This photo has been circulating on Facebook for quite a few weeks now in preparation of today’s holiday, Columbus Day. While most post or share the photo in a joking manner, others feel strongly one way or another.
Many people are starkly divided between two camps: those who celebrate the day, Columbus himself and Italian Americans in general, and those who feel that Christopher Columbus’ torture, killings, and enslavement of Native Americans and other people was nothing but hideous and vile.
And then are those who just enjoy having the day off.
Over at HuffPo, Vito de la Cruz sums it up well:
Why Columbus’ shadow endures and exceeds that of others including, to some extent or another, the Tainos and Arawaks who were decimated within half a century of his arrival in the Caribbean is because his voyages accomplished two things. First, it publicized to European powers that there was a vast world within their grasp and that it was defended by people still using bows and arrows. Second, Columbus’ arrival and presence in the New World established the pattern of exploitation and genocide of Native peoples that became the norm to the present day.
As Cruz points out, Columbus wasn’t the first to discover the Americas, yet we celebrate him because he lead an assault on less powerful people that resulted in him claiming the land. Of course, the catch-22 is that we all now live on this land.
The Dave Matthews Band has a song about it, “Don’t Drink the Water” which I remember explaining to my son when he was very young and asked about the meaning behind the lyrics:
Your land is gone
And given me
And here I will spread my wings
Yes I will call this home
What’s this you say
You feel a right to remain
Then stay and I will bury you
What’s that you say
Your father’s spirit still lives in this place
I will silence you
And as you go I will spread my wings
Yes I will call this home
I have no time to justify to you
Fool you’re blind, move aside for me
All I can say to you my new neighbor
Is you must move on or I will bury you
On one other hand, I don’t think that those who celebrate the holiday willfully glorify death and genocide. I’m sure many people who take their kids to the parades and festivities do so with the intention of honoring our country in some way. Most people don’t voluntarily praise killings. Like so many other often polarizing subjects, there are always more shades of gray than black and white. You simply can’t say those against celebrating the holiday are anti-American just like you can’t say that those who celebrate the holiday are proponents of genocide.
Yet I wonder how we’d all feel about Christopher Columbus if he took over land today and killed thousands in the process. While we’re proud to live in America today, I think it’s possible to feel sick about how the land was founded. It’s sort of like learning that your ancestors were murderers.
I’m not convinced it’s something you’d celebrate.