Exploration or Hostile Takeover? Both?

I would argue it’s not a bad thing — but while it led to something most of us see as a good thing, many of the implications of that good thing were bad things for other people. If we refuse to recognize that, we’re only furthering the divide in our country.

Why the divide?

I think we want all want to be judged in the future based on where we’re at in the context of our greater society today, not as it is later.

When I was a kid I didn’t understand or agree with a lot of what my parents did when it came to parenting, but I assumed they were generally right about the world at large.

As an adult with some more life experience and kids of my own I better understand a lot of their parenting, but I vehemently disagree with a lot of their conceptions of the world. But I do my best to understand that the Overton Window has moved and a lot of their thinking and reasoning comes from a time that doesn’t exist anymore. I still disagree with them, but I try to keep in mind that we’re coming at things with different preconceptions and those can be hard to let go of. I also try to remember that eventually my kids will develop their own thoughts about things and judge where I’m at and where I’ve been. I hope that they’ll look at my perspective with a level of grace if not a grain of salt.

I think this factors into our cultural battle about what we choose to celebrate today…

The History

Looking at history requires living within a tension. Our conceptions of morality and acceptable behavior have changed greatly over the past couple of decades and much more over the past few centuries between Columbus landing on Hispaniola and today. This has led to many people revisiting how to consider the legacy of some historical figures who have traditionally been revered in American society.

Columbus has been celebrated by Americans, particularly Italian-Americans, for over a century. They could see in him someone who made a big impact on the world. His explorations were an early step in developing this country we know and love today. And when Italian immigrants were first coming to America they were looked down on because their skin looked different, their features looked different, their language sounded funny and they were seen as suspect because they were Catholic. It makes sense that they would have looked to Columbus with pride. And it makes sense that all Americans would look at that early explorer, without whom we might not have this country, with pride and affection.

The Tension

But, he did terrible things. Some may have been ‘normal’ at the time and perhaps judging people by contemporary standards isn’t fair. But his atrocities are well-recorded and real and many were terrible by any definition at any time. Those have been glossed over for years, but shouldn’t be ignored.

Beyond that, his “discovery” of an inhabited land led to a lot of killing and worse. He may not have been directly responsible for that, but he certainly helped conquer the native peoples in North and South America. There are millions of people living in the Americas who might be better off today if Columbus had never made it here. They might be worse off too — but we’ll never know.

Not to mention that the realization that sugar could grow in the Caribbean eventually led to the slave trade that displaced millions of people and helped lead to some of the problems we have in the United States today.

Are those things the fault of Columbus? Nope. Would he have had a problem with them? Probably also nope. Should we see him as a hero or a villain? That’s probably a bit more complex…

Rewriting History… or Correcting It?

A lot of people, including the President, apparently, think that discussing the problems inherent in our history is an attempt to change history and make America a bad place with an evil history.

I don’t think that’s a fair assessment.

Throughout our history and even today groups of people have been looked down upon because of their skin color, religion, language, country of origin and any other way that we categorize people. But in America our history has mostly been viewed through the perspective of wealthy white men of Western European descent since its conception even though we’ve been comprised of a much greater swath of humanity for that time.

The call to recognize and lionize those other perspectives — which occasionally requires us to look at the ugly underbelly of our nation’s history — isn’t about forgetting the good, it’s about putting it into a greater context. It’s about seeing where we’ve gone wrong and saying, “we can do better.” It’s about fixing the glossed over parts of history that actually show us as a richer society than we are. It’s about embracing the complexity being okay with shades of gray.

For a long time we looked at history from one perspective. Today many of us are trying to grow beyond that and look at how history is complex, messy and interconnected — trying to take the sour with the sweet, which makes it all that much more enjoyable. Growth is hard. Growth is painful. But growth is good. It’s time for us to grow up and take the good with the bad.

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Rad McMasterson

Rad McMasterson

I teach social studies. I shoot videos. I have lots of other projects that I fully intend to finish someday. I think about stuff… sometimes I write it down.