First of all, I have mixed feelings about writing this post. Secondly, today, October 12th, is the 525th anniversary of the landing of Christopher Columbus in the Bahamas, representing the most influential event in the “Age of Discovery” and the irreversible beginning of arguably the largest population and cultural shift to ever alter the dynamics of human history.
It’s kind of a big deal.
In 1792 on the 300th anniversary of that day, the city of Baltimore erected what it claims is the oldest American monument to the famous Italian explorer. A couple of months ago the monument was defaced as part of an anti-racism demonstration you can view on YouTube if you want.
Columbus Day has been celebrated in various forms since around the time that monument went up, but Colorado became the first state to adopt the official holiday in 1905. In 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared October 12th a federal holiday in honor of Columbus, a day that eventually came to be observed on the second Monday in October to better accommodate long weekend big deal furniture sales.
Today, that Monday is recognized not only by low, low prices and zero percent financing on five-piece living room sets, but also with large parades, closed banks, and empty mailboxes, because frankly we can all use a break from the furniture store advertisements.
But in the last few years, the day has also been marked by protest. In cities across the nation, the debate rages about the value of historical monuments that commemorate any kind of messy history and Baltimore’s is not the only Columbus monument to meet up with vandals.
And this brings me to my mixed feelings about writing this post. I have made no secret about the fact that I don’t want this to be another space of controversy on the Internet. I really don’t. There’s enough negativity out there and it would be nice if there are a few places where we can take a break from all that.
Still, this is a history blog (kind of), and more than that, it’s a blog that claims history as mostly story, directed by a few verifiable facts and a little made up nonsense. So I’ve decided it’s time to explore this highly contentious issue.
Because there can be no argument (well, I’m sure there could be, but to the best of my knowledge no one has made it yet) that upon meeting the natives of the Americas for the first time, Christopher Columbus wrote of them in his journal that they seemed to be pretty nice folks who would make wonderful slaves.
I sincerely hope that makes all of us feel morally icky.
I also have no problem with states like Alaska, Hawaii, Vermont, North Dakota, and Oregon choosing not to recognize the holiday or to use the day instead to honor Native Americans or whatever feels appropriate to them. In fact, I applaud efforts to re-evaluate the way we view and interpret historical events. I think we learn a lot about ourselves and ultimately become better people when we do that.
But I’m also in favor of furniture sales and of the large celebrations of Italian heritage and patriotism for which many American cities use Columbus Day. Even though our school district does not take the day off, it doesn’t bother me that many still do. Again, Columbus’s voyages ushered in a gigantic shift in the course of world history. It was kind of a big deal.
I think that’s what these monuments that people get so upset about really honor. I think they remind us of the shifts, of those moments in history when the world changed, in some ways for the better and in some ways not. That’s the thing about stories. They can be told and viewed from different angles and even the ugly ones often contain nuggets of beauty.
Actually I would argue that all of our history contains some ugliness, but much like an individual may look back at past mistakes and be grateful for the way he or she has been changed by them, those big deal moments have also led to a great deal of beauty as the world has moved through and looked back at them.
I hope as a society we continue to have conversations about how we view and discuss the stories from our past. It’s probably healthy to re-evaluate the ways we honor or remember or criticize the figures that represent moments of great shifts. And I hope we don’t spend so much time angrily tearing apart our history that we lose our ability to view it from different perspectives.
Instead, I hope we remember to look at all of it, and to take the time to sit down together on our new bargain living room sofas to discuss and consider both the beautiful and the ugly, even if we have mixed feelings about it.