The first time I heard that myth debunked was in 1966. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader then known as Stokely Carmichael said in a speech that not only should Columbus not be credited with discovering America, but he was actually lost when he landed in this hemisphere.
Although he was in search of a new sea passage to Asia, historians say Columbus landed in the Caribbean, near the Bahamas. When he returned to Spain, he was crowned “Admiral of the Ocean Seas” by Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille, who had funded the original mission. Columbus would make three more trips across the Atlantic, each time believing he was arriving in Asia.
Yet we honor Columbus with a federal holiday the second Monday in October. Any pupil worth his or her lunch money has been thoroughly indoctrinated with the image of Columbus, sailing from Spain across the Atlantic Ocean with three ships—the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria—to discover the New World.
In reality, he arrived in the Old World. Native Americans—who were subsequently called Indians because Columbus thought he was in India—had inhabited North America for thousands of years before the birth of Jesus. The arrival of Columbus in 1492 wasn’t a cause for thanksgiving among Native Americans.
A recent Associated Press story, headlined, “A darker side of Columbus emerges in US classrooms,” observed: “In Texas, students start learning in the fifth grade about the ‘Columbian Exchange’—which consisted not only of gold, crops and goods shipped back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean, but diseases carried by settlers that decimated native populations.”
That’s part of a larger effort, the story said, “to present a more balanced perspective of what happened after Columbus reached the Caribbean and the suffering of the indigenous populations.”
The story reported that in McDonald, Pa., near Pittsburgh, fourth-graders at Fort Cherry Elementary held a mock trial, charging Columbus with misrepresenting the Spanish crown and thievery. He was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
Other students may have difficulty reaching that same verdict because of the way Columbus is depicted in textbooks.
James Kratcht, executive dean for academic affairs at Texas A&M College of Education and Human Development, told the AP that he remembers a photo from one of his fifth grade books with a picture of Columbus, who set out to find a new sea route and spread Christianity along the way, coming ashore with a large flag and a cross.
“The indigenous population was kind of waiting expectantly, almost with smiles on their faces,” Kracht said. “‘I wonder what this guy is bringing us?’ Well, he’s bringing us smallpox, for one thing, and none of us are going to live very long.”
Very little has changed in textbooks.
For her University of Florida dissertation, Donna Sabis-Burns looked at 62 picture books about Columbus. “...The majority were outdated and contained inaccurate—and sometimes outright demeaning—depictions of the native Taino population,” the Associated Press reported.
If we want our students truly educated—and that’s a big “if”—we should address the other lies and misreprentations in our history books. Two immediately come to mind.
We should stop telling students that Abraham Lincoln “freed the slaves” because he believed in racial equality.
In 1858, during one of his debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln said: “I will say then that I am not, nor have ever been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the White and Black races—that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with White people; and I will say in addition to this, there is a physical difference between the White and Black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.
“And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the White race.”
Secondly, we need a more balanced portrayal of the Founding Fathers, who fought for their freedom from Great Britain while denying freedom to the Africans they enslaved. Thomas Jefferson, for example, was the chief author of the Declaration of Independence that proclaimed, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Yet, Jefferson owned nearly 200 enslaved people.
Now that we’re beginning to tell the truth about Christopher Columbus, let’s not stop there.
(George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com.)
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