Let’s celebrate Columbus Day by walking into someone’s house and telling them we live there now.
If you were on Facebook at all yesterday, then it’s a good bet you saw this cheeky sentiment from someecards.com pop up in your newsfeed. Indeed, it’s become quite fashionable in recent years to bash that most nebulous of public holidays here in the U.S. – Columbus Day – with this one particularly amazing blog taking the day to task some 12 months ago.
Expertly-crafted blog posts and jokey e-cards aside, there really does exist some strong opposition over the continued celebration of this most controversial man. Just check out TransformColumbusDay.org and see for yourself. More than 500 years after the man left this earth, Columbus still stirs passions, few of them of the positive variety…
Everyone’s entitled to their views, of course, but as a student of history I tend to shy away from erasing any/all memory of Columbus. I mean, who among the many “great” men and women we celebrate with days off from work and mattress sales has a completely clean track record? No one’s perfect, and while Columbus’ crimes may be the worst of all those for whom a public holiday is dedicated, to me there are still some great lessons to be learned from his life, achievements and misdeeds.
One of the best places to learn a few of those lessons is pictured above. That’s the beach at Columbus Landing in my home island of St. Croix. It was here, in 1493, that Columbus sent ashore a small contingent of his men to scout for fresh water. What they found instead were a group of Indians who weren’t too keen on visitors. The battle that ensued was so fierce that Columbus named the spot Cabo de Flechas, or Cape of Arrows. It was the very first meeting between the Amerindians living in our islands and the European conquerors who would eventually spell their doom.
To sit on this peaceful beach staring out to the sea is to marvel at the turbulent, often violent history of our region; the dark chapters that have shaped so much of our unique Caribbean cultural heritage today.
I’ve always loved visiting here, but on my last trip to St. Croix this past August, the experience of being here was extra special. That’s because my kids (twin boys, age 7 at the time) were along. On their previous trip to St. Croix, they were too young to appreciate the historical significance of a place like this, preferring instead to alternately eat or throw sand. On this occasion, though, I had a rapt audience.
I told them about what really happened here, who Columbus really was, and what he and other European explorers did to all the Indians that used to call Ay Ay (the Indian name for St. Croix) home. We talked about how the same tragedy was played out again and again across the Caribbean, which led them to ask about Plymouth Rock, the first Thanksgiving, American Indians, slavery, and how it is that there was a time when their black father and white mother could not, by law, be together.
At the onset of our conversation, their eyes were opened wide with the surprise of learning details outside the norm found in their school books. Reading about Columbus in text books is one thing, but sitting on a shore where his men actually landed brought the story to life in a more profound way. The more we talked, the more they adopted a knowing countenance; a look of pride in learning a bit more about their West Indian heritage and the world in general. You could tell just by looking at them it was an experience they’d never forget.
Kids understand the black and white of right and wrong, but teaching them about the gray area that makes us all human, that has shaped so much of our history is hard. Visiting historically significant places like this and opening up an honest dialogue with your kids can help. Knowledge really is power, and when it comes to history, there’s no better place to get that knowledge than the actual places where historical events went down.
So, go to St. Croix, or any of the other documented Columbus Landing sites throughout the Caribbean. Take your kids and talk to them about what really happened there; about who Columbus really was and why it matters to remember. For you and your kids, the experience will be way more rewarding than playing dress-up and waving an Italian flag in some Columbus Day parade…