Should We Celebrate Columbus Day?

We posed this question to our students on Thursday and – as I reflect on their answers – I think about all they have (hopefully) absorbed in the past three weeks. As they were reading the history of Columbus and his ‘discovery’, they had to think – Is this the only side to this story? What about the ones who had their history written for them? Why do we celebrate the people we celebrate? What happens when we forget our past? Here are their – unedited – opinions:

People should care about this issue because the people that celebrate Columbus Day should know that Columbus did not only find the Caribbeans but he made the indigenous people slaves and killed some of them. Plus who would want to celebrate a person who found people and made some of them slaves all a sudden and kill them and even though they’re native to their land the person takes it. This is why I think people should not celebrate Columbus Day. We should celebrate people who do not do things for themself’s like for example Martin Luther King jr did not do the rights for himself he did it for other people too, and when Columbus went out to the sea for gold he was not doing something helpful for someone he just wanted gold and wanted to be rich. So even though Columbus found America he also killed lots of the indigenous people that were already living there and and kept some as slaves for a prize for the monarchs which were the King and Queen of Spain and kept some of the indigenous people on land to work for Columbus and the men. Columbus did no benefit at all.

Columbus didn’t even know where he was so we are celebrating him for his mistake. I think we should celebrate Indigenous People’s Day instead because they were already there.

The answers were not black and white. We learned about the Columbian Exchange and the way the world changed because of Columbus while also talking about the lasting negative effects of colonialism. We looked at both sides of the issue. We stepped back from the page and asked – who actually writes history? As I read A People’s History of the United States (which opens with Columbus), they read Encounter by Jane Yolen. The words are different and my book doesn’t have cool illustrations…

Encounter 2

Encounter

But the message is the same. Over 250,000 indigenous peoples lived in the Caribbean when Columbus arrived. Fifty years later, less than 500 remained. The word genocide was never mentioned in their texts, but it was in mine. Are they too young to know what it means? Every morning we break into small groups and read out loud to the students. My group finished the book before some of the others and I found myself staring at a bunch of ten year olds with nothing to talk about for a half an hour. Somehow, I’m not sure exactly how, we ended up talking about the death penalty. Before I could change the topic to something more ‘kid friendly’, one student argued that someone who takes a life should not be allowed to live. Another responded that – even if that might be true – no human (judge or otherwise) should be able to decide if another human lives or dies. Especially – another chimed in – if the person was wrongly accused. Evidence can be wrong, you know. What if – another posed – they stayed in jail for the rest of their lives? That avoids the moral problem of taking a life, but it is still a pretty bad punishment. They went on like this for nearly twenty minutes, glancing my way fewer and fewer times as they became more assured of their opinions and their ability to express them. Ten years old. Arguing the ethical implications of the death penalty. Here is an excerpt from their reading next week about Cortes conquering the Aztecs:

Why did they destroy a great empire? Why did they steal a nation’s riches? Were the Spanish evil and ruthless? Or were the times so different that it is difficult for us to imagine them? Life in the 16th century was cruel; and punishment was often swift and horrible. That was true all over the world – in America, in Europe, in Asia, in Africa. The piles of skulls in Tenochtitlan – left from the sacrifices – horrified the Europeans. They said that was the reason they had to destroy the Aztec empire. Was it a good reason – or just an excuse? In European cities criminals were hanged and left to rot in public view. That would have horrified the Aztecs…Do we have injustices and cruel practices in our country today? What are they? What can we do about them? Reading history is not always easy. It is hard to make judgments about the past. But it is worth trying. It helps us make judgments about the world we live in.

School is more than facts. It is where you begin to understand the world and learn how to form opinions about it. It is a space to fail and grow and ask questions. A space to have your mind blown and surprise yourself when you get angry about something that happened hundreds of years ago (and, boy, was there anger about Columbus). Maybe I should have directed the topic back to something more ‘age appropriate’. Or perhaps a discussion about the death penalty will be on the horizon sooner than I thought.

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