(“End” by XIT)
The Columbian Exchange is the historian’s term for the shakedown that changed the world after 1492. Plants, animals and pathogens were introduced to new continents with enormous consequences – The arrival of Columbus’ ships in the “New World” ushered in a new era in human history, and he is fairly remembered remembered for this. But should this be a holiday? [Yes, I know you're reading this at work, but are you really working?] Should we continue to recognize Columbus Day and yet retain no Monday for shopping promoted by the most original of original Americans, the original Americans!?
I think it’s safe to say that the worst thing to happen to Christopher Columbus’ reputation over the past 100 years was the publication in 1980 of Howard Zinn’s book A People’s History of the United States. Your average college freshman isn’t going to get past page twenty of this or any book, but in trudging just so far will experience nearly all of Zinn’s account of the early relations between Europeans explorers and the native peoples of this vast continent.
“They would make fine servants,” Columbus wrote of the Arawak, a now-extinct people who were the first to greet him. On his second voyage to the Americas Columbus returned with 500 enslaved Arakwaks, nearly half of whom died en route. They were sold in Spain. “On Haiti,” writes Zinn,
all persons fourteen years and older were ordered to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. When they brought it they were given copper tokens to hang around their necks. Indians found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death.
This is not some aberrant Aguirre but a man we are to revere and celebrate the second Monday of every October. Columbus and the crewmen of his expeditions enacted nothing less than genocide during the ensuing decades – Even Christopher Columbus: Mariner, the famous 1955 biography by Samuel Elliot Morrison, one of the most eminent historians of his generation, recognizes Columbus’ actions as such, although this begrudging admission represents but a fraction of the epic, celebratory ten pound book.
(“Before the White Man Came” by the Last Poets)
I encourage you to recall the way Christopher Columbus was presented to you as a child – I also encourage you to read the chapter on 1492 in James W. Loewen’s 1995 book Lies My Teacher Told Me, an historiographic study of American history textbooks.* What’s really interesting about Loewen’s book is not the various familiar facts about Columbus he gathers together, but the history of how they have been presented by historians. Wait, what? The way we have been thinking and talking and writing about Columbus has been changing since the 1490s, because that’s what happens. Columbus didn’t discover American any more than I discovered 39th Avenue, we have just gotten used to talking about him that way.
Columbus Day became a day in 1937. Without exploring Senate records I can’t tell you who introduced the idea or which way it all leaned, but I think we could make a couple of assumptions. Columbus Day was (and is in New York) a feather in the Italian American’s cap, and coming in 1937 seems like a reasonable time to recognize as about the peak of the Italian American influence in American politics. Columbus Day also comes right around the time we as a people began to develop anxieties about explosive political divisions and extremism (because we didn’t want to end up like Spain…or Japan or Germany or Italy). Columbus Day was fairly intended to be a patriotic observation, in as much as the “can do” spirit exemplified by Columbus’ courageous journey represented the potential of the American ideal far more accurately than any avenue of identity politics possibly could. I think they meant well.
The thing is we don’t have to keep these holidays. Our relationship to our own history has become disfunctional. It’s an abusive relationship. We don’t know what to think about the legacies our great nation brings to us until we know what we’re supposed to believe.
I am generally uncomfortable with the kind of identity politics that would lead to fighting something like a national holiday – but seriously, why Columbus Day? Why not replace it with some recognition of the people who were here before it was called America, the people who just called it “here”.
This week at hymiesrecords.com: My case for changing Columbus Day to Native American Day. Next week: Back to stupid shit I find in records and stuff.
(“North American Native Child” by Buffy Saint-Marie)