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Where Should We Place Columbus?

As an African American, I’m celebrating “Columbus Day” by dissecting Christopher Columbus' contributions to all American people. We’ve been hit in the face with patriotism lately. Our NFL athletes are expected to salute the flag, our President wants to make America great again, and most recently people are fighting back for the preservation of Columbus Day. What is missing in these blanket expectations of love for this country, is the all-inclusive narrative of Americans like me.

I can’t think of a time when America was great for African Americans. My American side, if I could separate the two, is appreciative of living in a land where I have the freedom to publish articles like this, but my African roots have trouble accepting the kidnapping, enslavement, and murder that advanced the expansion and economy of this nation. If this country is a land of immigrants, imported people, and indigenous people, all of our stories need to be at the forefront of historical narratives, national celebrations, and American symbols.

In seventh grade I was taught the lyrics, “In 1400 and 92 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. He sailed, and sailed, and sailed and sailed to find this land for me and you.” Teaching history from this European lens doesn’t include the Indigenous people who lived here prior to Columbus’ arrival or my ancestors who were forcibly brought here to help with cultivation of the “new” land. He didn’t find this land for people like me, and we are just as American as anyone else.

Columbus was an Italian explorer sent by Spain to explore new territory, find riches, and spread Catholicism. When he arrived to this land, he opened up European expansion and exploration. Because of him, countless families were able to make their transition to a “new world” for years and centuries to come and for that, many appreciate him. The story of Columbus and his benefit to Europe, however, should not be told without mentioning the exploitation, colonization, and spreading of diseases that Columbus and subsequent explorers brought with them as documented by the Encyclopedia Britannica. His explorations devastated native populations for the benefit of Europeans. To highlight him as an American hero and explorer is to invalidate the lives of the people he negatively impacted through slavery, exploitation, and disease.

While it’s easy for me to become infuriated with the celebration of Columbus and the modern monuments that continue to be raised in his honor even in recent years, I wanted to acknowledge his conquest. Traveling across the Atlantic Ocean by boat both then and now is a noteworthy feat, and he made four trips-- even if he didn’t land in Asia as planned. To that point, research of his conquest shows that both then and now he was held in controversial light.

Columbus wasn’t the first to “discover” America, not only because people were living here, but because the Vikings made the trip across the ocean centuries before him. Furthermore, according to the A+E Networks History, when Columbus failed to find riches in the Americas, he instead sent Queen Isabella of Spain 500 native slaves. The enslavement horrified her, so she returned the gift. Years later when the Hispaniola (modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic) natives revolted due to mismanagement and brutality, Spanish authorities had to send a new governor and Columbus was arrested and returned to Spain in chains. He was cleared of the most serious charges and attempted one more trip which also faced a native revolt and sent him home empty-handed.

The story of Columbus, like many American stories, omits the truths of all Americans. If we are ever going to move forward and truly be great, we need to acknowledge and include the multi-cultural narrative. As far as Columbus is concerned, beyond being bold and helping part of the world at the expense of others, I don’t know what we are really praising on Columbus Day. Many states have adopted Indigenous People’s Day or supplement the two approaches. A progressive nation would start looking at the full picture and reconsider the highlights of a hurtful and controversial past.

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