The other day I was in Newport and spotted a statue in a little park downtown.* I had never seen it before, so I walked up closer, only to discover that it was a statue of Christopher Columbus. Beneath the bronze statue was a plaque which identified Columbus as “The Founder of America.” Hmmm.
I thought there were thousands of indigenous folk living in this part of the world long before the curious explorer stumbled upon what became known as “the New World.” Actually, Columbus did not discover this continent. To the contrary, he was a European who stumbled upon an already-existing continent on which an already-existing population was living…and quite successfully.
However, in our typically Euro-centric mind, the introduction of white Europeans to the New World became a significant show stopper, and ever since we Americans have honored Columbus as the discoverer. In 1937 October 12 became the official day of honoring “our nation’s founder” and then in 1971 it was fixed on the second Monday of October to give school kids and workers a three-day-weekend. Italian-Americans, in particular, love the celebration of Columbus Day as it honors “one of their own.” Given the huge Italian American population of Providence, it is a big deal here.
Several years ago, however, students and faculty members at Brown University, the Providence-based Ivy League University, called the observance into question and legislated not to observe the day as Columbus Day. Their rationale is that it is an egregious error to disregard the Native Americans who occupied this land long before 1492, thousands of whom lived right where the State of Rhode Island now exists. In addition, the stories of the abuse of Indians by Columbus and his agents are rampant. Consequently, the day is observed at Brown as “Fall Weekend.” Around the country there are various other states, cities, or organizations that refuse to call the day Columbus Day, particularly the Dakotas, where Native American Recognition Day is observed.
I suppose, like anything else, that there are qualities of extremism in the Brown decision. But the basic point is one which deserves consideration at the least. The move is not one to disparage Italian-Americans. Neither is it an attempt to re-write history. To the contrary, it is a move to acknowledge the truth in our history that has been hidden for many years. The romantic version of Columbus discovering America fails to acknowledge the dark side of the story.
The truth is that Christopher Columbus and his men enslaved Indians and treated them despicably. That truth may have been hard for people to accept in earlier eras of this country’s history, but in this day we are less willing to dismiss that kind of revisionist history and more willing to own it and find ways to overcome its legacy.
Some may chalk off the Brown University action as sophomoric and typical campus shenanigans. But there is a cultural issue at the base of the protest which deserves attention.
At some point in history the separate birthdays of Washington and Lincoln were merged into one holiday called “Presidents Day.” Maybe it is not inappropriate to consider re-naming the day to honor the diversity of people who populated this continent, both prior to and after the landing of Christopher Columbus in 1492. It would still give Italian Americans, Dutch Americans, Anglo-Americans, Franco-Americans Portuguese Americans, African-Americans, Latino-Americans and other hyphenated groups to stage their respective celebrations to honor those from their ethnicity who played a role in establishing the nation in which we live. It’s not a popular topic these days, however, in the midst of the isolationism which is rampant.
Photo Credit: Feiner Push
*Not the one pictured in this posting.