One Republican congressman suggested the nation celebrates Columbus Day as a means of commemorating the day a legendary explorer discovered the U.S.
“Over 500 years ago, Christopher Columbus landed on this wonderful land we call the U.S.A. Celebrate #ColumbusDay!” tweeted Rep. Gus Bilirakis on Monday morning, echoing the long-held conventional wisdom about the discovery of America.
The Florida congressman's statement, however, was labeled “an unfortunate distortion" by Edward Shore, a doctoral candidate in Latin American history at the University of Texas at Austin for two reasons. First, Shore points out that Columbus didn’t land in the U.S. on Oct. 12, 1492, but rather on an island in the Bahamas.
“Second, and most alarming, is the effort to suppress an informed conversation about the causes and consequences of Europe's arrival in the Americas and their objectives, which ultimately included colonizing, ‘Christianizing,’ and enslaving local peoples,” he told MSNBC.
While Columbus didn’t touch U.S. soil on his first journey to the Americas, the explorer did chart Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, which would later become U.S. territories, on subsequent expeditions. But he never reached the continental U.S.
Since the establishment of Columbus Day, historians have come to regard Leiff Erikson and his crew of Viking explorers as the first to reach the Americas. Of course, native peoples lived in these lands for thousands of years before either European explorer was credited with discovering them.
This year, at least nine U.S. cities, including Minneapolis, Portland and Seattle, are celebrating an alternative: Indigenous Peoples Day, according to the Associated Press. This is part of a national movement to re-own these painful moments of history by honoring the contributions of indigenous cultures – one the AP notes has been met with mixed success.
“Unfortunately, proponents of Columbus Day misread criticism of European colonialism as an attack on Italian American heritage,” Shore said, noting that Columbus was actually an Italian mariner born in Genoa. “Yet at stake here is the need for Americans – South, Central, North – to confront historical legacies of colonialism and violence against the original inhabitants, who are rendered invisible, still, in this congressman's tweets about Columbus.”
And the time has come to change the tide, says Zinn Education Project co-director Bill Bigelow, who argued in an article last week that from the very onset, Columbus set out on a mission to conquer and exploit – not to discover – and should be remembered in history for starting the trans-Atlantic slave trade, as well as the first terrorist in the Americas.
“Enough already. Especially now, when the Black Lives Matter movement prompts us to look deeply into each nook and cranny of social life to ask whether our practices affirm the worth of every human being, it’s time to rethink Columbus, and to abandon the holiday that celebrates his crimes,” he wrote.
MSNBC placed a call to Rep. Bilirakis' Washington office, in addition to reaching out to him via Twitter. While these requests for comment weren't returned prior to publication, a recorded message stated that the congressman's office was in fact closed in observance of Columbus Day.