Columbus (Story) Day.
Columbus Day. There is a small but growing movement to discontinue the holiday, given what history suggests was a rather terrible person at the center of the days celebrations. I agree with the sentiment. I’m not here to repeat what others have said on the matter; it’s been done better than I could do today anyway. If you want to know more about this position, there are hundreds of sources online telling of the real Columbus. Here’s one by Eric Kasum. Bill Bigelow authored this piece. Those are, as far as I can tell, some of the most read of the last few years, but as I said, there is no shortage of information on this.
Yet the entire “abolish Columbus Day” movement would not ever be in issue, if the day didn’t exist in the first place. Why does it exist? In short, in the early 20th Century the Knights of Columbus organization sold Congress and FDR on a story of Columbus, and this the day was born, which in turn birthed more myths.
“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” kids are still taught today. He discovered America, thinking he was in India, to trade spices. In the process, he proved the world was not flat, and that’s why we have North America today. (Though often, he is credited with simply “discovering America.”) He made friends with the natives and eventually this benefited everyone in the world, which became a lot bigger (or smaller depending on your view.)
As the two linked articles, countless others, and a simple understanding of history tell you, about 90% of the above paragraph is nothing more than a story. Hell, the man’s name wasn’t even “Christopher Columbus.” A story that endured in part for centuries, and almost in it’s entirety in the mainstream of the United States for decades so far, only in recent years starting to unravel. (Though if it is ever totally rejected, I predict it will take several more decades at least.)
If you set aside the bold self-interest of the Knights of Columbus, the selective memory of them as they lobbied, and the collective willingness on the part of educators and adults to submit this version of events to school children for generations as fact, it’s quite a story.
Much like the well-accepted but historically rejected version of America’s “First Thanksgiving,” the power of story is in evidence here. Yes, a touch of lobbying, official government banking, and a sprinkling of bias and certain racism helped solidify the the historio-mythical meta loaf in both cases, and countless others, but story is at the heart of it, as it is at the heart of so many other things, whether we realize it or not. Story, if we are not careful, becomes history-indeed it has been known to replace it.
This is evidence of neither the intrinsic good nor the intrinsic evil of story creation and telling. Rather it is indicative of of the power of story, especially once embraced by some aspect of the public. True, not all beloved stories alter our understanding of our own history; most are in fact not designed to, or presented with that intention, as the story of Columbus has been. But any story, and hence any story teller with an audience has potentially great power. Those of us that make it both our living and our leisure to create, share, and sell stories would be well advised to remember this awesome responsibility, even as we seek to succeed as authors.
- Posted in: Miscellany ♦ Writing