What is an “American”?

In fourteen hundred ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

This coming Monday, October 8, 2012  is a national holiday officially called Columbus Day.Unless you were, like me, looking out the window that day or had a bit more enlightened elementary school teacher, then you learned all about Christopher Columbus “discovering” America. Maybe you even heard the whole poem with the throwaway stanza at the end:

The first American? No, not quite.
But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.

Sometimes I wish I had not been talking to the other kids in the back row so much because I was well into my late 20’s before I began to realize that white males of English descent were not supreme. (A fact ironic in itself because Columbus was Italian sailing for a Spanish monarchy). In graduate school in Chicago I was fortunate to participate in a small group racial awareness exercise. Sadly, as I quickly discovered,  many of the casual references to people of color that I took for granted were so inherently bigoted that I couldn’t believe I uttered them. Then too much later, having found a wonderful, strong woman to be my wife, I woke up to feminism. I guess it is pretty much inevitable that if you are in privileged group you will be pretty slow to see the ramifications of your outlook.

A few Columbus Day’s ago now, It struck me that I  had that same nonchalance about Native Americans. Sure, I no longer talked about the wild indians attacking the cavalry but I still had a ways to. One day I said to my much more perceptive spouse that I wondered why in the world people coming here from Europe in the 1500’s and subsequent centuries didn’t simply have a working relationship with the indigenous dwellers, thinking about the many things each culture could have learned from each other. Her answer: racism. She was right. Just study the various laws and treaties regarding land ownership when white people were arguing about their divine right or at the very least their superior power over the land through the the courts. Those who were already on this continent were “savages” and as such had no part in such decisions.

I like holidays but I wish this one wasn’t so tainted. I don’t really think calling it something else really helps either, what with the Atlanta Braves fans doing “The Chop” and the NFL team of our Nation’s Capitol being called the Redskins. The only hope seems to be changing one mind at a time as happened to me along the way. Consider: are you listening to those who would enlighten you?

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