When I crossed the last day of September off my calendar, I felt a bit giddy. Yes, it's nice to get that first month of school over and finally feel firmly established within the academic year, but there's another reason for my upbeat mood. For me, the start of October marks the beginning of the "holiday season"- the quick succession of celebratory events which will culminate in the start of a new calendar year.
Halloween has become such a big event in some places, one can actually forget it's not a legal holiday. No, the real October holiday is Columbus Day. That's right- it's a federal holiday, just like Memorial Day, Veteran's Day, and Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In theory, federal holidays are meant to instill a feeling of civic pride and serve as an occasion to bring people together. Federal holidays tend to celebrate heroes or mark past struggles or commemorate achievements. When I think along those lines, I begin to question where exactly Columbus Day fits in.
My own memories of Columbus Day are murky at best. I remember saying the "In fourteen hundred ninety two.." rhyme in unison with my elementary school classmates and having to recite details such as the names of the ships used for the voyage. I was taught at an early age that "Columbus discovered America" and only thought to question the soundness of such a claim in high school. In college, I learned that Columbus was less than heroic when he used violence against the indigenous population and enslaved the people he first encountered. The more I studied history, the more I wondered why we have a federal holiday in Columbus's honor.
Certainly as a teacher of World Civilizations with 20 years of experience, I am no stranger to the trajectory of maritime exploration and colonization in the world's history. I've taught my students the "benefits" of the Columbian Exchange but haven't glossed over realities such as slavery, the forced conversion of native peoples or the genocidal impact of infectious disease. Most of my students are truly saddened and disheartened to read an account such as "Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress," chapter one from Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. Others are dismissive and wave away any remorse about past events such as the obliteration of native populations with the disclaimer that it was simply "the cost of doing business," the sacrifice humanity made in the name of "civilized development."
There's no denying that Columbus's voyage and the ensuing colonization of the Americas had a profound impact on us all. Certainly we've been taught the history, but have we really considered the memory or the legacy? In researching Columbus Day I found websites of all persuasions, those calling for the elimination of Columbus from classroom curricula and the removal of a federal holiday in his honor to staunch defenses of Columbus's "[bringing] the Americas to the attention of the civilized world" and the dismissal of any concern for indigenous peoples as "the glorification of primitivism." I also learned that President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation in 1892 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the initial voyage and that he designated schools as the center of Columbus Day celebrations because universal public schooling was just getting started in the US. In 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared it a federal holiday after some fairly intense lobbying by the Knights of Columbus.
Interestingly enough, opposition to Columbus Day began in the 19th century. Anti-immigrant groups rejected the holiday's association with Italian-Americans while others decried what they considered federal expansion of Catholicism. Native American groups have protested the celebration of an event that ultimately led to the colonization of the Americas and the death of millions of indigenous people. Is the keeping of Columbus Day something we do with thought and intention or simply a tradition we've been too busy to examine?
Indeed, Columbus Day has been re-envisioned and revisited. In Latin American nations, Columbus Day is traditionally observed as "Dia de la Raza" (Day of the Race) and is a celebration of Latin America's diverse cultural roots. In 2002, Venezuela renamed Columbus Day "Dia de la Resistencia Indigena" (Day of Indigenous Resistance) to recognize the experience and culture of native people. Several cities and US States have alternative holidays to replace Columbus Day, such as Berkeley's "Indigenous People's Day" and South Dakota's "Native American Day." Hawaii has changed the holiday to "Discoverer's Day" to commemorate the arrival of Polynesian settlers.
If my involvement with Facing History has taught me anything, it's taught me to challenge assumptions, ask questions, and encourage dialogue. It's taught me to pay attention not just to history, but also to judgement, memory, and legacy. It's made me consider both what our society chooses to commemorate, and what it does not, and why. In thinking about Columbus Day at length, I'm hungry for thoughtful conversation.
What, if any, is an appropriate way to mark Columbus Day? Do you talk about Columbus Day with your students and if so, how?