Glossing over history for convenience's sake


By Matt Silich

For decades, America has honored Christopher Columbus, one of the first European settlers of the Western Hemisphere, on the second Monday of every October.

Columbus is one of only two historical figures to have a national American holiday in his honor for non-religious reasons. The other member of this exclusive club is Martin Luther King Jr., perhaps the most important civil rights activist ever.

At my elementary school, students were led to believe that Columbus’s voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492 was inspirational. We sang songs about it, we discussed it at length during the holiday week and we were taught to strive for the same perseverance and determination that saw Columbus through when he encountered struggles on the high seas.

Up until middle school, all of my 1492-related lessons conveniently glossed over Columbus’s slightly less inspirational acts during his time in the Americas. Funded by Spanish royals King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, Columbus arrived in Central America and forced natives to become slaves for him and his crew.

Columbus’s crew warred with locals and spread foreign diseases like smallpox that decimated much of the native population. Columbus even sent hundreds of enslaved natives back to Spain as a gift for the royalty, whom the Queen disgustedly sent back to Central America.

The way schools and the general public sugarcoat history like that of Columbus have helped create a culture where Americans are all too willing to look past crimes if anybody gives them a reason to do so. There are millions of Americans celebrating Christopher Columbus’s achievements this week with little to no knowledge of the harm he caused Native Americans.

Though some cities like Seattle and even states like South Dakota have chosen to instead celebrate the rich history of Native Americans on Columbus Day, the majority of the United States still idolizes a torturer and racist who was admittedly pretty good at traveling.

People seem to brush off complaints about Columbus Day like they mean nothing, but that is emblematic of the very reason why recognizing Columbus’s terrible acts is so important. Americans are far too accustomed to brushing away past crimes if given the slightest reason to think about something else.

This is particularly prevalent in sports like football, where the Dallas Cowboys escaped public scrutiny after signing a man suspended by the NFL for domestic assault charges, Ben Roethlisberger was lauded by analysts for winning a Super Bowl one year in between his two accusations of sexual assault and Washington Redskins fans choose year after year to ignore the horrible historical connotation of their team’s nickname.

Back outside the sports world, Columbus isn’t the only troubling case of an exalted figure’s important faults being ignored. Consider Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States who held office for most of the 1830s.

Jackson adorns America’s $20 bill despite owning 150 slaves and making his livelihood off their work. Jackson also signed the Indian Removal Act into law in 1830, which displaced many Native American tribes from their homelands in the southeast United States.

Americans seem to be totally unaware that Jackson is a rather poor candidate to represent a country that calls itself the melting pot because of its diversity and acceptance. The faces on our dollars, like national holidays, aren’t just trivial things to be ignored.

The faces of Jackson and Columbus are constantly present in our lives because of a misguided prioritization on holding true to America’s traditions. The government could, and should, make a meaningful statement about its stance on discrimination by refusing to tolerate such public reverence of Jackson and Columbus.

The “Women on 20s” movement that began this past spring encouraged the government to replace Andrew Jackson with one of the many influential women in American history. Any one of Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony or Harriet Tubman, to name only a few, would be a much better embodiment of the social progress America prides itself on.

It’s too much to ask of Americans to have knowledge of every single evil act committed by every public figure on earth, and certainly people are allowed to make minor mistakes in life. Nobody’s perfect.

But as another celebratory Columbus Day passes, it would be worthwhile to consider deeply the effects of honoring someone like Columbus or Jackson. Ignoring their terrible actions doesn’t constitute an approval of said actions, but it’s closer to approval than condemnation.

It doesn’t seem unreasonable to abolish a national holiday dedicated to a man who facilitated the slavery and death of thousands of Central Americans, nor to change the face of America’s third-most popular bill from someone who owned hundreds of slaves to an icon who fought for civil rights.

Matt is a junior in Media.

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