ellis Island agents with no worldliness or patience) was born in 1451 in the Republic of Genoa. He was considered a skilled researcher, navigator, and a leader, and was well-read in the fields of theology and geography. He believed that he had arrived in Asia and did may not have been aware that he had “discovered” a new continent.

Between 1492 and 1504, he made four trips to the Caribbean and South America, and was responsible for opening America to European colonization. If not for him America would not exist as it does today.

But it probably would exist. John Cabot, an English explorer, “discovered” actual continental America in 1497. Columbus’ relevance was plummeting.

He did manage to be the first at something—establishing the first trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Evolving Columbus

Columbus Day became a federal holiday in 1937. Italian Americans who were the demonized immigrants of the moment, lobbied for a presence in American holidays. This is likely part of why they take anti-Columbus rhetoric personally. It remained in good favor for many years. Reagan was a big booster.

But since then the controversy of the true nature of his history has overtaken the idyllic mythology. Now Columbus day is only observed in about half of the states, mostly states with significant Italian populations or states not exceptionally progressive. Many states instead celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day or Native Americans’ Day. There are proposals to popularize Leif Erikson day.

Over the last several decades, it has become more common and expected to take an emotional, personal responsibility for the treatment of the native American people. Many say that to celebrate Columbus is to celebrate the slavery, cruelty and possible genocide of aboriginal people.

But we should keep in mind Columbus wasn’t the only one to treat native Americans poorly. We’re citizens of a nation that has a long and brutal record of abuse against non-European people. The native Americans are our most tragic victims, Chinese workers during the building of the American railroad, the Japanese during World War (It’s odd we didn’t feel the need for internment camps for the Germans), and today, Muslims and Mexicans (which for many means confusing the two as well as everyone from south and central america).

Should we treat all of these blood stains on our history equally? We don’t have any comparable holidays for to react against with righteous indignation when it comes to the Chinese and the Japanese, and it’s depressing how many people don’t see the problem with condemning Muslims and Mexicans, AND refuse to consider it racist.

Is it a good thing to completely eliminate Columbus day? Maybe some would give the same argument against this they’d give for removing the confederate monuments. They’re a part of history. Removing them would remove the conversation. Argument is so frustrating. Do we lack ability to continue to teach and discuss this part of history with the revised perspective?

I say get rid of Columbus Day. Indigenous Peoples Day will provide any necessary opportunity for discussion. Italians don’t need Columbus. They have Da Vinci , for Christ’s sake! And Galileo, Cassini, Volta, Fermi, and Sinatra.

Besides, look what we’ve done to the holidays of the Irish and the Mexicans.

There might come a time when no American children have the personal experience of Columbus that I did, and they won’t experience the shock children of my generation felt. That shock so similar to the time we learn that the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus aren’t REAL real. I’m not being glib. They’re all myths, and children care a lot more about Santa than they do about Columbus. Children place high value on honesty from adults and fair play. It’s not a good lesson to learn–that teachers and text books can’t be trusted.

It’s possible, though, that they will have a healthier perspective of America. Columbus was a very important man. He was a pivotal moment in history. His legacy is both wondrous and horrific. People that take it personally, this supposed PC reaction, fail to recognize the duty and perspective of history.

Today we still give children a myth of america. When children grow up, they tend to choose one of two paths, they learn to question everything and doubt themselves, and there is no room for myth, or these young adults turn against history… and science… and every other thing that threatens any of their other mythologies. Tomorrow’s children have the opportunity to think of America rationally, without emotional baggage obscuring the potential for evolving possibilities.

 

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