This Columbus Day, I challenge historians everywhere to complicate the issues surrounding Columbus.
Christopher Columbus, and the holiday (or holidays, as the US isn’t the only country who celebrates him) named after him are fantastic opportunities for teachable moments in virtually any history classroom.
In the past, I’ve asked students to read passages of Christopher Columbus’s journal or his letters to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. Together, we’ve reflected on what they have learned in the past about Columbus, and discussed all the things you do when teaching with primary sources: we talked about the reasons sources are generated, and their historical context, and how and why the source came to be preserved in the present.
Then I’ve show them blogs and opinion articles by historians who discuss the less palatable facts about Columbus, by historians like Howard Zinn who highlight how dangerous he was for the Americas, and by Native American activists who denounce Columbus for what he has done to their Amerindian ancestors.
I then asked students why I’ve asked them to find these things.
“Because Columbus was bad?” asked one.
Before I could answer, another student chimed in. “No, because he’s still important now. What he did is still affecting populations in our country.”
Then I asked what our honoring this man each year says about how America values its native populations. Then the class moved into a discussion of how the US perceived of itself and why we use this day to celebrate Columbus instead of the contributions of Native Americans.
By this time the class was fired up. I didn’t have to ask any more questions, and instead focused on moderating the discussion between students. The class touched on many important points related to imperialism, racism, colonialism, colonial legacies, hegemony, and power – all the things a good history class should uncover.
In this way, Columbus Day has become a valuable teachable moment to show students that history is living, and that something that happened in the 1400s can still affect the way we perceive of ourselves as a nation today.