Columbus Day was once a day of pride for America, a time for schoolchildren to honor a great explorer, and a reason for another really big parade. For years, history books portrayed Columbus heroically, as a great visionary and adventurer. In 1892, the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage was such a big deal that there were festivities in every state, planned years in advance. But in 1992, the 500th anniversary was practically ignored, and Columbus and the other early explorers received far more condemnation than praise. In fact, the National Council of Churches declared the anniversary was “not a time for celebration” but one for “reflection and repentance” in which whites must acknowledge a continuing history of “oppression, degradation, and genocide.”
One thing most of us don’t know is that the Pledge of Allegiance was originally written for schoolchildren to recite as part of the 1892 Columbus Day celebration. Twelve million children put their hands on their hearts and spoke 23 words, and schoolchildren have been reciting it ever since with a slight modification. Those first children pledged allegiance to “my flag;” with so many immigrants coming into America in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the wording was changed to make it crystal clear that everyone pledged allegiance to the same flag, “the flag of the United States of America.”
Nowadays Columbus is politically incorrect. His skills as a seaman are ignored, and even his determination as an entrepreneur is forgotten. (After all, he did seek funding from the venture capitalists of his day, the kings of Portugal and Spain.) You may have a teenager who has read Howard Zinn’s dissection of Columbus in A People’s History of the United States, which is used as a textbook in many high schools and colleges. If so, she may be half-convinced that “Columbus Day” should be changed to “Indigenous People’s Day.”
This might be a good time to debate the current case against Columbus. Yes, Europeans like Columbus brought diseases to the New World, but they did so unintentionally — nobody knew the causes of diseases at the time, nor did they know the native population would have no resistance. Yes, the actions of the very early explorers were often cruel, but so were many of the practices of the native populations.
Most importantly, shouldn’t we ask if there is a right and wrong when cultures collide? It’s important to learn about the positive qualities of North American natives, but isn’t it almost as important that our children learn that many explorers, especially Columbus, were daring, ambitious, and devout?
Right at this moment, we desperately need our own “explorers.” Those who can lead us into a stormy and frightening future with daring and confidence and courage.
Try some crafts projects related to maps and ships. The web site Enchanted Learninghas directions for drawing a simple map that illustrates Columbus’s voyages as well as making tiny replicas of his ships. Also, look here for one of the best sites for activities, crafts, quizzes, and games. An interesting web site for older kids is Columbus Navigation, which explores the history, navigation, and landfall of the great explorer.
And, of course, Columbus Day is the perfect excuse to order in or make pizza. Debate the importance of Columbus and his great achievement over a slice.