“What’s so great about discovery? It’s a painful, penetrative act. What you call discovery I call the rape of the natural world.”
–Dr. Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park
Sitting in a presentation the other day, listening to the speaker extol the virtues of Columbus to students, it struck me that his presentation was exactly what Chimamanda Adichie calls “The Danger of A Single Story”. He talked about the bravery, the fortitude and the moxie of Columbus in setting out into unknown waters and the benefits that his journey [to the Americas] had for Europe. He gave what Europeans and white Americans have hailed for centuries as THE story of Columbus, overriding consideration of how it would play out for the students with indigenous heritages, or the students with African heritages, whose ancestors and families have been living with the burden of Columbus’s “discovery” for five centuries, whose ancestors were “honored” with disease, with murder, with chains…
He told a single story which instilled pride, and lied by omission.
I sat there quiet, struck dumb and mute by the fact that Columbia, British Columbia, the District of Columbia and Columbus, Ohio all bear the name of a man whose acts led directly and indirectly to the murder and massacre of millions. Where was that part of his legacy discussed?
It was not.
I felt trapped. This is the dilemma people of color face daily. “Do I disrupt this huge assembly? Do I have to educate the adults and children, publicly pointing out “their innocent ignorance”? Do I take this chance, risk what I’ve gained, to stand up, be heard and seen, to fight against being silently trampled?”
Sitting in a predominantly white audience, I saw my story omitted in favor of Columbus. The stories of my indigenous and African ancestors were erased in order to “honor” the architect of their degradation and demise. (Much like, upon reflection, my forebears were when the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria landed). What did my black and brown children see and hear? Did they feel themselves negated from the sacristy in the plainspoken words of a thoughtful man who sought to educate, but only succeeded in elevating because he told a single story? What did the white kids get out of the presentation? That the glory of Columbus is the THE story…
I grow tired of experiencing privilege from the under-side.
I grow tired of seeking the company of people who understand there is more than one story.
I grow tired of being the voice of balance, of cultural democracy, of inclusion simply because it is so easy for the inheritors of white privilege to travel on the path built on my back rather than to stop, look around, and notice there are other travelers, too.
I realize that Columbus introduced Europe to a land full of less-technological people, of abundant natural resources, and that that introduction is a source of pride and sustenance. That story is true.
However, for too long that has been the single story told of Columbus – no mention of theft from his own crew; no mention of rape and pillage which occurred when his ships set aground; no mention of infection and disease he and his unwashed brought with them from Europe; no mention of the millions who died immediately and in the years following when Europe “opened up” the Americas after “discovery”.
Those stories muddy the reflection of Columbus, chip away at the pedestal on which he stands even today. Those stories force a reevaluation of cultural values that is uncomfortable for those who benefit from his cultural legacies. But when those stories are told, they include me, and those like me, in the inheritance. Those stories allow all of us to assess the positive along with the negative. Those stories make all who hear them more inclusive, more understanding, more mature.
I’ll tell those stories in my classroom. There are no single stories there. But that’s not as powerful, which is perhaps my true frustration, as telling those stories out loud, giving them the power of the microphone, including them in the fabric of our schools and nation the way Columbus was that day.
That’s the discovery I’m working for.
Testimony: young African-Americans on self-discovery and Black identity (“White Friends by Jennifer L. Vest”, p. 137)
- Twitter Users Send Ironic Columbus Day Wishes (huffingtonpost.com)
- Columbus Day 2011 (andrewconard.com)
- Columbus Day (davidscommonplacebook.wordpress.com)
- Think You Know The Real Christopher Columbus? (npr.org)