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Columbus Day Redux

October 14th, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

There was a time not too long ago when Columbus Day was celebrated in this country. The reason it was celebrated, just to make it clear, was because Columbus discovered America, and one result of that was that we are here, and not only are we here but we have built the greatest monument to liberty the world has ever known. And so Columbus’ “discovery” was celebrated as a seminal event pointing to our own greatness.

For some time but especially since the quincentennial there has been a growing critique of this narrative. More and more the pendulum has swung from ignoring the tragic outcomes of the Columbus event to vilifying Columbus, and, consequently, ourselves. As if our breast beating will erase the sins that have been committed. And so I was not surprised to see many expressions of cultural self-loathing surrounding the commemoration of Columbus Day this year.

We often hear, when we commemorate one or another outrage, that we should “never forget.” Never forget 9/11. Never forget Pearl Harbor. Remember the Alamo. And we don’t forget. We nurse the wounds and injustices of the past until they become integral to our identity. And of course it is not wise to forget that certain circumstances can lead to certain outcomes and that we ought to be diligent not to repeat the mistakes of the past. The problem is that our refusal to forget comes with the corollary that we ought also not forgive. And so our remembrance serves as a vehicle to perpetuate distrust and even hatred between groups. Our refusal to forget, far from preventing further tragedies, actually leads to more tragedy. Is that why we remember?

Michel Rolph Trouillot was a black Haitian historian who taught at the University of Chicago. He wrote an excellent book about historical malpractice titled Silencing the Past. There he tells the story about once offering a class on the slave experience in America. He recounts that the majority of the students were African-American, and that he assigned a number of books that were written by white authors. One of his students challenged him openly about assigning readings by white authors. “Where were they when we were jumping off ships?” To which he responded, “What ship did you jump off of?”

Isn’t that it? We carry the burdens of histories that are not ours. We nurse the wounds of injustices we did not experience. And consequently we carry resentment and hatred against people who did us no wrong. And so the cycle of violence and hatred continues.

As a historian and professor of history I know better than most the uses of history. For the most part history is used as a tool to fashion a political outcome. History is used by the state to try to mold citizens. History is used by partisans as a weapon to wield for political gain. This approach to history does more harm than good. The value in studying history is only evident when it is used as a tool for understanding. But let me offer some observations about history that I think we should know.

1. History is a long tragic story punctuated by sublime episodes.
2. No group is excluded from guilt.
3. Almost no one alive today participated in the atrocities of the past.
4. We are nevertheless left with the legacies of those atrocities which we must deal with in a real way today.

The way the study of history can help us to deal with this tragic legacy is:

1. Inform and remind us that we are all capable of the same atrocities.
2. Inform and remind us that we are all brothers and sisters.

This is in fact the proper aim of the study of history. We keep telling ourselves that we should “never forget.” Yet our God forgets our trespasses against him and forgives out of unwarranted favor (He. 8:12 and many other places) – just because he loves us. And he strives for peace and reconciliation. Maybe we should do the same. Breast beating and finger pointing do not bring justice. Only acting justly toward our brothers and sisters brings justice.

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