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I love Columbus Day.
Each year I recall the simple song I learned as a child about the man who “discovered” America. I still recall the innocent boy whose imagination was taken by the story of adventure and discovery.
In fourteen hundred and ninety two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
On Columbus Day, I reflect on the facts of that fateful discovery. Hispaniola at the time of Columbus’s arrival was home to as many as 300,000 people. On seeing the Arawak people Columbus wrote in his journal, "At daybreak great multitudes of men came to the shore, all young and of fine shapes, and very handsome. Their eyes are large and very beautiful.” In the same entry he wrote, “It appears to me, that the people are ingenious, and would be good servants and I am of opinion that they would very readily become Christians, as they appear to have no religion.”
Columbus kidnapped up to 25 people, although only 7 or 8 survived the journey back to Spain. By 1496 it is estimated that one third of the population had been killed or taken as slaves. In 1592 fewer than 200 Indigenous people remained. By 1555, none survived.
I realize every lie and distortion I hold of my country began in that classroom all those years ago.
I love Columbus Day. It reminds me that often, even the most God-fearing individuals are the most self-deluded.
In the spring of 1493 Columbus wrote to a sponsor, "They are artless and generous with what they have, to such a degree as no one would believe but him who had seen it. Of anything they have, if it be asked for, they never say no, but do rather invite the person to accept it, and show as much lovingness as though they would give their hearts." Later in the letter Columbus went on to say, "Their Highnesses may see that I shall give them as much gold as they need ... and slaves as many as they shall order to be shipped." Though he was aware of their generosity and selflessness, rather than emulate them, he decided he would subjugate them. Columbus was the first slave trader in the Americas.
Columbus Day reminds me that my country’s origin was based on violence, subjugation, racism and genocide. As the native population was decimated, it was deemed necessary to bring slaves from Africa to the “new world” for cheap, disposable labor. Throughout the years when America was a slave republic, the wealthiest Americans were those who owned the most human beings. But we should not forget that slave owners spanned all classes. This, from America, the country founded on the idea that all human beings have equal intrinsic worth, value, and rights. The “land of the free, home of the brave,” indeed.
I love Columbus Day. It reminds me that greed corrupts utterly. Columbus returned to Hispaniola to colonize the island. By 1495 Columbus and his men were terrorizing the indigenous people, demanding that they mine for gold and pay tribute to their masters. Those who could not provide the quota faced dismemberment and were sent back to their people as an example. There are first-hand accounts of soldiers hunting the Arawak for sport and feeding people to their dogs. Columbus himself documented sexual slavery of young children during his reign as “governor. “
Today in America, one in every four African-American men is likely to be imprisoned. In the “War on Drugs’ black and Latino men are arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned at highly disproportionate rates than whites. Our prisons are privatized, for profit, operations whose stocks are traded on the Wall St. Whether you are a black man or woman in one of America’s prisons, or you are undocumented and work under the blazing sun on American farms, you are paid pennies as others enrich themselves off of your labor. Foreclosures have separated millions of black and brown Americans from their property. Of the nearly 10 million people whose homes have been foreclosed 40% are black and Latino. The net worth in communities of color has plunged to the lowest level on record. Black and brown wealth has been transferred to America’s largest banks. This theft has gone unchallenged as the banks have enriched themselves, received federal bailouts, and now investment companies seek to rent out the homes to the very people they have been stolen from.
In 1868, the United States signed a treaty setting aside the Black Hills "for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupancy of the Sioux." Within years gold was discovered there, and after negotiations to purchase the land broke down, the United States simply took it. In 1975 the presiding judge of the United States Court of Claims, wrote, “A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealing will never, in all probability, be found in our history.” This “rank case of dishonorable dealing” did not result in a return of that which was stolen. The Lakota Nation is currently raising $9 million to buy back a small portion of sacred land in the Black Hills.
I love Columbus Day because the veneration of this man makes clear how George Bush, a self-described “compassionate conservative,” can torture people and have a library built in his name, and how Barack Obama can win the Nobel Peace Prize as he authorizes summary execution of people through drone warfare and authorizes indefinite detention without trial of American citizens.
Madeleine Albright, when confronted with the deaths of up to 500,000 Iraqi children during sanctions can declare, “We think the price is worth it.” She is now an author and a sought after speaker on the lecture circuit where she describes her life as “devoted to human rights.”
Our self-delusions and ideas of grandeur poison us as we impose the same tough sanctions on Iran and call for that nation’s people to be brought to their knees. Medicines dwindle in Iranian hospitals and prices skyrocket due to hyperinflation, the currency losing 15% of its value overnight. It is only a matter of time until children starve.
We can look to Afghanistan and Iraq to see our imperialist footprint spreading across the globe: Afghanistan with its untapped mineral wealth, estimated in the trillions of dollars, and Iraq with its vast oil fields. The people of these countries are considered “collateral damage” if they are considered at all. Meanwhile, we formulate agreements with the governments we impose that will allow our corporations to steal the resources and keep the citizens in penury. The footprint is on the neck of the people.
And what of Palestine, and her people? It is America that provides the weapons, the cash, and the cover in all Israel’s efforts to dispossess the Palestinian people of their land and resources. An Israeli soldier once told me to go home and deal with the dispossession of the indigenous people in America before I concerned myself with the plight of the Palestinians. He was correct in considering the parallels between genocide in America and ethnic cleansing in Palestine.
While countries smolder and survivors walk among the ruins, a generation lost to violence and destruction, we congratulate ourselves on “winning,” and move on to the next conflagration. Americans are lost as well, lost in our deluded imagination of a country that wishes peace in the world, we remain blind to the horrors of “shock and awe”, drone attacks, night raids, and torture while our government sows carnage in every direction. U.S. threats to attack Iran are part of a century-old pattern of violence aimed at ensuring U.S. domination.
“Freedom!” we proclaim. “Democracy!” And from George W. Bush on down, Americans wonder, “How ungrateful these people are. Can’t they see we have liberated them? Why do they hate us? It can only be because we are free.” We wave our flags, paint stars and stripes on our faces and chant “USA! USA! USA!
Columbus Day is a good day to reconsider who I am. I have been to Big Mountain, the Four Corners, and Wounded Knee. I have heard the stories of relocation, theft, poverty, and struggle.
I have been to too many funerals in Marwahin, Jenin, Beit Lahiya and Gaza.
I have sat in the rubble in al-Amiriya, in Qana, in Bint Jbeil, in Rafah, and in Kabul.
I have cried with refugee grandmothers whose families have been scattered like seeds on the wind.
I have cried with mothers whose children were torn to shreds under laser-guided bombs and whose sons have died as foot soldiers in our wars of conquest.
I have cried with men who have dug the bodies of their wives and children from the rubble of their homes.
I am intimate with this fellow Columbus, and I know too well that our national claim of freedom leaves me disgraced and dishonored.
And the blood flows.
Johnny Barber works with Voices for Creative Nonviolence.