Why are we still celebrating Columbus Day?

Happy Columbus Day?  What is there to celebrate?  And how about Happy Indigenous People’s Day instead?

With Columbus Day upon us once again, we must ask the question: Why, exactly, are we still celebrating Columbus Day?

Although it has been recognized in one form or another since the 1800s, Columbus Day did not become an official federal holiday until 1937, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt, after lobbying from the Knights of Columbus, a prominent Catholic organization, established October 12 as the holiday.  In 1971, Columbus Day was changed to the second Monday in October.

For years, the official line—the folklore, the mythology taught in U.S. elementary schools—has been that the explorer Christopher Columbus discovered the New World in 1492 while sailing the ocean blue.

A recent segment on the HBO comedy show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver summed up the situation perfectly: “Columbus became famous for his discoveries, specifically the discovery that you can discover a continent with millions of people already living on it.” Sometimes we have to laugh to keep from crying. Just ask yourself, how insulting is it to tell the indigenous population, who had lived in the Americas and established their civilizations for thousands of years, built pyramids and charted the stars, that their land did not exist until a European came along to verify?

Columbus was not even the first European explorer to sail to the Americas. After all, the Norse explorer Leif Erikkson arrived in North America 500 years before Columbus.  Further, in his book, They Came Before Columbus, the late Guyanese scholar and Rutgers professor Ivan Van Sertima wrote about an African presence in the New World centuries before Columbus.  And author Gavin Menzies suggests in his book, Who Discovered America?, that the Chinese admiral Zheng He charted a map of the Americas in 1418.  Menzies claims Columbus used a copy of the admiral’s map for his own voyage.

And while Columbus was long regarded as an Italian from Genoa—a source of pride for many Italians—some historians have recently suggested that the voyager was a Jewish Spaniard who fled the persecution of the Spanish Inquisition.

This is what we certainly know about Columbus: His arrival on the island of San Salvador in the Bahamas became a nightmare for indigenous civilizations in America.  Moreover, the events of 1492 led to an era of European conquest of the world, including the colonization, enslavement and genocide of people of a darker hue in North and South America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific.  And as these brown and black populations were softened up with the conqueror’s missionaries and their version of the Bible, smallpox proved as formidable an enemy to them as the gun.

“What they tend not to learn are the parts of Columbus’ life where he kidnapped native Americans and sold them into slavery, had his men slash them to pieces and through disease and warfare killed roughly half the population of Haiti,” said the narrator in the John Oliver segment. “But in fairness, none of that rhymes with, ‘In fourteen hundred and ninety two.’”

This is the twenty-first century, and new times call for new ways of thinking, including rejecting those concepts which were served up for us that we simply embraced without questioning, even when doing so proved harmful. In an America that looks different, this includes standing against racism and seeking justice, rejecting the “Redskins” and other racially offensive symbols, and ditching Columbus Day. Above and beyond the federal observance, Columbus Day is a paid holiday in only 23 states, making it one of the most unevenly celebrated holidays. Some cities, most recently Seattle and Minneapolis, have adopted Indigenous People’s Day. Berkeley, California, reportedly was the first city to take such a step in 1992.  Meanwhile, Hawaii celebrates Discoverers’ Day, in honor of the Polynesian discoverers of the Hawaiian Islands.

Now, this new reality does not sit well with everyone. As satirist Stephen Colbert recently mused, “the white Christian establishment is under attack,” as he made fun of Fox News’ outrage over the renamed holiday and the perceived “attack on Columbus—Day.”

If you’re going to celebrate a holiday, know what you’re getting yourself into. Columbus was no hero, and we should not celebrate him, though we should never forget his legacy. However, we should celebrate the heritage of those who survived that legacy.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove

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