Baker Academic

Monday, October 14, 2013

Why We Should Commemorate Columbus Day - Le Donne

It is increasingly popular for Americans (and our closest frienemies) to give us a history "from below" on Columbus Day.  If you don't geek out about historiography, history from below is not a suggestion that some historians are demonic.  In fact, I know no professional historians who are Oakland Raiders fans.  This approach to history stands in contrast to histories that are oriented toward great cultural / political movers and shakers.  History from below is sensitive to the lives and perspectives of common and under-represented folk.

Last year on Columbus Day, I got this meme from my brother:

Today I was alerted to this meme by my sister:

Both get points for cleverness, but the best contribution to this growing zeitgeist today was this article.

Because my Ph.D. dissertation was in historiography and social memory theory, I can't help but be fascinated by this growing dissatisfaction with Columbus Day.  Some might point to these memes as anti-Americanism, but I don't think that this category gives us the best explanation.

To understand ourselves a bit better, it might be helpful to ask a primary question: why did we celebrate Columbus Day in the first place? Any good answer to this question is going to be long and complicated. But this is a blog, so allow me to give you the short, simplistic answer:

Columbus Day was inaugurated in 1906.  During this period, historians were invested in telling stories of "great men" who made new worlds possible.  This was the same year that Albert Schweitzer published his Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung.  In this book, Jesus looks forward to the end of the world. Although his apocalypse didn't come as expected, Jesus created a new world nevertheless.  Schweitzer also wrote a biography of Bach.  Although Bach was underwhelming as an "innovator", his genius was recognized a generation later and impacted a dramatic shift after his death.  Or read August Fournier's Napoleon the First: A Biography (1903) for another example of a "great man" in history.  In short, western story tellers were preoccupied with geniuses and heroes who transcended their eras and brought human history to a great advance.  Even characters in history who cannot quite measure up to the likes of Napoleon (e.g. Bach und Jesu) are measured by the epochs they inhabit.  If they stand on the cusp of two epochs, they can become "great men" in retrospect (androcentric language intentional). Why not Columbus, the visionary who "discovered" the "new world"?  This particular philosophy of history is often called "romanticism" (cf. Carlyle's On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History).

In 1906 another book was published called The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.  This book would not have been considered a "history" by the standards of the day, but it might have done more for contemporary historiography than most "histories" written at the time.  The Jungle introduced many westerners to the perils of industrialization, democratic capitalism, and a host of other modern innovations.  I wouldn't want to overstate the impact of Sinclair (tempted as I am to fall into my own "great man" fetish), but The Jungle also introduced many historians to a different way of seeing the world.  It took decades before histories "from below" would become avant-garde. Now they are commonplace and pithified in Facebook memes.

This brings me to another question: given what we now know about the impact of Columbus and his fellow "visionaries", should we commemorate Columbus Day?  The answer is yes, of course.  I give this answer for two reasons: (1) I titled this blog post already and it wouldn't make much sense to change my mind at this point, and (2) Columbus Day has become our most postcolonial day of the year in America.

Columbus Day signals a shift toward postcolonial historiography.  Yet, the more our history changes, the more it stays the same.  We must revise our histories.  This is not an imperative; it is a reality.  Revisionist history is just something that we do.  It can be dangerous and false, but it is often just a subversion of a previously perilous and false narrative.  Indeed, in a way, revisionist histories can tell us something quite true. Christopher Columbus cannot be the person he once was, but he cannot be easily forgotten either... and shouldn't be.

This day on the calendar has become an opportunity for us to remember one of the least heroic elements of our cultural beginnings.  In this way, remembrance reflects a collective-identity shift and contributes to that same shift.  In short, we are no longer celebrating Columbus; we are commemorating Columbus.  We do well to remember our worst selves on this day with the hope that we can reinforce our aspirations to be truly democratic and less imperialistic.


p.s. If the Italian Americans among us lament the loss of a hero, can I suggest Tony Danza Day?


  1. Don't you think it is because the social memory of brown people and women were left out of history all together that we have rethought the wisdom of making a hero of someone who cut the hands off Natives, executed those who wouldn't be enslaved, and gave the women over to his men as sex slaves?

    To use Maya Angelou's most famous words, "When you know better, you do better." Should Columbus be in the history books, YES. Should children be taught that he is a hero? NOPE. Let us start that process by stripping the man of his day because we most certainly know better.

  2. Of course, I agree anonymous. Columbus' ignoble place in history should not be whitewashed. But while we have the opportunity to do better, let us do better. By the way, we do him no damage in "stripping the man of his day" - we only damage ourselves by whitewashing our own history. We must remember it. Therefore we would do well to choose how to remember it.


  3. On Facebook, I was hit with this criticism: "We are no longer celebrating Columbus; we are commemorating Columbus." Celebrate and commemorate are synonyms. If there is a subtle nuance there, it is lost on me. Perhaps you mean that we are now remembering Columbus for the terrible things he actually did. I can appreciate that. I think celebrating Indigenous People's Day would better facilitate that kind of reflection. Not to mention it is more genuinely post-colonial. Indigenous People are worthy of our honor, not because of what Columbus did, but despite it.

    Please allow me to clarify. I replied:

    Joseph, I don't see these as synonyms. Perhaps this is the root of our disagreement and likely my failure to communicate well. For example, I see holocaust museums, features of the trail of tears artifacts, Pearl Harbor and "Ground Zero" as commemorations, but not celebrations.


  4. I had never thought of the role of historiography in holidays. Columbus Day in light of "great man" historiography is fascinating. Having just read Dagmar Winter and Gerd Theissen's The Quest for the Plausible Jesus, these historiographical features are especially interesting to me. Solid analysis.

  5. I do not agree with the negative perspective regarding Christopher Columbus. He was a man of his time. I understand the critique but I believe it is inappropriate to blame Columbus for genocide or compare him to Hitler since Columbus did not commit genocide. Nothwithstanding Columbus apparent mistreatment of Native Americans, he was still a genius and had the courage to sail across the Atlantic ocean in search of new trade routes to Asia. In the process, he reached the New World. This is one of the biggest events in World History that cannot be denied.

    A positive fruit from Columbus contact with the New World was the rise of a new people: the Latin American. This new people arose from the combination of the European, Native American and African culture. In Latin America, we celebrate this day as "el Dia de la Raza." It is the birthday of the latino/hispanic culture.

    P.S. I am also going to defend Columbus as an aside matter since my high school was named after him.



    1. Read chapter one:

  6. "'great man' fetish."

    It matters where the quotes go.