Tag Archives: Columbus Day

Nuance Matters

(an address to the school on Columbus Day)

“Why do we celebrate Columbus Day anyway? Weren’t there already people here when he arrived?” One of my Humanities 7 students several years ago looked up at me expectantly, but as I took a breath to answer, someone else jumped in and said, “Yes, and he was really cruel to them.” Someone else quickly said, “And he didn’t even come here.” A brief but passionate discussion ensued, following which I said, “I can just add that all the facts you’ve brought up are absolutely true, and they are nothing at all like what I and many thousands of people my age and older were taught when we were in school. And maybe if the full story was more widely known long ago, whenever Columbus Day was declared a national holiday, it wouldn’t have been.”

Which raises the question – how did Columbus Day get to be a national holiday? According to History.com, Tammany Hall, an influential (and, to some, notorious) political organization in New York, organized the first known celebration of Columbus in 1792, to honor the 300th anniversary of his voyage. One hundred years later, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation that said “On that day let the people, so far as possible, cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life.” (History.com) Fifteen years later, Colorado became the first state to make it an official holiday, and in 1937, 445 years after Columbus’s voyage and only 77 years ago, within the lifetimes of many of your grandparents, President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially proclaimed Columbus Day a national holiday, “largely as a result of intense lobbying by the Knights of Columbus.” (History.com)

Recently, the city of Seattle took an important step in the opposite direction, officially declaring the second Monday in October to be “Indigenous Peoples Day.” David Bean of the Puyallup Tribal Council felt it affirms the city values tribal members’ culture and history, and Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation, echoed his sentiments, stating, “This action will allow us to bring into current present day our valuable and rich history, and it’s there for future generations to learn.” (quoted in The Guardian) On the other hand, many Italian-American residents of the city felt that the day should not have been scheduled opposite what they see as a day to celebrate Italian heritage. In the face of the controversy represented by these perspectives, one of the co-sponsors of the resolution, Bruce Harrell, said that that while he understands the concerns of members of the Italian-American community, he feels that the city won’t be successful in its social programs and outreach efforts unless and until it recognizes the past. (The Guardian)

Our past does inform our present and thus influences our future. City Council member Nick Licata, himself Italian-American, captured this sentiment in expressing the hope Indigenous Peoples Day would become a tradition in which “Everyone’s strength is recognized.” (The Guardian)

In that Humanities 7 discussion, one of the students asked, “But wasn’t Columbus still brave to set out on that trip? Couldn’t they all have died?” I responded that of course they could all have died, and that arguably that meant Columbus was in fact brave to set out on that trip. And I pointed out that just as Columbus wasn’t necessarily the paragon of virtue that had been presented to me in school, neither was he all bad. He was, in the end, an imperfect human, sharing that trait with all of us.

Nuance matters. Perspectives matter. Respect matters. To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the arc of the moral universe is indeed bending toward justice.

Leave a comment

Filed under Current Events, In the Classroom, The Faculty Perspective

Thinking Globally, Acting Ethically

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

Leave a comment

Filed under In the Classroom, On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective