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Howard Barbanel Headshot

Goodbye Columbus? Celebrating Old Christopher Falling Out of Favor

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In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. That's how the history lesson of Christopher Columbus was taught to us kids back in the black and white '60s. Old Chris was a pretty big deal back in the day. After all, this is the man who discovered America, or the Western Hemisphere.

Although Columbus Day didn't officially become a national holiday until 1937, Americans (and other countries on this side of the world) have been commemorating the anniversary of his first landing in the Caribbean on October 12, 1492 for centuries now. Like a lot of holidays, in America its been moved to the closest Monday to the twelfth so that a lot of folks can get a three-day weekend. This year it's on the eighth.

Originally of Italian heritage, Columbus is also known as Cristoforo Colombo in Italian and Cristóbal Colón in Spanish. This explorer has an alias to fit any nationality. In New York, Italian-Americans and Hispanic-Americans for decades have had separate Columbus Day parades as the rivalry to claim ethnic rights to this man's glory hasn't been able to be merged or reconciled. A lot is known about Columbus. He thought he was going to find a passage to the Orient by sailing west from Spain across the Atlantic. What he didn't know was that two whole continents would block his way. He sailed for gold and riches but it would be his conquistador heirs who would find it among the Incas, Mayans and other indigenous peoples in Central and South America. Everyone my age knows about the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, his three boats.

To Americans of European extraction, his feat and daring compare with Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon. After all, this was a guy who really didn't know where he was going, how long it would take to get there, what he'd encounter by way of dangers along the way or even if his theory about finding land at all would hold any water, so to speak. This was still a time when most thought the world was flat and that Columbus might just sail right off of it. It was "boldly going where no man had gone before." Even Armstrong knew how many miles away the moon was from earth and about how long it would take to get there. Columbus? Really it was like taking off for the next galaxy. With no radar. No sonar. No GPS. No mechanical, steam or electrical power. No packaged or canned food. Not even any plumbing. This took a potent combination of guts and greed both on Columbus' part and on that of their Most Catholic Majesties, Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain.

No end of places and things have been named after him. We have Columbus Circle in Manhattan, Columbia University, the CBS television network, the District of Columbia down in Washington, Columbus, Ohio, British Columbia in Canada and it goes on and on.

Of course, Columbus only "discovered" America for the Europeans who profited very nicely from his initiative. The Spanish became an immensely rich global empire, spreading their language and the Catholic faith throughout much of the hemisphere. The French for a time did well in North America until they either sold or lost most of it. The British were the dominant power also in the region and the countries of the United States and Canada emerged from what was British North America. For the Jews, America became the best haven of freedom and opportunity they ever had along with providing the alliance with the U.S. that helps make Israel possible.

So, while Columbus' legacy has been good for white Europeans and their progeny, it set in motion no end of ethnic cleansing, genocide, dispossession, disease and despair for Native Americans (both in North and South America) that to a great extent prevails to this day, notwithstanding the ubiquity of Indian gambling casinos. It also set the stage for the forceful importation of millions of blacks from Africa, their being dragged into slavery and their legacy of persecution and discrimination that has only been redressed recently.

This is why Columbus Day has lost favor in certain quarters as being politically incorrect. A lot of people of color justifiably find the fuss over Columbus to not be their party and a lot of white folks have decided to feel guilty for the sins some of our ancestors committed centuries ago, even though we ourselves had nothing whatsoever to do with it and as a consequence fall over themselves apologizing for their background and their heritage (which used to be called "Western Civilization.").

There needs to be a middle ground. America is still the greatest country and the greatest idea of a country ever invented by man. We are the source of so much good for humanity and what much of the world aspires to be. While a lot of bad happened in the creation of the Americas, a lot of really good good has come of it for most and it is the ultimate good that needs to be celebrated on Monday, notwithstanding how we got here.