Scrolling through Facebook on my phone Monday afternoon I came across a link to the whitehouse.gov website, and to a proclamation from President Donald Trump declaring Oct. 12, 2020, as Columbus Day.

In the first couple paragraphs he gave kudos to Christopher Columbus, long held as the discoverer of the Americas, and his contributions to what led to the United States. It pointed to Italian Americans’ sense of pride that Columbus hailed from Genoa.

I disagreed with giving Columbus or his contributions any kudos, as a matter of personal opinion, but was willing to let it slide, so I kept reading.

With the third paragraph, however, came the sound of a thud as my jaw dropped onto my phone.

“Sadly, in recent years, radical activists have sought to undermine Christopher Columbus’s legacy. These extremists seek to replace discussion of his vast contributions with talk of failings, his discoveries with atrocities, and his achievements with transgressions. Rather than learn from our history, this radical ideology and its adherents seek to revise it, deprive it of any splendor, and mark it as inherently sinister.”

As a student of history, I am completely stunned.

You want to talk about revisionist history? Let’s talk about it.

Columbus

This undated portrait attributed to Rodolfo Ghirlandaia shows Italian explorer Christopher Columbus. Associated Press file photo

The whitewashed version of Columbus’s story that this presidential proclamation holds aloft is not based in any sort of historical fact. It’s based on a retelling and reinterpretation of stories written by men in power who wanted to give the country a rallying point of national pride; to raise feelings of nationalism and thereby support for their government.

A little further down it read: “In September, I announced the creation of the 1776 Commission, which will encourage our educators to teach our children about the miracle of American history and honor our founding. In addition, last month I signed an Executive Order to root out the teaching of racially divisive concepts from the Federal workplace, many of which are grounded in the same type of revisionist history that is trying to erase Christopher Columbus from our national heritage.”

To the contrary, no one is trying to erase Columbus from the conversation. Rather, historians refer to facts and firsthand accounts of what occurred in order to tell the whole story, not just the parts that make the U.S. look like saviors from God that lifted those poor native people from their wretched lives.

Here’s the thing: We can simultaneously recognize the contributions of Columbus to the founding of America, and also acknowledge that those same contributions led to the slaughter of millions, both directly and indirectly, by way of war and disease. Those acknowledgements are not mutually exclusive; they are based in fact, not opinion or fairy tales.

We can recognize the voyage of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, and also acknowledge that historians have shown that trip was not the first nor the most significant in the “discovery” of the Americas.

We can recognize, and some may even admire, the drive of Spain, England and France to colonize the “new world.” Think of it as the 1500s-1600s version of the space race in the 1960s. But it would be negligent to not talk about the fact that the Americas may have been a “new world” to Europeans, but it was already home to millions of native people.

The truth is the Europeans didn’t “discover” anything. It was already an inhabited land, one which was, by most historians’ accounts, destroyed by the settlers’ over-farming, and whose people were ravaged by disease and stood no chance against syphilis and bayonets.

We can have pride in our roots, no question, but to not acknowledge the dark paths those roots led us down would be a disservice to ourselves, our future generations, and the Founding Fathers themselves who recognized that the nation would have to adapt as the world moved forward and the old traditions died — traditions that, as it turned out, included slavery and, yes, imperialism.

If Italian Americans want to take pride in Columbus’ contributions as an explorer, I won’t take that away from them. We — Americans — however, have to recognize that he was not the “hero” history has made him out to be: that the stories of Columbus, along with the other conquistadors, have a dark underbelly. Columbus was by no means any worse or better than, say, Hernan Cortez. Talk about a cautionary tale.

If you want to plant your flag someplace, understand you take with it all its repercussions. And if you’re the president and you want to stand behind a figure such as Columbus, then you take with it all that stance implies.

Marla Hoffman is the nightside managing editor for the Sun Journal.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: