In 1937, FDR caved to intense pressure from the Knights of Columbus to make “Columbus Day” a national holiday. One of Columbus’ charges on his second voyage was to convert the “savages” of what he still thought was Asia (in fact, he died thinking he had discovered not the Americas, but a new part of Asia) to Catholicism. It’s a complicated story, but the Knights of Columbus wanted Americans to use this day to honor the contribution of immigrants and, of course, Catholics, to American society.
I like where their heads were at. And some essentials were lost in the translation.
Columbus was just one greedy dude in a long line of punks and chumps who wanted to find fame and fortune for themselves at any cost. The “celebration” of Columbus Day and the way that most Americans (and American school children) understand its significance, is classic whitewashing. Another tale of conquest by ignorant men who judged themselves better, smarter and more worthy of freedom and land than those who had already settled and lived well on lands inherited from their ancestors.
Estimates vary, but there were likely anywhere from 50 to 100 million native people living in the Americas in 1490. Over the course of the next two centuries, 90% of these people were dead having fallen victim to enslavement, war incited by these new foreign settlers, European-introduced diseases and the byproducts of displacement.
So yeah. In 1937, the US government decided to give white people the day off…again. (Because, let’s be clear, most of the people who have jobs that give them this day off are white.) White people have been taking the day off on the backs of Brown and Black people for a long-ass time. Why not codify it?
This weekend I found myself having a beer with some former neighbors. As conversation turned toward recent events, including what one of them called, in air quotes, “police brutality” another of them sighed, as though he has been living under the heaviest mantel of any of us these last few months. He said, as though he truly has the solution, “I wish we could all just get along.”
I have heard this refrain many times. Apparently, I had no fucks to give on this particular occasion because I replied, “Ya know, when people say that, what I think they’re really saying is, ‘How do we make this unrest go away without having to own our personal responsibility for it?” He stopped for a minute and looked at me in vague surprise before sighing again, still clearly burdened by the heavy weight of his white suburban male American existence, and conceded, “You’re probably right.” Lucky for him, he knew, deep in his privileged bones, that I didn’t mean him.
Many proposals have been made over the years to rename Columbus Day. The most popular of these options is Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Maybe a more apt name would be Indigenous Peoples’ Subjugation and Enslavement Day. I haven’t gotten a lot of traction with that one. Too soon, perhaps?
Renaming the day is missing the point on purpose. It doesn’t matter what we call it. As long as we keep doing the same things over and over, the world will fall more and more out of balance. As long as we continue to meet difference with rejection and subjugation, privilege and power will rule the day. As long as we treat the earth like our slave, every living being who draws their life support from it will suffer. As long as we continue to support each other’s denial about our role both in the current imbalance and in the work that will be necessary to right it, every single day will continue to be a celebration of ignorance and disconnection.
If you’re off today, take some time to read the real story of Columbus and even of the Vikings who came long before him in the 10th century who also killed the “others” who lived on the lands they “discovered.” Read what’s true and just feel what you feel. Notice how much you don’t want to rearrange your understanding of how the world works. Notice your overwhelm at the heavy lift that lies before mankind at this time. Then pick yourself up and let’s start flipping some tables.