"Stop focusing on the past" "You've got a chip on your shoulder" "C'mon that was so long ago" (and my personal favourite) "Get over it"
We've heard these adages and know they sometimes have their place. They are most accurate when considering circumstances where the offender(s) has acknowledged and tried to rectify said offence. Indeed, at this juncture, it's good to go on and forward, leaving the past behind.
However, "getting over it" becomes tricky when we're talking about large-scale injustice, barely acknowledged, whose initial instigator affords the nation a yearly holiday. This passed Monday I breathed an uncomfortable sigh seeing my neighborhood banking institutions 'closed in observance of Columbus day.'
A man, who accidentally bumped into this continent on his way to plunder another one, is, we're told, a gentleman worthy of sustained glorification. So settled was Christopher Columbus in his resolve to plunder that when he encountered people of this region buddy didn't even bother to ask their names! He simply renamed everyone Indians! I mean, let's think about that for a moment. You're at home, some people pull into your driveway, upon seeing you they declare, "I've begun a quest to find middle earth! Alas, you are the first people I've seen. You are therefore Hobbits! Have Bilbo or Frodo come to the door, will you? I've got this salted pork I'd like to trade them for that ring..." We could measure in milliseconds how quickly your front door would slam.
Celebrating Columbus is in many ways a recurring tribute to his entitlement, merciless tactics towards colonialism, and, the worst form of human savagery: placing a premium upon acquisition over human life. Indeed some may (legitimately) posit that this author accomplishes no feat of insight in being expressly critical of 500-year-old practices. I mean what is challenging about relying upon the surety of hindsight in any discussion of right and wrong? Okay, fair. Enter Bartolomé De La Casas, a priest in the "new world" during the time of Columbus. He states, "The Spaniards have shown not the slightest consideration for these people (and I speak from first-hand experience, having been there from the outset) not as brute animals-indeed I would to God they had done and had shown them the consideration they afford their animals."1 So disturbed was De La Casas by what he witnessed that he proposed shipping Africans over as slaves whom he believed could better withstand the abuse . Indeed, he was taken seriously because the transatlantic slave trade ensued.
Columbus was abusive to Indigenous and settlers alike. Thinking about all this is unsettling. Consider then how much more disturbing it must be to be a proud descendent of the people whose onset of near annihilation has been deemed a time to celebrate by way of a national holiday; this is what people indigenous to the Americas are being asked to 'get over.'
If we wish to celebrate the existence of the Americas, we absolutely should. However, we must be weary of collapsing our desire to celebrate America in with Columbus' conquests, as it gives him too much credit, and others not enough.
Regardless of how it came to be, the truth is that the Americas thrive because their people persevered in spite of chasms like Columbus, not because of him. Let's celebrate that! I suppose there is some merit in acknowledging Columbus' role in beginning the dialogue between Europe and the Americas, but it is important to remember that in principle the U.S. sought to reject the kinds of 'conversations' derived from Columbus' introduction, namely imperialism, tyranny and classism. Explain then why we now seek to jump over all this hard won insight to venerate Columbus?
Some may further submit that Columbus was a great navigator and deserves credit for that alone. Okay, but Erik the Red and Leif Ericson, Norse explorers arrived in the Americas some 500 years prior to Columbus .
"Yes, but Columbus brought..."
And there in lies the nexus of the pain surrounding this issue. You see honouring Columbus, in the manner we currently do, suggests that whatever he brought was inherently more valuable than what was here; that we could not have evolved without "the full horror of the atrocities [committed] in this region" as De La Casas terms it.
To anyone committed to universal equality, such a proposition will always cause us to 'focus on the past' and, 'keep a chip on our shoulder' because we are in search of better. We are capable of better. Infinitely better.
Happy day(s) after Columbus Day everyone.
1 Bartolomé De las Casas, (reprinted 2004) A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies
2 Lawrence Clayton (first published online: 10 SEP 2009) Bartolomé de las Casas and the African Slave Trade
3 Bartolomé De las Casas, (reprinted 2004) A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies
4 Seaver (1995) The Frozen Echo