I’ve debated whether or not to blog on Columbus Day. Not “on” this particular day – though a case can be made for a day of silence today – but “about” this day, this figure, this holiday. I’d decided not. I didn’t want to be too trite or repetitive, just rehearsing now familiar stuff about Columbus as murderer and vanguard of what became a bloody, cruel rot in the heart of European “civilization.”
I figured we all knew that already, so why repeat, right?
And we do. Most of us, by which I mean the “us” with whom I daily socialize. Then I read this article in today’s New York Times about folks seeking a link to Christopher Columbus, fantasizing a long familial link. The article is interesting enough, but the headline blurb was the most important: “seeking bragging rights to Columbus’ legacy.” Bragging rights.
I think it is all of a sudden important to recall this crazy stuff.
To begin, the Americas are founded on such an enormous wound. Enslavement of native communities, genocide in the Caribbean (the literal genocide – killing every last person – not the generalized, cultural genocide we mostly discuss these days as mass displacement), trans-Atlantic slave trade, colonialism, and then the whole shadow of life after those original wounds. Let’s be clear, too. These are some of the most gruesome practices in the history of, well, history. So gruesome, in fact, that facilitators of the very practices wondered if greed and blood might be bad for Europe over here in the Americas. You know what? When the perpetrators start getting anxious about their crimes, those crimes are really, really bad.
So, when I think of Columbus, I don’t just think of him chopping off hands when converting and enslaving native peoples. That would be enough. But I think widely, of what he initiated and how it all unfolded as essentially his initial violence writ large. In saying that, I’m actually granting the initial premise of those who honor Columbus with a holiday: it’s not about the man alone, it’s about his legacy and memory.
There are lots of memories here. I can’t really imagine being on the Columbus-end of those memories as akin to bragging rights.
Regarding bragging rights, too, I think about this: that’s a great way to be on the receiving end of a big ole lawsuit. I’ve just finished a section on reparations in one of my courses, so that question is on my brain. If you are a descendant, then you are directly the inheritor of that violence. Liability floats through my head. You wanna brag? You gotta pay.
I know. There will be no lawsuit. Partly because there are no descendants of the people he murdered and maimed (genocide is effective like that). Partly because it is hard to establish a causal, non-circumstantial link between an actor and his legacy (though the Southern Poverty Law Center makes that link work, as in the case of Tom Metzger). Mostly, even wholly, because that isn’t how liability works in a legal context. But I wonder why liability in a moral sense doesn’t work that way – how would someone not feel quite sad, even intimately ashamed, by such a “bragging right”?
Over at $3.60, there is a post along those lines regarding the case in Jena, LA. Worth reading over.
In the end, the New York Times made me really sad today. Not just because they reminded me of the catastrophe on which my ground is founded, but because they doubled the violence by casting Columbus as someone worthy of bragging rights. It made me wonder about unthinkables. Will the Hitler legacy be a bragging right one day? The Stalin legacy? And so on. Because there is this fussy little truth about the passage of time: it induces forgetting, which frees up memory to make of its object whatever that memory wants. You know, the whole ideology thing…
Which only makes the lasting memory work of today – in this case, mournful memory work – all the more urgent.