Does Columbus deserve a federal holiday?
A week ago, Oct. 12, was Columbus Day—a fact that probably went by unnoticed by most, unless they happened to glance at a calendar that noted federal American holidays. Since I have become more aware of the historical inaccuracy and deletions of key facts present in my elementary school’s history curriculum, which continued in various degrees at subsequent levels of my education until recently, every 12th of October I have been a little miffed about why we recognize Columbus and his “discovery” of the “New World.” I’ll be honest, I have never really thought too long about the matter, in part because until now I have always attended schools in districts that chose to recognize most federal holidays with days off, but this past Monday, as I flipped through my assignment notebook, I must say that my usual eye roll evolved into a definite huff of annoyance.
I recall the song I learned in elementary school: “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” While I am sure that there are many variations taught in schools across the country, I am also certain that most continue with sickly sweet honey-glossed lyrics that drip with rotten, glazed-over historical half-truths, to be generous. Some of the verses I learned are as follows:
“Indians! Indians! Columbus cried; his heart was filled with joyful pride.”
“He made the trip again and again, trading gold to bring to Spain.”
“The first American? No, not quite. But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.”
It would be more apt if these lyrics were changed to:
“Indians! Indians! Columbus cried; let’s sell them into slavery and begin a genocide.”
“He made the trip again and again, seizing many innocents to bring to Spain.”
“The first American? No, not quite. But Columbus thought the land of others was his right.”
As more historical truths about Columbus’s journeys to the Americas continue to be uncovered, it has become all too clear that the explorer wasn’t as “brave and bright” as a generic version of the history taught at American schools and the federal holiday named in his honor might make him out to be. I wonder: Is it right to continue to venerate this 15th-century Italian whose explorations of the West Indies led to the enslavement and decimation of indigenous populations through brutality, violence and disease? To me, it is not, especially when we examine those American heroes who are also honored with national days of remembrance: veterans, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Over 500 years later, we as a society can no longer continue to glaze over the wildfire of negative ramifications spurned by Columbus’ exploration of the West Indies (and subsequent European forays into the western hemisphere). It seems odd that the government recognizes Columbus as a hero when history testifies otherwise. Why does America, whose history is rich with dozens of heroes who have advocated for freedom, justice and equality, still choose to honor the memory of a lost 15th-century explorer whose journey resulted in ideas and actions that were anything but free, just and equal?
Kemi is a freshman in Arts & Sciences. She can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].