About a block away from our New York office, the annual Columbus Day parade went by Monday afternoon, with all the pageantry, music and celebration that have come to be expected from the event. Children waved at marchers, politicians waved back and the entire Big Apple enjoyed a day where parking restrictions were relaxed.
But nobody here in our JPC newsroom celebrated. In fact, nobody here even mentioned the day. It was almost as if we forgot it.
And if we did, well, so? What was there really to cheer about?
Columbus Day is billed as a day to celebrate Italian American heritage and pride. That I get. I’m Black and I never hesitate to shout my Blackness, because I really dig being Black, man.
So if you’re Italian, you may feel the same way about your own background. But the guy being put on a pedestal would be the last cat I’d want representing my culture.
When I was a kid, I was taught that Columbus was a good guy who connected the New World with Renaissance age Europe, eventually laying the foundation of what would be the modern world. He convinced Spain’s Queen Isabella to finance the courageous trip across the angry Atlantic Ocean and change the future by proving the world was round. And of course, the indigenous people who had been here for thousands of years were friendly and welcoming.
Then one day, I had a think-for-yourself moment that I recommend for all youth: “If there were already people here,” I asked aloud in my third-grade class. “Then how the hell did he discover America?”
Before you even ask, yes, I got a butt whuppin’ when I got home.
Years later the soreness finally wore off, so I was inclined to do research on my own and found that not only did Columbus not discover America, he never set foot on this soil. In fact, Oct. 12, 1492 was the day he hit the Bahamas and later made it to what is now Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Cuba. He made the trip from Europe four separate times, but you’d better believe it was no Caribbean pleasure cruise.
Instead he encountered Lucayans, Arawaks and a host of other peoples and I doubt if the first thing he said to them was “I come in peace.” But he did note in his writings that he had come across a gentle, weaponless population — to whom he eventually introduced an epidemic of smallpox.
When he first reached Hispaniola, he ran into a group of Taino people and immediately enslaved them in order to mine gold. Eventually he established himself as governor and proceeded to brutalize and maim people who failed to do his bidding. He also became an early sex trafficker, selling girls as young as nine into sexual slavery. Over the course of decades the population of the Taino throughout the islands was virtually eliminated.
“They took infants from their mothers’ breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, ‘Boil there, you offspring of the devil,’ “ wrote former Columbus cohort-turned Catholic priest Bartoleme de Las Casas in his Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies in 1542.
Ol’ Chris would have stood trial, because his own people were so disgusted with his behavior they told Isabella and King Ferdinand about it. But they had become so flush with gold that it wasn’t a big deal to them and had him pardoned.
But the terror doesn’t stop there. In 1505, Columbus’ eldest son Diego saw that his dad had virtually killed of the indigenous population in the Caribbean, so he went into business and became the first to enslave Africans in the New World – helped, of course by Ferdinand.
So fast-forward millions of native peoples and Africans in taken into bondage later to 1934 when the Knights of Columbus, an influential group consisting largely of Italian Americans, successfully lobbied President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create a federal holiday called Columbus Day. It had been something celebrated since 1792, but by 1937, the Knights got what they wanted and the whitewashing of history went into high gear.
More recently many indigenous groups have taken to blasting the sanitizing of Columbus’ voyages and exploits. Better still, others observe it as Native American Day, Indigenous People’ Day or Discovery Day.
There’s even a Facebook group called “Italian Americans Against Christopher Columbus.” No doubt they didn’t go to the parade. I can imagine that they’d rather celebrate Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian navigator who sailed across the Atlantic, landed in what’s now Brazil in 1497 and eventually lent his name to this country.
I won’t argue there aren’t bad actors throughout history on every continent and of every nationality. But Columbus, when looked at thoroughly and through the lens of accurate history, is probably one of the worst. So I didn’t even bother to write about the guy on the day everybody else did.
That’s giving him too much credit. Instead, I picked the day after to encourage a time when schoolchildren, God willing, are being taught what really happened in history so that it is not repeated.
As a history buff, I know the year is replete with days to observe that mark both profound and lamentable occasions. But if you think I’m going to celebrate Columbus and his genocidal legacy, then forget it!
Madison Gray is EBONY.com’s Digital Managing Editor. Follow him on Twitter @madisonjgray.