Monday, October 13, 2014

The Twilight of Columbus Day

This clip from John Oliver reflects pretty well our new understanding of Christopher Columbus:

You probably saw where Seattle just officially ditched Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples' Day. Of course this has been denounced by some on the right as "political correctness" (by which they generally mean "being polite to non-whites").

The charge ignores the fact the Columbus Day is itself a product of political correctness from an earlier era. For most of the 19th-century, Columbus did not occupy a particularly high spot in our historical pantheon. He was certainly in every textbook, but he was lumped in with Cortez and other Spanish conquerors and explorers. Columbus only became an American hero with the rise of the Italian-American community, who by the early 1900s had gained enough economic and political clout in their new home to organize and demand a holiday of their own. Columbus Day became a national holiday in 1937. This pattern--a group is discriminated against, slowly gains acceptance, and uses its political power to push for its own holiday--is of course exactly what gave us Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and now Indigenous Peoples' Day.

Growing up in Connecticut, Columbus Day was kind of a big deal. With our strong and politically active Italian-American population, the day was observed as a general celebration of Italian culture. It was in no way controversial--though it should have been. The current unpopularity of Columbus is not a result of any new information about the man coming to light. We have always known, from his own writings, about the taking of slaves and slaughter of civilians. We just did not used to care, or thought that his skills as a navigator someone balanced things out. This period of willful blindness has come to an end, and we cannot go back.

A hundred years from now some history student will be sifting through some letters and diaries of the 20th century and find references to "Columbus Day?" and wonder--what was that?

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