No, really. How do you explain Columbus Day to kids? Because I’ve gotten as far as explaining that Christopher Columbus “discovered” a land that already had people on it.
I got as far as explaining, “It’s like if we went over to your friend Ashley’s house and said, ‘I HAVE DISCOVERED YOUR HOUSE. And now I’m going to live here. In exchange, here’s a bunch of disease.'”
I got as far as showing my kids pictures of events in South Dakota, where Native Americans’ Day is celebrated instead of Columbus Day.
If you’ve never considered this topic, the web comic The Oatmeal has a concise, easy to understand explanation of what’s wrong with Columbus Day. The Oatmeal suggests honoring Bartolome de las Casas, a Spanish explorer who ended up fighting for equality for the indigenous people of the Americas, and eventually to work against all forms of slavery, including the African slave trade.
So how do I explain this to my children? How do I explain that our nation has a federal holiday honoring someone who didn’t discover America (as is traditionally taught), but did commit brutal atrocities against both the indigenous people of the Caribbean islands and the Spanish colonists who followed Columbus? How do I explain that our nation has elevated such a person to the same level as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln?
So far, here’s what I’ve got: On a personal level and on an historical level, humans make mistakes. Our job is to learn from them. American history, like the history of pretty much everything everywhere, is riddled with grievous errors of humanity: slavery, inequality, and prejudice.
What can we learn from Columbus? Everything. That cultures that are different from our own are not things to be conquered out of fear and prejudice. That the desire to explore is an essential human trait, but that there are ways to learn and explore without decimating everything in your path. That those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Here’s the best I can do in terms of explaining Columbus Day to my kids: While I don’t feel comfortable honoring a man who is essentially the father of the transatlantic slave trade, I don’t feel comfortable forgetting about him, either.
(Photo Credit: iStockphoto)
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