I taught American history for many years, and every fall at about this time we would have a debate in class about whether we should continue celebrating Columbus Day or rename that holiday in some way (I assured students that either way there would still be a day off from school — anticipating their most pressing question!). In preparation, students would read about Columbus — including a chapter from Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the United States.
They were surprised, sometimes upset to learn that the story of Columbus — the one that we adults grew up with — is at best incomplete, and in several important ways inaccurate. Columbus set off to find a route to Asia, but instead accidentally “discovered” several locations in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico (not the present-day United States), many of which were already populated by native peoples. Columbus and his men — in pursuit of gold and profit — committed a range of atrocities, enslaved the native peoples, and brought disease that decimated those populations. The debates often ended with students proposing that the day be reframed both to remember this dark chapter in history and celebrate the cultures of indigenous people.
This year, BUA joined the broader university, many of our peer schools, and several Massachusetts cities and towns in commemorating Indigenous Peoples Day.
America, like all cultures, has a mythology. In 1934, when FDR designated Columbus Day as a national holiday, Columbus was chosen to represent certain values — ways we like to think of ourselves as Americans: bold, innovative, enterprising, and independent. While those traits are only one part of Columbus’s story, they served a purpose in our founding mythology. Columbus became part of our narrative. In the best BUA tradition, this year students are exploring and reframing the narratives in our history, beginning junior year American history, for example, with Daniel Richter’s Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America. Unpacking our national history and our mythology is a requirement of good citizenship; helping students do that is one of our sacred responsibilities.
Last modified: October 12, 2021