American historian, playwright, social activist, and political science professor at Boston University.
has taught high school in Portland, Oregon since 1978. He’s led workshops with teachers throughout the country on racial biases in the school curriculum. He is an editor of the education reform journal, Rethinking Schools.
board member for the Antelope Valley Union High School District in Southern California.
Today is Columbus Day, the day Americans are supposed to celebrate the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the so-called New World. But some have renamed this day Indigenous People’s Day to shed light on how Columbus’s voyage led to the destruction of Indian life and culture on this continent through brutal violence, colonization, disease, enslavement and rape. In recent years, a handful of historians have deconstructed the myth of Columbus as national hero, but right-wing forces in this country have written off this intellectual honesty as political correctness. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Today is Columbus Day, the day Americans are supposed to celebrate the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the so-called "New World." But some have renamed this day Indigenous People’s Day to shed light on how Columbus’s voyage led to the destruction of Indian life and culture on this continent through brutal violence, colonization, disease, enslavement and rape.
In recent years, a handful of historians have deconstructed the myth of Columbus as national hero. But right-wing forces in this country have written off this intellectual honesty as political correctness. Barbara Bernstein reports.
HOWARD ZINN: When you go into the past, you uncover not just questions about facts, but questions about values.
BARBARA BERNSTEIN: Howard Zinn is a historian and author of the People’s History of the United States.
HOWARD ZINN: By looking at history, you should be compelled to exam the values that lead you to a certain view of history and to reexamine the values that lead you to look at certain things today in a certain way. During the quincentennial of Columbus in 1992, for the first time teachers around the country are beginning to teach the Columbus story in a different way. Bill Bigelow, a teacher out on the West Coast, went around the country in 1992 talking to teachers about how the Columbus story should be taught.
BILL BIGELOW: Well, let me give you an example about how I start my U.S. history class every year. I start out by stealing a student’s purse.
BARBARA BERNSTEIN: Bill Bigelow teaches history at Franklin High School in Portland, Oregon.
BILL BIGELOW: And I’ll say, "Well, this is my purse. And the students say, "No, that’s not your purse. That’s Nicky’s purse." I say, "No, it is my purse, and I’ll prove it to you." And so I open the purse, and I’ll take out her comb, and I’ll say, "Well, this is my comb." And I’ll take out some lipstick, and I’ll say, "Well, this is my lipstick." And they’ll say, "No, that’s Nicky’s lipstick." I’ll say, "No, it’s mine." I say, "Well, if you don’t think it’s mine, then prove it to me." And they’ll say, "Well, we saw you take it."
"Well, let’s say I 'discovered' the purse, then does that make it mine?" And they say, "No, just 'cause you call it something different doesn't—it’s still—you still stole it." I say, "Well, how is this any different from what Columbus did? I mean, Columbus came, and there were people living here. They had stuff in their land. And yet we say Columbus discovered America. Well, what else can we call it besides 'discovery'?" Well, Columbus ripped off, Columbus stole America. He invaded it. He conquered it.
And kids can see very quickly that naming is political, that naming takes sides, and that language takes sides. And so, what appeared as just a neutral term before—Columbus discovered America—who could argue with that? That kids see that we need to begin to ask some questions about the way in which history is taught and whose side history instruction takes.
BARBARA BERNSTEIN: One of the first historians to deconstruct the myth of Columbus was Howard Zinn, author of People’s History of the United States.
HOWARD ZINN: You can say I’m tearing down Columbus. But why? I’m tearing him down because I’m telling people who read my book what is true and what is acknowledged, even by the admiring biographers of Columbus. And that is, Columbus was a murderer. Columbus killed Indians. Columbus enslaved Indians. Columbus tortured Indians. He cut off their arms. The gold motivated him.
KEVIN WRIGHT CARNEY: Christopher Columbus was a brave man, and he was the equivalent of the astronaut of his time. And as far as those people in Europe knew, they didn’t know what lay beyond the horizon.
BARBARA BERNSTEIN: Kevin Wright Carney is a board member for the Antelope Valley Union High School District in Southern California.
KEVIN WRIGHT CARNEY: The fact that Native Americans happened to be at the other end was not Christopher Columbus’s fault. And in fact, European culture was spread to America, and North and South America wouldn’t be what they are today without European culture.
HOWARD ZINN: You want me to make him a hero? Because he’s a good navigator?
BARBARA BERNSTEIN: Howard Zinn.
HOWARD ZINN: Because he’s a good sailor? No, he’s not a hero. The heroes were the people who resisted him. The heroes were the Arawaks, who fought with no weapons against the Spaniards, who had horses and wild dogs and muskets and lances and who slaughtered them. Those are the heroes.
KEVIN WRIGHT CARNEY: To say that Native Americans were slaughtered by Christopher Columbus’s crew is absolutely false. Show the documentation that they were killed.
BILL BIGELOW: Where’s the documentation for this?
BARBARA BERNSTEIN: Bill Bigelow of Portland Public Schools.
BILL BIGELOW: Documentation is his own journals, his letters, the Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas, from contemporaneous accounts of people who were with Columbus. Columbus kidnapped about 31 people on his first voyage. And if you read his journal—and they’re widely available, they’re not hidden off somewhere—Columbus himself writes, "Let us, in the name of the Holy Trinity, go on sending all the slaves that can be sold."
HOWARD ZINN: We haven’t had a revolution in American education, but there has been just enough change to move the right wing into hysterics about it.
BARBARA BERNSTEIN: Howard Zinn, author of the People’s History of the United States.
HOWARD ZINN: All you have to do is begin to change the picture, and they get hysterical, and they see: "My god, the whole educational system is being taken over by Marxists." Why? Because we’re starting to tell a different story about Columbus? Because we’re starting to talk more about the women in American history or give more attention to black people or to talk more about how the Native Americans had their lands taken and their tribes annihilated?
BARBARA BERNSTEIN: Arguing over Columbus is just the first of a long series of battles, as every step of American history is open to reinterpretation. At the center of these debates is how do we define what is American culture and history? Do we only honor the voices and views of people of Western European ancestry? Or should we make space for all voices and viewpoints to be heard? But no matter what side of the debate you take, it becomes obvious that the way we teach history will always be value-laden. For Democracy Now!, this is Barbara Bernstein reporting.
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you for that, Barbara.