Monday, October 8, 2012

Columbus Day

I went to get a haircut the other day, and the woman wielding the clippers asked about my ethnicity.  After I explained, she said, “You don’t look Mexican”, in a kind of tone that brooked no further discussion, which was fine by me as I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that.  I don’t usually spend much time thinking about identity—ethnic or otherwise—but it so happened that I was reading Richard Rodriguez’ autobiography, Hunger of Memory, at the time (this is the connection to Columbus Day, I promise). 

I’d recently read the text of some remarks by Rodriguez which referenced Columbus Day, and given the controversy which rightly surrounds the “celebration” of this day in our time, I thought that his words were worth sharing:

“Let me talk to you a little bit about the fifteenth century.  In 1492, we are told that Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas.  What we are not usually told, of course, is that the Indians discovered Christopher Columbus and literally so.  On that day in October of 1492 when the sight of Columbus appeared on the horizon, the Indians came out of the forest to look at Columbus.  They didn’t run into the forest.  They came out to look.

“Columbus thought he was headed for a good curry meal and the Indians came out to look at this guy.  A lot of time we portray the New World Indian as the victim of a European design, as someone whose whole history can be described purely as victimization.  But we had a moment in human history where people who didn’t beat each other confront one another and they are both equally curious.

“You know, sometimes that happens when strangers meet.  Sometimes strangers don’t simply go to the opposite sides of the room.  Sometimes strangers are attracted by foreignness, by their difference.  When I see you, I want to know who you are.  That’s my Indian side again.  I’m not afraid of you.  Never have been”.

I enjoyed Rodriguez’ comments, which remind us that history is full of these moments in which wonder and curiosity transcended violence and greed, when people behaved humanely, and when the global forces which propel people along exploitative and violent paths were held in check by something else.  Of course, these moments are often too brief and too prone to being steamrolled by those seemingly inexorable forces.  While it is important to recall that the “discovery” of the New World by Columbus served as a prelude to violence on a genocidal scale, it is perhaps also fitting to think about the moments of contact which preceded the era of conquest, and to consider why those moments failed to endure. 

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