Contemplating Columbus | Moment's Notice

By Maria Montalvo | Oct 14, 2017

In 1959, Phillip Roth wrote "Goodbye, Columbus," a book of short stories about Jewish families adjusting to life in America. War, economic conditions and racial or religious oppression all led to the drive to find new places for Europeans to live.

The older generations came for safety and to improve their lives but hoped to get back to Europe, while the younger generations wanted to stay, growing farther and farther from their culture and connection to that history.

Saying goodbye to Columbus, or America, is not possible for the book’s families – they are in the country to stay, as the lives they once had no longer exist.

At its heart, it is a book about assimilation, a theme inherently linked to Columbus, the man who led to the permanent colonization of the Americas by Europeans and the forced assimilation of the land’s existing inhabitants.

Contemplating Columbus these days is a complex exercise.

It is a constant battle to find the actual history behind the legend (most Columbus scholars cannot even agree if he was from Italy) or wade through the poor education we receive about him. Here in Edmonds, the City Council recently voted that the second Monday in October would not be recognized as Columbus Day but as Indigenous Peoples Day.

The vote came despite the Edmonds Diversity Commission proposing a resolution to acknowledge the second Monday in October as both Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day. (Disclosure: I am a member of the Diversity Commission, but am not writing on its behalf.)

Columbus Day was established as a holiday in the U.S. in 1892 to commemorate the landing of Columbus in the Americas, not to celebrate Columbus himself. As a Puerto Rican, I am at the front of the line of Americans who say that Christopher Columbus was not a great man.

He was ambitious, power-hungry and capable of the greatest inhumanity to attain wealth and notoriety. Each year, when Columbus Day comes up on the calendar, and we hear the familiar “sailing of the ocean blue,” I welcome the opportunity to talk about his true legacy.

Columbus was a slave trader and murderer who directed actions that led to the genocide of a whole community of people in Puerto Rico and Haiti through torture, killing and disease.

He was also a poor learner who never accepted that he had not landed in India, and a disastrous administrator for the Spanish crown, having been removed from his post and jailed for cruelty and mismanagement.

Unfortunately, our history is littered with discarded stories we decide are no longer palatable to tell rather than challenging ourselves to tell them more accurately.

If not him, someone else would have come to colonize the Americas – Europe was in desperate need of resources and its populations were in constant warfare. Future Spanish administrators continued to take advantage of the people who already lived all across the New World, as did the Portuguese, French and English.

As we contemplate our capacity to improve our aspirational democracy, built by so many heroic and unheroic men and women, we will put many in the good column and more in the bad column. They all contributed to who we are.

Perhaps instead of just erasing a name, we encourage ourselves to question the contents in textbooks and ask to know more, not less, about the men and women of history. Perhaps we continue to encourage discourse and mutual understanding and foster opportunities to create it.

There was a familiar Yiddish phrase referenced in “Goodbye, Columbus” that was a central theme to the book, as quoted by one of the main characters: “People say, ‘a curse on Columbus’ (klug tzu Columbus) because they have so many troubles in America, working so hard for such long hours for little money. They have to blame somebody, so they blame Columbus.”

There is much to blame Columbus for, but atrocities carried out in the name of progress and economic growth continue to this day. Until the lessons are learned, we


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