Talking to My Son About Columbus

“So, why do we get Monday off?” my son asks.

“It’s Columbus Day and some people feel that Columbus deserves a holiday,” I answer.

“Does he?” my son asks.

“Tell me what you know about Columbus,” I tell him.

“He discovered that the earth is round and he discovered America,” he answers.

So, I tell him the truth. I tell him that the Greeks knew that the earth was round and that they had essentially determined the correct circumference of the world. I told him that many civilizations knew the same thing and that there’s reason to believe it wasn’t just the Greeks. We talk about how Columbus didn’t discover the “New World,” (nor was he the first European) about how it was inhabited by others and he was taking it by conquest.

I’m tempted here to drop the subject. I know that the rest of the story is unpleasant and uncomfortable. But here’s the thing: history isn’t pleasant and it’s not meant to be comfortable.

So, I tell my son about the slavery and the genocide. I leave out a few of the gory details (the way Columbus fed indigenous people to his hunting dogs while the people were bleeding to death or the way he captured young girls and used them as sex slaves). Still, I share a glimpse of the brutality, because the reality of conquest and colonialism is that it was brutal. Sickeningly brutal. He needs to know that.

“I can’t believe he has his own holiday,” my son says. I can tell he’s visibly upset. But that’s history. It can be upsetting.

Still, we talk about the remnants of Columbus that still exist — a fear of the “other” that permeates the worldview in my state (Arizona); the concept of white privilege and the myth of white supremacy; the legacy of imperialism and colonialism; the marginalization of indigenous people.

I’ve heard people say that I should teach students “both sides” of the Columbus debate — which is a bit like saying I should teach them “both sides” to Hitler or Stalin. I’ve heard people say he was a “man of his times” as if we can simply give a free pass because of how someone was raised. I realize that heroes are imperfect. I don’t expect them to be flawless. However, that notion implies that there was something heroic about the actions and the intent of Columbus.

I refuse to treat Columbus as a hero to be celebrated.

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