When I was in second grade, my mother took me to a nearby Native American reservation on Columbus Day, where we watched a play critical of Christopher Columbus’s role in the history of the Western Hemisphere (I’m putting that nicely; they roasted him hard, and not in the Friars Club way). She had to excuse me from school to take that culturally subversive trip for the same reason I didn’t realize it was subversive: the state of Oregon doesn’t recognize Columbus Day as an official holiday.
Columbus Day in Oregon is less significant to the average person’s day-to-day life than Arbor Day is for someone who’s not a passionate environmentalist. We know it happens, but we don’t get the day off from school, the banks don’t close, and most people spend the holiday just going about their usual daily business. The most that seems to happen is that some stores use the day to market the sort of standard, meaningless sales that happen with much less fanfare all through the year.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I hear about Columbus Day parades and festivals in other parts of the country. Imagine how surreal it felt to visit the Northeast and find statues of Christopher Columbus seemingly everywhere. I grew up without his story being part of my personal Great American Myth.
We all have our own takes on the Great American Myth. We’re taught stories that are usually debunked in later years of schooling, but which some small part of us still believes. We idolize the people we’re told built the nation as we knew it, even if their alleged contributions came centuries before the establishment of our country. This narrative makes it difficult to accept that, while these people did have significant impact on the world as it is now, it doesn’t mean they were paragons of virtue. It also doesn’t mean we’re necessarily living in a better world.
We have to be able to look at our past, present, and future with eyes capable of analyzing complexities. We can be thankful that we are where we are without needing to approve of every action taken by our predecessors. I’m glad I live and grew up in this place. But I recognize that what made that possible were numerous atrocities, large and small, that I can neither defend nor even stomach.
I don’t celebrate Columbus Day. By accident of birth, I found myself growing up in a place that didn’t really care about him. By design of my family, I grew up with my eyes open about the inhumanity endured by Native Americans at the hands of European colonists across the entire hemisphere. And through my own research, I’ve confirmed that Christopher Columbus is not a person I want to celebrate.
I recognize that he has a role in the history of how I came to live in the home that I love. I recognize that where we’ve all arrived, today, is a complicated mixture of people and deeds whose moral standing is all over the map, and hard to pin down as universally positive or negative. Most of it just is.
But recognizing all of this doesn’t change the fact that I don’t think Columbus is worthy of the praise he receives in other parts of the country. It doesn’t change the negative impact he left behind, impact we have yet to reverse. And no amount of historical significance, or impact on what my life is like now, means I have to like the guy, let alone celebrate him.