It was October 1970 and the date of the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam – a general strike to protest our involvement in the Vietnam War – was fast approaching. My friends and I in the fifth grade at Marks Meadow Elementary School in Amherst would huddle together during our free time and try to figure out what was the best course of action to take. We all agreed it would be wrong to join the general strike and take a day off simply to get out of going to school. It was tougher to decide whether joining the general strike would produce any positive effect, and thus whether it might actually be more valuable to attend school and squeeze every last bit of education out of the year that we could. In the end, we simply agreed that whatever any of us chose, the others needed to respect that choice.
I was able to draw on that experience when I first learned of the existence of Columbus Day protests and the creation of alternative commemorations such as Anti-Columbus Day, Indigenous People’s Day or, in South America, Día de la Raza. I didn’t immediately understand why these protests existed – more on that in a moment – but I was able to imagine that some number of people engaged in those protests must have sincerely believed in their cause even if I personally didn’t fully understand their perspective.
I loved Marks Meadow, and it certainly served me well in preparing me to understand and respect a diversity of political opinions, but unfortunately, it served me poorly in understanding Christopher Columbus. When I moved on to what was then called Amherst Regional Junior High School, I thought of Columbus as an unalloyed hero. After all, I thought, he had sailed bravely forth across the ocean blue in 1492 to prove the world was round, in the process discovering America and winning the gratitude of a previously skeptical King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella for his efforts. I knew the natives he met upon reaching land were friendly, and imagined that they got along famously. I had eventually learned that relations between European settlers and the native population were not all turkey and cranberry sauce, but I didn’t see how it was fair to blame Columbus for that.
Of course, alongside the numerous untruths I believed as fact, all people are complicated, neither all good nor all bad, and Columbus was no exception. When I taught an ESL U.S. History course here 20 or so years ago, I learned in much more detail from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States of the patronizing colonialist attitudes Columbus held about the Arawaks, and about the cruelty that ensued. My students were somewhat nonplussed that I was deliberately including ideas not found in their textbooks, perspectives that were not entirely complimentary to my country’s history. They were certainly not alone. Mr. Zinn has written that, of all the chapters of that book, none inspired more reaction and controversy than the chapter on Columbus. As one example, a high school student wrote, “According to you, it seems he [Columbus] came for women, slaves, and gold. You say that Columbus physically abused the Indians that didn’t help him find gold. You’ve said you have gained a lot of this information from Columbus’ own journal. I am wondering if there is such a journal, and if so, why isn’t it part of our history. Why isn’t any of what you say in my history book, or in history books people have access to every day.”
However the question was meant, it brings up several important points. For one thing, it illuminates both the value and the necessity of primary documents when studying history. For another, it raises the question – one around which another SBS teacher structured her own ESL history course – of who gets to write history, and based on what principles. What is included – what is left out – and how and why are these decisions made?
In my current Humanities 7 class, we have had a number of discussions about the importance of perspective (both cultural and chronological) when looking at the past. Similarly, one of my former students, now a ninth grader, recently asked her mom with genuine hurt and confusion in her voice how on earth the Europeans who arrived on the shores of North America could even conceive it would be okay to take the land of the people who already lived there. Whatever lessons may in fact be applied to modern society from examining that conundrum, the mere fact that this student raised the question is encouraging. She is examining, analyzing, and thinking critically about evidence. She is reacting with a deep down sense of justice and empathy. She is asking her own questions, and preparing to draw her own conclusions. In so doing, she is also setting a strong example for others.
Who knows what Columbus would have been like had he been born in modern times, or for that matter what my student and I would have been like had we been born 520 years ago? In some ways, it really doesn’t matter. He was who he was, my student is who she is, and I am who I am. What does matter is the necessity of understanding the complexity of oneself, of other people, of our own and other cultures. And on that point, I would hope those who commemorate today – by whatever name – would agree.
- Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean