Every year in October America celebrates “Columbus Day;” a federal holiday since 1937 which commemorates the “discovery” of the New World by Columbus in 1492. Perhaps the most awkward holiday in the U.S., for in recent years it seems the day gets more attention for people protesting the anniversary than those actually celebrating it.
I imagine most of us remember the little ditty from elementary school we sang to remember his accomplishment; “in 1492, Columbus and his crew…” (you can take of the rest). We were taught about his brave, daring, and adventurous journey across the vast ocean to find a new route to the East Indies. A man with many admirable traits such as incredible determination and extraordinary vision; a man who would not take “no” for an answer, he was a visionary, a dreamer, and an adventurer.
Yet for all his qualities, he was also a man with some deep flaws. For all of his vision to see beyond the then-held limits of the ocean, he was unable to see beyond the racism, ethnocentrism, colonialism, and imperialism of his day. For a man who was able to challenge nearly every geographical misconception of his time, he went right along with ideologies that led to the mistreatment, enslavement, murder, and eventual demise of entire people groups. In reading Columbus’s own journal, I couldn’t help feel a bit sorry for him as in later years he looked back on what had become of his “discovery” and realized the downward spiral he had started. It didn’t seem like it was what he imagined it to become. I can’t help but wonder how he failed to see it all those years before.
So what do we do with this holiday, what do we do with Columbus? Erase him from the history books, remove the federal holiday? Oddly enough, I feel like we should do the exact opposite; every year we should rather make a point of remembering this man’s life and legacy. Let me explain.
It is said that those who fail to learn history are doomed to repeat it, and repeating Columbus’s history we are. Every day in America we repeat things like racism, mistreatment, enslavement, murder, imperialism, colonialism, and ethnocentrism; and we do it all in the name of Spain (oops, America). Racism? See our treatment of Mexican immigrants. Mistreatment? Enslavement? How about an economic system which is centered on rewarding the top 1%, the other 99% be damned (#Occupy Wall Street). Murder? Imperialism? Colonialism? Ethnocentrism? Oh, how about invading another country, telling them we know what’s best for them, and telling them how to run their country (Iraq, Afghanistan). I’m only getting warmed up here…
So should we remember “Columbus Day” each year? Yes, we should never forget the horrors that descended on the peoples of the land Columbus “discovered” all in the name of God and country. But rather I’m afraid America has forgotten, because if we look at the actions of America in the world and in her own country, Columbus’s errors are continuing to be made. America has not learned from history and the doom of our continuous repetition of such thunders across our country and across our world… all in the name of God and country.