I’m an educator. Our schools must teach students the whole truth about Columbus.
When my high school students discussed what they learned in elementary school, their depiction — of a heroic Columbus discovering America — mirrored what I learned some 30 years ago.
What people decide to call the second Monday in October can say a lot about their beliefs and values.
It has been deemed Columbus Day since the late 1930s when Franklin D. Roosevelt made it a national holiday in honor of Christopher Columbus. But since the 1990s, cities and states across America have urged a switch to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. School districts as large as my former one, Chicago Public Schools, and my current one, Leyden High School District 212 in Franklin Park, have made the change. Businesses are also taking a different stance by labeling it a three-day weekend or a holiday.
As library media specialist at East Leyden High School, I was asked to teach a lesson about the controversy surrounding Columbus Day for an Italian language class. I created a lesson that first asked students what they learned about Columbus in elementary school; showed them media in which Italian Americans argued for Columbus Day as well as media that denounced it; and shared two passages from different history texts, one praising Columbus’ exploration and one condemning him for enslaving and murdering members of the Arawak tribe.
When students discussed what they learned in elementary school, their depiction — of a heroic Columbus discovering America — mirrored what I learned some 30 years ago. We both remembered memorizing the rhyme “Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492.” We also had to memorize the names of his three ships by drawing and coloring pictures of them. We did many of these activities around Columbus Day. I wouldn’t learn of the tragic fate of the Arawaks, or even of their existence, until college.
Some students did use air quotes surrounding the word “discovering” when they spoke. But only one or two students per class wrote about Columbus as an enslaver, murderer and thief of native land and mentioned that he never set foot in what become America. These were the older students, whose high school classes had now covered the topic.
After these discussions, we watched media showing Chicago-area Italian Americans discussing how the day was created to honor Italian heritage at a time when Italians in America were ethnically harassed, threatened and even lynched. I understood the need for a day of pride — my grandfather, his siblings and his parents immigrated from Italy to the United States. My family’s story has been passed down through the generations: They settled in southern Indiana but soon left when the Ku Klux Klan threatened their lives and eventually chased them out. I understood the need for a hero to look up to, and a person who rose from poverty to discover a new land fit that role.
But that isn’t the whole story about Columbus. It isn’t the truth. “Why does it have to be Columbus? Why can’t Italian Americans pick someone else or just have Italian American Day?” Many students asked the question.
There are many notable Italians and/or Italian Americans who have lifted others up without decimating another group of people. And celebrating Columbus Day has led few people to dig into American history and learn about past discrimination against Italian Americans. Yet Chicago, which has the third-largest urban Indigenous population in America, will hold and televise a heavily sponsored Columbus Day parade downtown on Monday.
The power of stories
Many of my students asked the same question I had asked in college, “Why do they teach us one thing about Columbus early on, only to reveal the much darker reality when we’re older?” Both questions hung in the air, waiting to be answered, during the discussions we had. We talked about the power of stories and histories. Who holds the power if Columbus continues to be taught to children as a hero?
Last year, President Joe Biden became the first president to officially recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day while also recognizing Columbus Day. Although doing so may be a step in the right direction, signaling that our country is transitioning from one history to another, it allows for a neutral stance that too often rewrites the violent history between Indigenous people and European colonialists as a peaceful one.
One student spoke up fervently on the topic, “You can’t celebrate Columbus without realizing what he did to people of color. How can we give this person a day when he brought harm and pain to so many?” The student is right: Continuing to hold parades and a federal holiday in Columbus’s honor ignores the dark part of his history and promotes lying to our children in the name of a questionable tradition.
We can and must do better.
Gina Caneva is the library media specialist for East Leyden High School in Franklin Park and previously taught in CPS for 15 years.
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