Columbus Day: the rest of the story

 “Columbus Day” was first celebrated by Italian-Americans in San Francisco in 1869, and worked its way into a national holiday in 1937. Those of us who went to school in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and probably through the 1990s and are not of Italian heritage, remember a school holiday and sympathetic portrayals of the Italian explorer in our textbooks.

We were not told of Columbus’s introduction of slavery—the Indian slaves he sent back to Europe or the “Indios” he enslaved in the mining of gold and introduction of European agriculture in the Caribbean. We did learn that Columbus thought he had arrived in Asia and his subsequent “misnaming” of Indians—a tradition that continued! He named the Indians he first met “Caribs,” a word derived from one meaning human flesh-eaters, cannibals. Columbus thought he had met the ferocious man-eating savages described by Marco Polo. They skipped that in our textbooks and didn’t tell us that he and his cohorts were responsible for the extermination of some entire tribes of indigenous people on those Caribbean islands.

We did not learn about the papal “Doctrine of Discovery” that gave Columbus’s Spanish royalty and other Christian European powers the “right” to claim lands occupied by “heathens” as their own. We did not learn about the learned discussions in Europe over the Indians in the New World: If the gospel had indeed been proclaimed across the world, some reasoned, how could these new human-like creatures be humans, have “souls”? In 1537, Pope Paul III issued an encyclical proclaiming that Indians did have souls, and that they could not be enslaved—but they could be converted.

Almost a century later, a century in which Indians continued to be sent from the North American mainland to those islands as slaves, the importation of African slaves to the islands and then throughout the Americas commenced. There are no papal encyclicals regarding the enslavement of Africans, who, beginning in 1619, were bought and sold openly in American cities, whose children and grandchildren were bought and sold until the Civil War. And whose great and great-great grandchildren ran from Jim Crow in the South and spread throughout the country—where to this day they make less money and die sooner than their White American neighbors. 

When people today say that we should go back to celebrating American history and traditional values, they mean to omit these crucial moments in our history. But times have changed since we went to school. The Civil Rights Movement, Voting Rights Act, Indian uprisings at Alcatraz and Wounded Knee, and the Indian Freedom of Religion Act of 1978 have wrestled up forgotten history and made it impossible to see an unblemished past. 

A parade of new histories is moving the big ship of American Education, ever so slowly, to consider old events in new lights, and to see stories long suppressed in the broader and more accurate narrative of our national past. 

Alvin Josephy wrote Indian Heritage of America in 1968, Vine Deloria Jr. published Custer Died for Your Sins in 1969, and Dee Brown Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee in 1971.  Indian poets and novelists, from Scott Momaday and Leslie Silko to Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie, write from Indian country today but are celebrated as American authors. 

African-Americans too have seen an almost century-long welling up of authors, storytellers, and artists showing the real story of slavery, Jim Crow, and continuing persecution and discrimination to this day. Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Spike Lee, Denzel Washington, Aretha Franklin, and a host of hip hop artists I can’t name bring the rich cultures of African-America to all of America. 

Recently, in the shadow of the deaths of George Floyd, Brionna Taylor and many others, new non-fiction books accurately depicting the history and practice of segregation and racism in America are on best-seller lists. In the last few months, I’ve reread Baldwin, read Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, and Jill Lapore’s These Truths: A History of the United States, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.

Pile these books and ideas on top of the new environmental histories—Alfred Crosby’s Columbian Exchange; Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel; Charles Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created—and you get a much broader picture of Columbus’s “discovery” of the new world.

These chapters of American history, and others—American expansion into Mexican lands; Asian exclusion acts; Japanese Internment camps; Jewish, Hungarian, Vietnamese, Hmong, Syrian and Iraqi refugees, etc.—do not diminish the impact that Columbus had on our world and the bigger world. As students of what is now called the “Columbian Exchange” point out, his journey unleashed an improbable amount of changes to the entire globe—animals, plants, diseases, and people quickly ricocheted off four continents so that Italians could have tomatoes and Irish potatoes; smallpox could visit the Americas and tobacco and sugar become European luxuries; and America could begin its dance with slavery.

But Columbus himself was a small man in retrospect, made small by the ignorance, meanness, and greed of his times. 

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