Every nation has their own ups and downs in their histories. They have periods they can be proud of and other chapters that are not sources of pride but rather of embarrassment and shame. National holidays are important symbolic events. Nations reveal a lot about themselves—who they are and what they are made of—through these symbolic national days of celebration.
As a recent immigrant to the U.S. from Turkey (after having lived in South East Asia for a number of years), yesterday was my 10th Columbus Day celebration living in this country. Like many other immigrants who have adopted this beautiful country as their homeland, I have taken my adoption process very seriously. I studied America’s history, culture and national holidays, as well as her civic, political and governmental structure. Most of what I learned confirmed my desire to make the USA a homeland for me and for my family. However, Columbus Day has been by far the most difficult thing to understand and digest in this journey of becoming American.
I guess I am really frustrated about the problematic way we celebrate Columbus Day. Yet, we continue year after year to celebrate it in the same troubling fashion. What would it take to correct this? Here is what I mean.
Having lived and traveled to several countries where you can’t even talk about certain painful chapters of that nation’s history, I have always admired the civility, honesty and truthfulness of American society’s ability to talk, research, discuss and debate its history openly and without any fear of persecution or discrimination. So, unlike many other nations, the U.S. does not live in denial of what happened. Access to historical information on any period of U.S. history is, by and large, available to all. More importantly, the pain and suffering that has historically occurred on this land is almost always acknowledged by the overwhelming majority. So the problem is not competing and contradicting narratives of what happened or how it happened.
Those who have read the historical documents about Christopher Columbus can see not only that Columbus was not the first European to arrive to the “New World,” but also that he does not deserve to be deemed the “Original American Hero.” If we judged Columbus today based only on the account of his memoirs, it wouldn’t take much to see how unimpressive, disturbing, cruel and shameful his tenure was. He could easily receive multiple death sentences by any U.S. court. In addition, no one denies that the arrival of European settlers to this New World since Columbus’s landing—which we celebrate on this national day of observance—led to the total destruction of the history, culture and the legacy of the indigenous peoples of this land. What happened to Native Americans is not a mystery but a well-known and well-documented tragedy. And also no sane person today disputes that the shipment of millions of African slaves to the Americas, since Columbus’s arrival to Bahamas, is one of the most shameful and ugly chapters of our history. The disturbing legacy of what happened to the indigenous inhabitants of this beautiful land and the suffering of millions of human beings under cruel slavery still haunts us a nation.
So, despite knowing all of this, how in good conscious can we still have a national day like Columbus Day? How and why did we construct Columbus Day as a national holiday in the first place? If it was a mistake of previous generations, why don’t we correct that mistake? What would it take for us to collectively come to a higher level of honesty and determination to find a better way to celebrate our presence on this land? I hope I will live long enough to see this change, and I am hopeful. Many other, similar changes took place in this country. Why not add changing Columbus Day to these changes?
Abdullah Antepli is the Muslim Chaplain and an adjunct faculty of Islamic Studies. His column runs every other Tuesday. You can follow Abdullah on Twitter @aantepli.