Happy (last) Columbus Day

“I don’t want to just add on girl’s stuff to boy’s stuff, I want to explain how stuff gets to be stuff in the first place.”  -Nancy Armstrong, feminist scholar

It’s Columbus Day, or Discoverer’s Day (usually what it’s called in Hawaii), or Indigenous Peoples’ Day (what it’s called when someone has gotten self-conscious). So you know that I have to say it: can we do away with Columbus Day yet? The Indigenous Peoples’ Day revision is quiet recognition that Columbus’ ‘discovery’ was actually the beginning of the genocides of millions of native people. But it also sounds so much like generalized politically correct terminology that it’s easily dismissed– to understand it (i.e., what’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day?), you have to translate it (oh, it’s what they’re calling Columbus Day now). And in that way, it’s an empty gesture. We are still commemorating the history of Columbus and colonialism in the Americas, whatever the day is called. Do elementary schools still, as mine surely did, re-enact skits of the first Thanksgiving? (I will have you know too that I was somehow cast as a pilgrim on a cardboard Mayflower, even though I was the only black-headed kid in my Kentucky classroom.) I would just hope that eventually our American history curriculums are not going to locate our collective origins in the greatness of European ‘discoverers’; nor in a supposed opposite assertion that effectively ends up as white guilt.

A lot of the work I’m doing in my classes now, as you might guess, is trying to understand the foundations of Ethnic Studies as a discipline. One of the main stumbling blocks in authoring a good piece of Ethnic Studies scholarship seems to be this issue of revisionism. In the face of traditional disciplines that have obscured so much about minority communities, there is undoubtedly a need to answer back, to correct the records, to insert perspectives from ‘below.’ But it’s easy for this revisionism to do little to really change anything structurally, which in the case of the academy, means the foundational ways in which knowledge is produced. Like Nancy Armstrong says: it’s not enough to just add things (whether they be feminist or queer or indigenous) to the ones already in play. In activism and scholarship, we have to be critical about how “stuff gets to be stuff in the first place.” The ‘other’ perspective has to be self-critical too, or it winds up being just as limiting.

All this to say, Columbus Day (whatever you call it) shouldn’t be a holiday at all. If America wants to commemorate indigenous peoples, they need to pick another day with a meaning more actually situated to indigenous people. Which is probably too hard for whoever would have to do it. In the meantime, who can I talk to about getting the current commemoration out of my planner?

Right now, I’m sitting in my office trying to trick myself into writing a response paper for class, and unfortunately, I don’t think defaming Columbus Day will really do it. But more on how Ethnic Studies should operate, and on a particularly great book on Hawaiian history, soon.