Today is a federal holiday known to most people as Columbus Day.
Columbus Day sucks. Christopher Columbus sucked. We all know this, and we need not spend a ton of time talking about why he sucked. But for the sake of formality, let’s cover some quick facts. Christopher Columbus was a brutal, greedy, racist, tyrannical monster who murdered countless people, facilitated rape and sex slavery, and was a key player in the origin of both the Atlantic slave trade and Native American genocide. He was a power-hungry, self-serving colonizer whose actions were inarguably influential, but only in that he greatly contributed to the near annihilation of vast numbers of both people and cultures, the trauma of which is still palpable and ongoing to this day.
Let’s not just rely on the history books though, because Columbus is able to make the argument that he is one of history’s greatest monsters all on his own. After encountering the native Arawak population of The Bahamas, he wrote:
“They brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned. . . They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They would make fine servants . . . with fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
Case closed! Beyond the abject evil, Columbus also wasn’t nearly the first foreigner to land in the Americas. Most notably, Leif Erikson and the Vikings beat him by about 500 years (and as long as we’re tracking the numbers, Indigenous people had occupied the land for about 15,000 years when Columbus arrived). Also, let’s not forget that the dude landed in the wrong fucking place! He was looking for Asia, which is why he completely misidentified Native Americans, calling them Indians. He sounds like the worst kind of proud dullard you could imagine, and I would say that’s actually quite American of him, but he wasn’t American, which brings me to my next point: he was an Italian working for Spain! Our adolescent country was (and is) so desperate for the instant gratification of a heroic origin story that we pinned an entire holiday on a wobbly, grotesque, and only sort of apt figure. But his legacy is our legacy now—as American as apple pie or unfortunately, the Fourth of July.
Of course, the distinction between Columbus and someone like Erikson isn’t really about “discovery” at all—it’s about honoring the person who colonized the territory. We don’t remember Columbus because he was an explorer or adventurer. We remember him because he was a settler and a conqueror who successfully achieved European occupation with brute force, an unimaginable sense of superiority, and utter disdain for human life outside his race.
While we should have left Columbus Day behind long, long ago (people have apparently been writing into The New York Times about it since at least freaking 1989), we’ve never had a better opportunity to break free from this bizarre loyalty than in 2020. After all, we’re already in the swing of tearing down historical monuments, both literally and figuratively, including statues of Columbus himself. We might as well take it all the way and replace the federal holiday with Indigenous Peoples Day, as many cities and states have already done. I’m not saying we should forget about Columbus—we need to remember our white supremacist past to help illuminate our white supremacist present and guard against a white supremacist future—but it’s the perfect time to leave him behind as a figure of pride or achievement. That version of history is not only exclusionary, it’s a toxic falsehood.
Perhaps the best argument for the abolition of Columbus Day is that you already know all of this. It is widely understood at this point that he was a bad person who represented parts of our history we now recognize as shameful. Proposing that we cancel Columbus Day is not a radical idea and the only reason it still exists is because of people like T*cker C*rlson and some sincerely misguided Italian Americans.
Demoting Columbus is of course about far more than just him—it’s an overdue gesture (truly the bare minimum) toward the millions of Indigenous people living in the United States today whose people suffered at the hands of Columbus and the many, many white settlers who followed. Native communities are still fighting for their land and against the capitalist-minded government-led projects that will further ravage the planet and directly hurt their communities. This year, coronavirus has devastated many tribes, including the Navajo Nation, which has had some of the highest infection rates in the country and lacks many of the basic resources, like clean water and government aid, to help contain it. This on top of the now “regular” strains of climate change, racism, centuries of cultural appropriation and erasure, continual encroachment on Native land, and America’s total failure to meaningfully address the atrocities of the past or present.
If you feel so inclined, here are a few Indigenous causes to consider donating to today, and anytime you’re able to give:
Beyond financial investment, it’s a good day to refocus attention on ongoing activist causes like Standing Rock and the Wet’suwet’en crisis, read up on the struggles for Native communities with regard to COVID-19, and maybe think about decolonizing your bookshelf.
There’s a lot of work to be done and a great deal of damage that can never be undone, but striking Christopher Columbus from the calendar sure would be a nice place to start.
Image: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain, remix by Caitlin Schneider