Good bye, Columbus!
Two years ago, I lived in Massachusetts, where we celebrated Columbus Day. Now I live in California, where we celebrate Indigenous People’s Day. Good bye, Columbus! I’ll miss you, I suppose.
It’s not that big a deal. The names of holidays do change. Veterans Day used to be called Armistice Day; Lincoln’s Birthday and Washington’s Birthday at some point morphed into Presidents Day (However, just now, in fact-checking, I discovered that the official name of the February holiday is Washington’s Birthday. Sorry, Abe.) And Memorial Day was once called Decoration Day.
In 1968, the specific dates of these holidays (October 12, November 11, February 12 and 22, May 31) were moved to designated Mondays in order to create the three-day weekends we all know and love. So much for historical accuracy.
Then again, is there any such thing as historical accuracy? Probably not. Because for every historical figure and every historical event, accounts of who did what and why—even from eye-witnesses—vary, depending on the perspective of the person who is telling us what happened.
So we shouldn’t be surprised as our society evolves (for the better, we hope) that past events once considered benign come to be viewed as unacceptable, or evil—or even criminal. We shouldn’t be shocked when heroes fall—or are pulled off—their pedestals.
Christopher Columbus? A courageous sea captain who dared to sail west, seeking a shorter route to the East, and who, in doing so “discovered America”? Or a cruel tyrant who enslaved, maimed, tortured and murdered native islanders? Both of course.
So now several states, dozens of cities, and even a few universities have renamed the October holiday Indigenous Peoples Day or Native Americans Day. Everything in life changes. Why not the names of holidays? There is certainly plenty of precedent for it.
Honors are bestowed (establishing a holiday, erecting a statue, naming a street or a school, a city or a mountain) in response to public opinion. As opinions change, well, we’ve all seen it, there’s a suggestion, a protest, an outcry, a demand to change the name or take the statue down. (Or keep the statue up.)
Lately, clashes of opinion about our heroes, our history, and our heritage, our past, our present, and our future are getting pretty ugly. Sometimes, deadly. Even decisions about who is allowed to speak publicly have become a problem. This is especially true, sad to say, on college campuses, the very places where far-ranging ideas are supposed to be discussed and debated. Instead, activists or agitators angrily challenge, self-righteously sabotage, or violently prevent the very presence of a speaker who holds positions they do not like. The result is not a debate. It’s the shutting down of debate. It’s happening in the media. And the halls of Congress, too. Polarization. It’s paralyzing us.
All this in a nation that prides on protecting “freedom of speech.”
Compared to other recent events, changing the name of Columbus Day, where it has happened, has been done thoughtfully and in response to local consensus. And that’s a good thing. Because whatever the October holiday is called, whatever names get changed, whatever statues get removed or remain in place, our history is what it is. We cannot and should not erase it or pretend it didn’t happen. We can only explore it, try to understand it, learn from it, and strive to do better.
And so: Good bye, Columbus! My hope is that debating the name of your (former) holiday has shown us a better way to resolve divisive issues. For starters, we have to set aside the placards and dispense with the shouting. From there, we all need to talk. And, to listen.