Monday, October 8, 2018

The First Columbus Day I Remember by Dr. Michael Flanagan

The first Columbus Day I remember I was in kindergarten, and we were going to have that Monday off. The teacher was explaining to the class who Columbus was, and that he “discovered America”. At five-years-old you don’t question. You are told something by the teacher, and it is so. It did not matter that it was a bit confusing that he could have “discovered” a place where people were already living, but that is neither here nor there.

What was clear was that we had the day off! Columbus was somebody to be celebrated because of it. There was even going to be a parade! As kids, that’s all we needed to know, Columbus discovered America, there is a parade, and a day off from school. Next we moved on to circle time, then snack time, nap time, etc.

As the years went by and subsequent Columbus Days occurred, we were taught about the Nina! The Pinta! And the Santa Maria! And that in addition to discovering America, Columbus also discovered the Indians! Right there on the beach. There were even pictures in the textbooks to prove it! Then moving on from that important bit of history we next learned about adding and subtracting, until the bell rang and we went to recess.

Eventually we learned the stories about how tough the voyage was, and how he was determined to sail west, even though his sailors were scared they would fall off the earth or meet their deaths by being eaten by sea monsters. It seemed that Columbus was the only person who knew the earth was round (which is impressive, if not historically accurate). Things were getting so bad that the crew was getting ready to mutiny, until a bird flew by, and land was finally found!

That all seemed pretty cut and dried. Plus, a day off and a parade! Columbus discovered America, then came Thanksgiving and those nice Indians who helped the pilgrims and everybody ate together at the feast.  Good times.

That’s pretty much all you need as a kid. Your teachers, and your parents, telling you something. No need for a critical lens, no need for historical context or an examination of the repercussions of any actions. Legend and facts are the same for a child.

Paul Bunyan and Santa Claus seemed legit too.

Fast forward to high school, where we began to learn that Columbus did not actually “discover” America, but was really lost. And that he was motivated not by adventure and bravery, but by the search for spices and wealth. He sailed west trying to find a short cut, to get rich quick. And, that the people who he called Indians, actually lived nowhere near India. Evidently there was no need to learn their true names and cultures at that time. Although it seemed a pretty glaring mistake, we still called them Indians anyway. The guy was lost, greedy, and mistaken about who he “discovered”, but whatever. There is a parade and a day off! Good enough.

As the years went by we learned that the Native peoples of America died out because of diseases like smallpox, measles and typhus, brought over by the Europeans. No judgement there, just accidentally wiped out. By the millions.

That particular history lesson, the one about the genocide of an entire race of people, is usually covered in just one class period. There were some illustrations in the textbooks of dying natives, and talk of their “lacking immunity”. The conclusion seemed to be that it was pretty much their own fault for getting sick. Almost as if it was acceptably inevitable. Basically the story goes: The New World was discovered, then the Natives died of disease, and now we live in America!. Case closed. The bell rings for gym.

Unfortunately, it is not until deep into high school that students might even start to become aware of the racism and genocide that accompanied European imperialism. Perhaps if you were lucky, in order to compensate for our biased textbooks, a socially conscious teacher might have chosen to distribute some supplemental readings about Columbus.

Primary source documents, perhaps excerpts from Columbus’ own journals, in order to generate some frank discussions in class. The torture and depravity. The sexual abuse, slavery and violence perpetrated against women and children. The racism immediately instituted because of him. Discussions that finally allowed students to begin to see for themselves what a monster Columbus truly was.

But, as in most white, patriarchal, Eurocentric history classes, these crimes against humanity are usually quantified by stating “Columbus was a man of his time”. That that is how all people acted back then, so it’s okay. At least we got the United States of America out of it. Where would we be without Columbus? Okay now prep for the SAT’s and get ready for the prom. Pay no attention to the mass murderer behind the curtain.

Tragically, for many products of the American school system, the crimes of Columbus were only begun to be made clear through the remembrances of the victims, and the voices of their descendants.

That knowledge is primarily gained outside of our nation’s classrooms. I remember attending the Columbus Day parade in Manhattan when I was in college. While watching the marching bands and the floats, the real story for me was the people not allowed to march down 5th Avenue, towards Columbus Circle.

It was the protesters coming down the sidewalks, pushing through the crowds, dragging makeshift coffins and carrying signs that read “Columbus was a rapist and murderer”. Posters of the blood and bones of millions.

These are the voices of the Taino people. The voices we do not hear in our classrooms.  

All the while the protesters, many of the very same ethnic blood lines as Columbus’s victims, were derided by the cheering crowds. Never let the truth get in the way of a good parade.

In recent years there has been a push to rename Columbus Day as
Indigenous Peoples Day, to finally recognize the Native Americans slaughtered in the Columbian genocide. But for every one city that has attempted to shine a light on the true history of Columbus, hundreds more remain belligerently in the dark, forcefully rejecting when people try to shine the light of truth.

The fact that I distinctly remember my first school day off because of Columbus Day shows what power teachers, schools and curriculum have over the minds of our children. We need to teach history as it actually happened. Not teach it as legend, or propaganda.

We don’t have to be graphically vivid to our kindergartners, but we should be honest. And we should not encourage the celebration of Columbus Day, simply because we have always done so. We should not allow our children to memorialize it because they get a day off of school.

We must break the cycle. Or else we will continue to raise people ignorant to the truth. Biased textbooks and curriculum have covered for the crimes against humanity for decades. It needs to end.  

This Columbus Day, let’s teach our students to remember the victims, instead of celebrating the person responsible for one of the worst genocides in human history. Change starts in our classrooms. #IndigenousPeoplesDay

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