Columbus Day? Really?

brown-skinned woman in an elegant dress blowing a kiss to an image of an angry white bear

I have no idea why Stencil offered this image in response to a search for “Christopher Columbus,” but it’s just as well; I’d rather not feature one of his many statues.

Columbus Day became a federal holiday in 1937, little more than 70 years ago, in an attempt to combat the widespread animus against Italian-Americans. I understand this on a personal level: When my grandfather married my first-generation Italian-American grandmother in the early 1900s, his Irish-American family disowned him. Back then I, too, would have supported anything that helped reduce discrimination against Italians.

Objections to the Columbus holiday have been raised since its inception. Initially, the Ku Klux Klan fought against it. They feared it would make Catholics in America feel too proud. I don’t know about you, but anything the Ku Klux Klan stands against, I’m inclined to be for…that is, until I learned more about the history we erase when we celebrate Columbus as some sort of hero.

Erasing Indigenous People

Since at least the 1970s, indigenous people have reminded us that Columbus didn’t actually “discover” America, since their forebears were already here and living quite happily, thank you very much. Until Columbus and his colleagues introduced European diseases like smallpox. And, during his sojourn in the Carribbean, slavery.

Of course, Columbus is not the only problematic figure in history. When Thanksgiving rolls around next month, we’ll be “celebrating” the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims landing on the East Coast—first at Provincetown and then Plymouth. Who doesn’t love an anniversary? And we white folks in the U.S., don’t get too many triple-digit anniversaries.

Don’t celebrate—learn

But 400 years is a drop in the bucket to our indigenous neighbors. Members of the Nauset and Wampanoag tribes had lived here long before that. Before the groups got together in the sanitized, animated fun-fest we learned about in elementary school, there was disease, theft (though the Pilgrims left a note—in English!—promising to pay for the supplies they stole), and general mistrust.

If any 400th anniversary celebrations had been planned, they probably got scrapped once our modern-day plague struck. And that’s not a bad thing. Instead of just blindly celebrating what we think we know, let’s use these holidays to discover the truth. Let’s own up to the part each of us has played, and maybe continues to play, in spreading misinformation. Let’s find some worthy events and people to celebrate.

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