In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and stumbled on what are now the Americas. When he got here, he plundered the land, spread disease, and raped and murdered its inhabitants. On Monday, we celebrated a holiday devoted to him and his “achievement.”
Recent years have brought clamors to rename Columbus Day. This year, many have suggested a change to “Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” to commemorate the Native Americans who lost their lives as a result of Columbus’s actions; in fact, both the Women, Gender, and Sexuality department and the Office of BGLTQ Student Life refer to the day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Others suggest keeping Columbus Day’s current moniker to remember, if not to exalt, a difficult past. We suggest both.
Christopher Columbus sparked the slave trade and helped perpetuate what many historians consider the genocide of Native Americans. In Hispaniola, he oversaw a brutal dictatorship marked by the whipping, maiming, and killing of his subjects for minor infractions. He is a symbol of imperialism and the exploitation that accompanied it. Yet he also had the gumption to take a trip never taken before, and one he had every reason to believe he might not return from. He was the first modern European to set foot on this continent, and he enabled this nation’s founding.
Columbus encapsulates a painful part of American history. Even today, hearing his name—and hearing it taught as a reason for celebration—can hurt those whose ancestors suffered his atrocities. But it would be a mistake, and a form of dangerous revisionism, to handle that pain and hurt by striking Columbus and the decision to name a day for him from the historical consciousness.
The better way to handle the hurt is to confront its cause. It would be just as insidious for students not to learn about Columbus at all as it is for them to learn he was purely and simply a hero. Instead, students should learn about Columbus with the facts on both sides included: Yes, he was a bold adventurer and explorer, but he was also a rapist. Yes, he was a murderer, and we need to come to terms with the uncomfortable fact that the United States might not exist without him. Columbus Day should be an opportunity to learn from our mistakes and an opportunity to understand a complicated figure in full.
At the same time, students should learn about the people whose lives Columbus altered and in some cases destroyed. A national Indigenous Peoples’ Day, a variation of which exists in multiple states and major cities, should not be a pipe dream. In fact, it should exist alongside Columbus Day as an opportunity for commemoration and a way of telling today’s narrative in all its complexity. After their Monday off, children would return to school on Tuesday for lessons on Columbus, the indigenous people he displaced, and the significance of both.
By creating a holiday like this, we’d start to write a new chapter for our nation rather than erase an old one. Read together, they might finally tell the real story.