Considering Columbus Day and the Power of a Name

What’s in a name? For Shakespeare, a name is a nothing: It’s a trifle. “A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet,” he said. Names aren’t that important. They are placeholders, and empty ones at that. Names are meaningless—or so they seem. As we head into our newly dubbed “Fall Break,” one wonders if a name really is as superficial as Shakespeare poetically describes.

Columbus Day: Learning about it as a kid, I never thought anything of it. I took what I learned as factual knowledge. Apples are red. Cows go “moo.” In the year 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. These were objective facts of life to my kindergarten self. I didn’t question whether Columbus discovered America—he just did. Sure there were some talks in middle school classes about how some native people died of some disease that Columbus carried across the ocean, but it wasn’t his fault: The poor explorer just happened to do it. This is what I simply considered to be true. Up until high school, that is. Then, the edgy, cynical teenager in me absolutely loved the idea that Columbus was actually an idiotic jerk who thought he had found India. I fully and immediately dove into the absolute cynicism that follows a realization of being wrong—suddenly, history was a lie. All of it, absolute baloney made up by old men in libraries. It took until I got to college for me to realize that that edgy high schooler was just as blind as the naïve kindergartener: I had merely swapped one narrative for another one, treating both as objective truth.

The slight change on Boston College’s academic calendar from “Columbus Day” to “Fall Break” brought this long and complicated relationship with Columbus back to the fore of my mind. Was Columbus that bad? Yes, he killed indigenous people with disease and couldn’t use a compass, but is that really enough to warrant his name’s removal from the BC Calendar? After just a bit of thought, I can conclude that yes, it is. Names, even those for holidays, matter.

Columbus became quasi-synonymous with exploration—his name came to represent an era. The issues aren’t just that he killed a lot of people and that he was a bad guy: The big problem is that he claimed to have discovered those people. Suddenly, those entire people’s history was erased. Until the year 1492, those people weren’t discovered yet. They didn’t “exist.” Their accomplishments, their work, and society, and lives, and culture were demoted to footnotes in the Age of Exploration. I never learned that Mesoamericans had antibiotic medicine or that the Plains tribes of North America had antiviral treatments. I never knew that while Europeans were bloodletting one another and killing their cats to eradicate the plague, Mesoamericans were performing cataract and brain surgery in hospitals and with anesthetics. While modern Americans are suffering under the cloud of ever-worsening global warming, ancient Americans had an advanced understanding of ecology and pollution. So to say that Columbus brought these people the glory of Europe feels impossibly unnatural. To say that he discovered them is a farce.

Columbus Day isn’t just a day named after an old dead explorer. It’s a day memorializing the degradation of an entire people. It’s a day that propagates the European legacy of superiority, at the direct expense of those original Americans. While his name might just be an old reference to a family line long gone, it normalizes a culture that refuses to turn back on history and say, “That was wrong.”

Some may say that this is exaggeration. This is clickbait, just a “Top Ten Reasons Columbus Sucked,” a “Which Retrospectively Disgraced Explorer Are You?” quiz. But this is just an acceptance of a fault. A necessary ability to turn to history—even history half a millennium ago—and accept there was some huge mistakes. It’s never easy: Getting rid of Columbus Day isn’t just saying that Columbus was wrong, but is saying that we were wrong to celebrate him. The fault lies not just with Columbus, but with all modern and sensible people (myself included) who continued to cling to the idea of Eurocentrism. Sometimes changing the name of something reveals a welcome reconciliation of error, but sometimes it is just altering the surface while leaving no avenue for growth. Columbus is just a name, and changing a word on a calendar often isn’t enough. Phasing out the name “Columbus Day” isn’t the only example of our culture recognizing its faults.  Global warming becomes climate change, yet we still labor under our current refusal to see our mistakes. Talk about women’s suffrage or #MeToo, but our current culture is far too accepting of ridiculously antiquated gender relations. As Trayvon Martin became Eric Garner, as the focus of the #MeToo movement changes from Hollywood producers to Supreme Court nominees, one has to realize that more can be done besides a shuffling of headlines. For as Shakespeare noted, it’s not the name that’s important. Names are nothings—trifles. What’s important is what follows the name and its change. What’s important is being able to look at society, or look at one’s own attitude toward it, and say, “I was wrong.” After all, to be better, one must first be wrong.  

Featured Graphic by Nicole Chan / Graphics Editor