Walking home Sunday night, I came across a
series of flyers equating Christopher Columbus with Ted Bundy and
Charles Manson. Diverted, I wondered how one could responsibly
compare a 15th-century explorer to 20th-century serial killers. A
few feet further, I found the less incendiary “Columbus was a
murderer.” Near the Cube, I passed the axiom “Columbus = Genocide”
and, writ large in incongruously pink chalk, the point of the
raucous sidewalk campaign: “Murderers don’t deserve holidays.”
Until that moment, I hadn’t even realized that Columbus Day is
nearly upon us.

Mira Levitan

Well aware that I had fallen victim to the chalkings’ rousing
tactics, I dug out my cell phone and left a message with my usual
political sounding board – my brother. I wondered aloud: is it
reasonable to demonize Columbus for the destructive consequences of
the collective European arrival in the Americas? Can we responsibly
reduce this historical period to a simplistic causality between
Columbus’ landing and the eventual destruction of several Native
American societies? Aren’t we conveniently dismissing other major
factors? Moreover, wasn’t a similar series of events somehow
inescapable?

In an online exhibition entitled “1492: An Ongoing Voyage,” the
Library Of Congress writes that the indigenous peoples of the
Americas had “experienced virtually no recorded, sustained contact
with other parts of the world – Europe, Africa, or Asia” prior to
Columbus’ landing. As much of world history is built on the human
desire to keep searching and exploring, contact between the two
hemispheres was inevitable. I’m not arguing for the existence of
some sort of Renaissance Manifest Destiny, but for the reality of
human ingenuity and spirit. While this certainty does not excuse
the deplorable actions of many of Columbus’ followers, it does
obscure the clarity with which the campus chalking campaign
condemns Columbus.

Despite these musings, I did and do agree that there is
something fundamentally offensive about celebrating Columbus Day.
Sunday night, I was anxious to hear back from my brother and hoped
he would categorically deny the legitimacy of the questions I posed
in that long, convoluted voicemail. I expected him to point out
that the very premise of Columbus Day – to honor the explorer’s
“discovery” of the Americas – was Eurocentric and racist. As
millions of people lived on the American continents for thousands
of years prior to the sailing of the Ni�a, the Pinta and the
Santa Maria, calling Columbus’ achievement a “discovery” is grossly
inaccurate. I thought my brother would argue that Columbus’ landing
had tremendous consequences – both constructive and destructive –
that made it a watershed event in world history and, as such, it
would more judiciously served through study than celebration.

When we finally spoke, we did cover such standard arguments for
the abolition of Columbus Day, but my brother raised a more
interesting point: There isn’t a case for celebrating the disputed
holiday. Columbus Day has become a second-rate Independence Day.
Despite being designated a federal holiday less than 35years ago,
the archaic Columbus Day serves little purpose other than to slow
the mail and inspire school pageants on American history – which
can easily attach themselves to other sentimental anniversaries.
Compared to other federal holidays, Columbus Day has little
salience in today’s world beyond offending our American Indian
populations. Unlike Memorial or Presidents’ Day, this annual
October celebration does not honor those who played key roles in
the shaping and preservation of our democracy. Instead, it seems a
poorly executed attempt to honor our European roots – a part of
American history we’re not likely to forget any time soon.

Before federal employees and students grow nervous that I’m
going to suggest abolishing one of their few days of freedom, let
me suggest we move Columbus Day from the second Monday in October
to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, and rename
it Election Day. Instead of honoring a historical turning point of
dubious merit, let’s honor the incredible right we have to
democratic elections. The severe voter apathy that plagues this
nation is reason enough to underscore the importance of voting
through the establishment of a federal holiday. Besides, the
government has a responsibility to improve the accessibility of the
polls to Americans with demanding and inflexible jobs.

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,

In 2003, he should ease the vote for you and me.

Strayer can be reached at
“mailto:lstrayer@umich.edu”>lstrayer@umich.edu.

 

 

 

 

 

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