A Case of Identity: Why Columbus Day holds Americans back.Posted: October 21, 2014
I just spent my third Columbus day since coming to America bathing cats and surfing the internet. As cleaning a cat is simultaneously upsetting and boring I spent a lot of time reading articles and Facebook posts on why the federal holiday is an embarrassing aberration in this day and age. This wasn’t something confined to the internet; most of my friends (as previously mentioned; a series of Anarchist and Queers, the majority of whom consider the Democratic party right wing) rolled their eyes and sighed at the vulgarity of a parade through south Philadelphia to honor a man who unleashed a wave of masochistic violence, diseases and genocide to firstly Hispaniola, and then the western hemisphere generally, bemoaning that this was not what America stands for.
I really want to believe that. I want to write a long tract about how it is inconceivable in this day and age to celebrate such a man and his works. That Columbus day is a strange aberration to American life, that it’s weird that the United States, a country that occupies none of the territory Columbus walked on, whose primary language is not only not what Columbus spoke, but the language of his state’s enemy, as well as being primarily made up of what he would have thought of as heretics, celebrates him discovering the Caribbean at the beginning of the fall. I could also question the use of Columbus day as a sober, Autumnal Italian St Patrick’s day, considering the full amount of stuff Italian Americans have contributed to the life and culture of the United States without orchestrating a genocide.
I would write that, but it’s not true. Christopher Columbus is probably the quintessential historical figure of the Americas, the U.S. in particular. The history of English speaking people on the North American continent is a strange mix of horrific genocide, slavery, theft, democracy and liberty that can’t be separated as much as we try. The idea of a republic in the 18th century cannot be divorced from the idea of slavery any more than the pioneers’ long trail to Oregon and California can be viewed without Christian white supremacy as its central drive. Equally you can’t view Christopher Columbus without separating the fact that without him the civilizations presently occupying the Americas wouldn’t exist without him, and that they exist because extreme violence was brought upon the civilizations that used to exist there.
It’s not nearly as easy to outright condemn Columbus as it should be; don’t get me wrong, Columbus was a terrible human being and it’s a shame there probably isn’t a hell for him to have been languishing in for five hundred years. But why is Columbus the one we decide to single out every year? The $20 bill depicts a man who committed Genocide, Half of American coins have slave owners on them, the great emancipator engaged in summery executions of indigenous peoples whilst preparing to put the emancipation proclamation into effect. The thing that is wrong with Columbus is something that’s wrong with White Americans generally, and yet it’s strange to think that the extermination of indigenous Americans is seen as a separate, peripheral aspect of White American political figures, like a set of wooden teeth or a stove pipe hat, the systemic murder of millions of people is brushed aside as barely notable to all but a few history enthusiasts, to the point that the first result from Googling the term “Native American Genocide” assumes you’re unaware it happened.
Europeans are not exempt from this doublethink regarding our history, however we do have the advantage of having been able to leave the places and pretend the whole ugly systematic genocide and exploitation of people of colour never happened. The closest British equivalent to Columbus day, Commonwealth day, used to be called ‘Empire Day’ until it was changed (much like the institution it celebrates) to pretend that Britain’s colonial project was primarily a bilateral community for everyone’s benefit. It’s not celebrated with any kind of parade i know of. European Atrocities outside our continent are largely ignored and not taught instead of being miss taught. for instance, I went to school with a guy from Zimbabwe when I was 17; he was the first person to tell me about the Rhodesian Bush War. I was equally ignorant of the Mau Mau uprising before I learned about it in collage. What we don’t do is try and defend something whose only justification is that White people are fundamentally better than everyone else who need to die to make room; we awkwardly ignore it or we talk about these things as though we are utterly detached from it. After listening to British people talk about the British Empire, it’s easy to come away with the idea that there was some personnel overhaul around about 1935 where vicious money-grubbing imperialists were replaced by Nazi killers and N.H.S. builders.
Europeans can mentally get away with the act of being vague about our murderous past because our self identity isn’t based on it having happened. If there had never been British, French, or Spanish Empires, Britain, France and Spain would still exist. There is definitely space were Spain is, we can argue about were Portugal and France begin, but Spain has definitely always been somewhere in between and filled with Spaniards. America on the other hand was the piece of British territory between the Atlantic and the Appalachian Mountains before it was the Eastern Third of North America before it was the space between the 49th Parallel and the Rio Grande before that included Alaska, Hawaii, Porto Rico, Guam, The Virgin Islands and Parts of Samoa, with Panama, The Philippines and Canada flirted with as possible parts of America, all of these places have original inhabitants that were pushed out or murdered so white people could move in and set up shop. My point is that America is not quite a country in the traditional seance, the idea behind it is… well, an Idea. It’s one of two countries in the history of the world whose sole reason for creation is putting an ideology into practice, and the last one to still exist.
The greatness of America isn’t in what it has done or is doing as a lot of that is pretty terrible and problematic: the positive attribute of America is in it’s potential. Whatever mistake the slave owners in Philadelphia made by not specifying who “We the people” included means that a leading power in the western world has shifted the norms of that society from that of human bondage and legal segregation to one with a bi-racial dude in charge all whilst failing spectacularly to live up to this country’s founding ideals. Columbus Day not only needs to be thrown out, we need to discuss why it was ever a holiday in the first place. Unless we do that we are denying that American history is that of people aspiring one thing and acting in a fundamentally different way. We need to hash out the evil of men like Columbus and Jefferson and Lincoln because unthinkingly celebrating the deaths of outsiders to your benefit is what other countries that never claimed to have moral superiority woven into their DNA. Columbus Day cheapens what it is to be American and pretends that our forebears didn’t betray the fundamentals of what being American is supposed to be and holds current Americans back from being the contentious global citizens we aspire to be.