All these years later, I can still hear the piano in my head, the simple melody, the music teacher at the keyboard leading us in song at Barrington Road Elementary:
In fourteen-hundred ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue
His ship was small, but he was brave
He dared the wind, he dared the waves
He kept on sailing toward the west
And never thought of taking rest
To our great land at last he came
And so we sing his famous name
I have the feeling there was a third verse; for the life of me I can’t remember a word of it. But the rest of it lingers, the way you can remember your phone number from when you were 8 years old, but not your husband’s phone number today. (Why memorize? I just touch his name on the screen.)
As most of you know, I’m a daughter of Columbus, Ohio. I’m also old, so it’s fair to say I received the Full Columbus, education-wise. My school was all-white, and even the city itself was hardly diverse in the way we think about it today. There were white people and black people, and a few Asians sprinkled in here and there. A few years ago I was paging through my yearbook and realized we had one or two Hispanic people – or LatinX, in the contemporary parlance – in my class, although I didn’t know them, and their roots in South America were so well camouflaged I only recognized them as brunette.
Native Americans? Get outta town. The closest anyone came to that was the random kid who’d say, “You know, my grandmother says our family has some Cherokee blood.” Years later, I would work with a card-carrying Nez Perce, transplanted from Montana to Indiana, who said he was always told the same thing. “Man, those Cherokees sure got around,” he said.
But in the mid-’60s, in the largest city named for him, it’s safe to say Christopher Columbus was not a controversial figure. There were statues of him everywhere. The biggest one was in front of City Hall, which Google Street View indicates was still there as of September 2019…
…but also random ones scattered here and there, mostly in parks.
We were not taught that Columbus was anything other than visionary and brave, the man who discovered America by refusing to believe maps that showed the world was flat. He’d watched ships leave the harbor, they told us, and kept watching until they couldn’t be seen anymore. They didn’t suddenly disappear; they gradually sank from sight, the masts the last visible detail. I’m not sure I believe that, thinking back. Could one man’s eyesight be good enough to watch a ship follow the curvature of the earth? I can see across Lake St. Clair, but only at the narrow part and even then it has to be a very clear day. Well, whatever. The point is, he had a Big Idea, and he found a patron, and the rest is literal history. The turning point of so many great forces. A collision, actually.
Later the story was filled in, not as much as you’d hope. No teacher in my education even connected Columbus with the Conquistadors, the indisputably bad guys who followed him. We learned that he didn’t actually discover America so much as some islands on western fringes of the Atlantic. Certainly by high school we were being briefed on what a disaster Columbus’ arrival was for North America’s native populations, but this was never explained as anything other than Sad and Regrettable, but also Inevitable, chalked up to viruses as much as human blood thirst. And so I drifted on a cloud of Columbus ignorance for many years.
(Lest you think there was something uniquely evil about this, a miseducation done to indoctrinate children, be advised that Kate learned about Henry Ford at about the same age and his anti-Semitism wasn’t part of the lesson, either.)
Here’s something else we were taught in fourth grade: That in 1992, Columbus would probably host the Olympic Games, that the 500-year celebration of his arrival would demand nothing less than this sort of worldwide celebration.
I left Columbus in 1984, when the quincentennial was still a few years off. There was a commission planning something, and as the date grew closer it became clear the Olympics were off the table – Barcelona got that burden – and more important, something else had changed. The rise of the American Indian Movement, and the attention paid to the royal screwing natives of all lands had gotten at the hands of the first explorers, everything from whooping cough to chattel slavery, made the old guy problematic.
Suddenly, other cities that had statues of Columbus were taking them down. These weren’t violent events for the most part, and rather than drop them into the nearest body of water, city managers called up their colleagues in Columbus: “Hey, want a free statue of your namesake? We’ll pay shipping!”
This was an early warning that 1992 wouldn’t be a lovefest, and it wasn’t. There were teach-ins and seminars and all sorts of consciousness-raising. The commemorations were a mix of solemnity and celebration. I think there was a new park or parks built, maybe some other stuff. I went to the National Society of Newspaper Columnists convention in Columbus that year. I think my paper was even flush enough to pay for a hotel, when I could have just crashed at my parents’ or sister’s place. One of the events was a Native American who did his own teach-in, and painted the explorer as an unrepentant rapist, slaver and shitty-ass navigator who basically ran aground in the Caribbean. He was very full of himself, and I poked at him during the Q&A, because he got on my nerves.
“Wasn’t the meeting of the old and new worlds inevitable?” I asked. “You act as though the guy who would have come the following year would have somehow been different.” He went off on a tangent about the Vikings, and I don’t remember how it went after that. I’m sure he thought of me as a disciple of Charles Krauthammer or something. Then the seminar ended and we were taken by bus to Select Sires in Plain City, to hear about artificial insemination in dairy cattle, which was actually interesting and of course, a giggle for a bunch of dirty-minded journalists.
Anyway. The biggest international event Columbus got that year was Ameriflora, an “international horticultural exhibition,” i.e., a flower show.
There was one other thing I want to mention: As part of the commemoration, and another stop on the columnists’ tour, we visited the Santa Maria Columbus, a replica of the explorer’s flagship. I can’t recall enough of the details – how faithful a replica it was of the actual ship, what the design was based on, etc. It looked boxy to me, like it was built more to accommodate tourists than cross the ocean blue. Three masts, 90 feet length overall. It looked like a movie set. I have no idea how it got to this city far from any coast; I suspect it was trucked in pieces and assembled at its mooring on the Scioto River, the city’s brown, slow-moving waterway.
But in its own way, it impressed me. Ninety feet sounds big until you think what it would be like to cross an ocean on it, and an ocean some believed drained into an abyss, at that. During hurricane season. And this was the biggest of the three in the expedition; the Nina and Pinta were even smaller.
I see Columbus more fully now, certainly. He was a man of his times, and the times were very different. But his ship was indeed small and he was brave to take command and sail off into the unknown. As the Mercury astronauts would later say about themselves, he was spam in a can.
A final note: Last summer I took a walking tour of downtown Detroit, led by a local historian, an African-American man, who briefed us on the slave-holding roots of the city’s founders. We made a brief stop at the bust of Columbus, which this week was removed to storage until the city can have a conversation about it, the mayor said.
The guide said he didn’t consider Columbus any kind of hero, but he respected his presence on the Randolph Street median, because it had been erected by the local Italian-American community, who were confident enough to insist on their own depictions of their own history. And we walked on.
You don’t know the half of it, I thought, and played the song in my head again.