“Columbus traveled with five Americans,” read the first line of a section of my fifth-grade daughter’s Christopher Columbus report. I was puzzled. Where did she get such a notion?
After reviewing her sources, we discovered an Internet page printed for her at school, “He brought back Native Americans (mistakenly calling them Indians).”
That mistake continues as we still call the descendants of these indigenous peoples “Indians.”
In fact, Columbus kidnapped a dozen or more of them, and most died on the voyage back to Spain.
From her sources, we learn about Columbus’ life, the names of Columbus’ ships, and details of their voyage, in part because Columbus kept a journal. We had to look through several sources to discover what these native peoples called themselves, Taíno, and found little emphasis on Columbus’ desire to conquer these peaceful people.
School curriculum is often filled with subtle, subjective biases. For some, this is nitpicking, but for others it illustrates a challenge to create a more even-handed view of the American experience
This debate has played out recently in the presidential campaign and at the state capitol over SB1108 that sponsor Rep. Russell Pearce , R-Mesa, says would censor Tucson Unified School District’s ethnic studies courses.
In both cases the dominant white European-American view has questioned the authenticity and anti-American perspectives of those who speak from a different experience.
We’ve heard the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sound bites. The media has teased out his most offensive remarks, but there’s been little concern to hear him as portraying a sense of the black experience in America.
Consider this sermon segment:
“Where governments lie, God does not lie. Where governments change, God does not change. And … Governments fail. The government in this text comprised of Caesar, Cornelius, Pontius Pilate — the Roman government failed. … The Russian government failed. The Japanese government failed. The German government failed. And the United States of America government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian descent fairly, she failed. … When it came to treating citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains. The government put them on slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton fields, put them in inferior schools, … The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law, and then wants us to sing God bless America? … God damn America for treating her citizens as less than human.”
This voice has witnessed drugs devastate his community, the government’s war on drugs break apart families, and his government’s apparent indifference to a health crisis wrought from HIV/AIDS.
We’re struck by the anger and rebelliousness, but we often don’t hear the message of historical exclusion from which it comes.
America has come a long way, and is remarkable for its religious and ethnic diversity. Yet ironically on April 25, the day Wright’s interview aired on PBS, a New York judge ruled that three police officers had not been guilty of a criminal offense when they unloaded a barrage of 50 bullets that fatally shot an unarmed black man, Sean Bell, with his two friends on the morning of his wedding day.
For white America that’s not the America we know. It’s not an America we want to accept. We might blame the victim for being taken to a strip club for a bachelor’s party. We’ll emphasize how police officers, in fear of their lives, made an honest mistake. We’re reluctant to admit that the tragic actions which unfolded in that case occurred because Bell was black.
America’s ability to learn and change helps make our diverse country great, but it’s up to all of us: white, black, brown, old, young, men, women, Democrat and Republican to do that.
Dave Wells of Tempe holds a doctorate in political economy and public policy and teaches at Arizona State University. Reach him at Dave@MakeDemocracyWork.org.