It is increasingly popular for Americans (and our closest frienemies) to give us a history "from below" on Columbus Day. If you don't geek out about historiography, history from below is not a suggestion that some historians are demonic. In fact, I know no professional historians who are Oakland Raiders fans. This approach to history stands in contrast to histories that are oriented toward great cultural / political movers and shakers. History from below is sensitive to the lives and perspectives of common and under-represented folk.
Last year on Columbus Day, I got this meme from my brother:
Today I was alerted to this meme by my sister:
Both get points for cleverness, but the best contribution to this growing zeitgeist today was this article.
Because my Ph.D. dissertation was in historiography and social memory theory, I can't help but be fascinated by this growing dissatisfaction with Columbus Day. Some might point to these memes as anti-Americanism, but I don't think that this category gives us the best explanation.
To understand ourselves a bit better, it might be helpful to ask a primary question: why did we celebrate Columbus Day in the first place? Any good answer to this question is going to be long and complicated. But this is a blog, so allow me to give you the short, simplistic answer:
Columbus Day was inaugurated in 1906. During this period, historians were invested in telling stories of "great men" who made new worlds possible. This was the same year that Albert Schweitzer published his Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung. In this book, Jesus looks forward to the end of the world. Although his apocalypse didn't come as expected, Jesus created a new world nevertheless. Schweitzer also wrote a biography of Bach. Although Bach was underwhelming as an "innovator", his genius was recognized a generation later and impacted a dramatic shift after his death. Or read August Fournier's Napoleon the First: A Biography (1903) for another example of a "great man" in history. In short, western story tellers were preoccupied with geniuses and heroes who transcended their eras and brought human history to a great advance. Even characters in history who cannot quite measure up to the likes of Napoleon (e.g. Bach und Jesu) are measured by the epochs they inhabit. If they stand on the cusp of two epochs, they can become "great men" in retrospect (androcentric language intentional). Why not Columbus, the visionary who "discovered" the "new world"? This particular philosophy of history is often called "romanticism" (cf. Carlyle's On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History).
In 1906 another book was published called The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. This book would not have been considered a "history" by the standards of the day, but it might have done more for contemporary historiography than most "histories" written at the time. The Jungle introduced many westerners to the perils of industrialization, democratic capitalism, and a host of other modern innovations. I wouldn't want to overstate the impact of Sinclair (tempted as I am to fall into my own "great man" fetish), but The Jungle also introduced many historians to a different way of seeing the world. It took decades before histories "from below" would become avant-garde. Now they are commonplace and pithified in Facebook memes.
This brings me to another question: given what we now know about the impact of Columbus and his fellow "visionaries", should we commemorate Columbus Day? The answer is yes, of course. I give this answer for two reasons: (1) I titled this blog post already and it wouldn't make much sense to change my mind at this point, and (2) Columbus Day has become our most postcolonial day of the year in America.
Columbus Day signals a shift toward postcolonial historiography. Yet, the more our history changes, the more it stays the same. We must revise our histories. This is not an imperative; it is a reality. Revisionist history is just something that we do. It can be dangerous and false, but it is often just a subversion of a previously perilous and false narrative. Indeed, in a way, revisionist histories can tell us something quite true. Christopher Columbus cannot be the person he once was, but he cannot be easily forgotten either... and shouldn't be.
This day on the calendar has become an opportunity for us to remember one of the least heroic elements of our cultural beginnings. In this way, remembrance reflects a collective-identity shift and contributes to that same shift. In short, we are no longer celebrating Columbus; we are commemorating Columbus. We do well to remember our worst selves on this day with the hope that we can reinforce our aspirations to be truly democratic and less imperialistic.
p.s. If the Italian Americans among us lament the loss of a hero, can I suggest Tony Danza Day?