In fourteen hundred ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue…
So began the ditty that most of us (children in U.S. schools) learned about Christopher Columbus, who (we were taught) “discovered” America. I remember making little replicas of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria out of walnut shells, play dough, and toothpicks. This was great fun because we had to perfect our walnut cracking strategy to get an intact hull, and then got to eat the nuts. And who didn’t like to play with play dough? I remember stories of bravery on the high seas, storms, and hardship, which had special meaning to me because my father was a naval officer, often at sea (as I would also be in adulthood). It was also novel, and seemed somehow grown-up to learn as a first or second grader that the Pilgrims weren’t the first Europeans to make it to the “New World,” as we had been taught as early as we can remember eating Thanksgiving dinner at the kid’s table (and for which we also made walnut boats, but usually with adult help in the cracking).
I don’t remember when I learned that even Columbus wasn’t the first European to land in North America (presuming the Bahamas are considered North American soil. I’ve been there, and it’s very different, but close enough, and seemed to suit Columbus just fine). Tales of Vikings landing in Newfoundland centuries earlier were much more exciting. Those horned helmets rocked!
The other thing I remember about these stories is my grandfather’s delight is telling us every Thanksgiving that most “American” ancestors came over on the Mayflower, but our ancestors met it! Although I am mostly of European descent, I have Cherokee ancestors on both sides of my family, recent enough that it is apparent in the facial features of most of my family. Had I chosen to affiliate with a tribe, I could have received access to special scholarships for college.
And so, even though I received the same education as other children in the U.S., I always questioned the idea of discovery. At best, to discover something is to be the first person to realize its existence or witness it first hand (I’ll concede to being anthropocentric here). Columbus, the Vikings, and the Pilgrims no more discovered this continent than I discovered the joy of cracking a perfect walnut.
Anthropologists still don’t have indisputable evidence of when humans first migrated from East Asia to North America. It could have been anywhere from 40,000 to 16,500 years ago. That changes our little song altogether…
In the year… oh never mind.
Heres the thing. The victors always get to write history. And so the history of North America has been told for generations from a Eurocentric perspective. My ancestors met the Europeans (who were also my ancestors), and whether or not there really were instances of friendship and cooperation as all such stories include, they were over the ensuing decades, slaughtered and corralled. I grew up mostly in South Carolina, where nearly 50% of my high school classmates were of African descent. Their history was told for centuries from the master’s perspective, at least until Alex Haley wrote Roots and we all later watched the mini-series in amazement.
Here’s the other thing. As societies and the individuals in them, we mature, we learn, we grow. As we do, we can “put aside childish things,” as Paul writes in I Corinthians. One of the tenets of Unitarian Universalism, articulated best (but not discovered) by minister and theologian, James Luther Adams, is that revelation is not sealed. There is always something new to learn. We can even re-learn, as I did in childhood about my ancestors.
I read another blog this morning that talked about the misguided nature of political correctness and white guilt. The blogger suggested taking a “balanced” approach of recognizing the bad, but not throwing out the good. I sometimes (but not often) wish life were that simple. And so, it is time to lay to rest our celebrations of Christopher Columbus’s discovery. He and others will remain in the history books. Their travels indeed shaped the course of humanity, but our study should be from a more holistic, mature perspective.
As Maya Angelou writes in her poem, On the Pulse of Morning:
History, despite its wrenching pain
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.