Help Rethinking Schools Abolish Columbus Day

Dear Rethinking Schools friends,

Christopher Columbus was the first European to send enslaved people from the Americas to Europe, as well as the first to promote the enslavement of Africans in the Americas. And yet we still honor him with a national holiday? Please donate now to help Rethinking Schools teach a new generation of students the truth about Columbus and the people who were here first.

Almost 25 years ago, Rethinking Schools published our first booklet, Rethinking Columbus. We believed there were teachers besides us who would be eager for an alternative to the rah-rah Columbus-discovered-America textbook fare. We had no idea just how eager teachers were: Rethinking Columbus sold a thousand copies a day, seven days a week, for the first three months the booklet was in print. And, thanks to Native American organizations, teacher unions, social justice education groups, and progressive teacher education programs, Rethinking Columbus has gone on to become a resource in classrooms throughout the country.

Recently, we’ve been gratified to see the explosion of activism with cities and school districts voting to abolish Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day: Albuquerque, N. M.; Seattle and Olympia, Wash.; St. Paul, Minn.; Anadarko, Okla.; Portland, Ore.;  . . . and the list continues to grow.

Rethinking Schools—in conjunction with the Zinn Education Project, which we coordinate with Teaching for Change—plans a major push this year to undermine Columbus Day and to build support for Indigenous Peoples Day. As Rethinking Schools editor Bill Bigelow wrote in “Time to Abolish Columbus Day,” his most recent Zinn Education Project column: “If Indigenous peoples’ lives mattered in our society, and if Black people’s lives mattered in our society, it would be inconceivable that we would honor the father of the slave trade with a national holiday.”

Who we celebrate helps determine the lives and experiences that are most valued in our society. By working to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, we hope to eliminate the silence around the history and current reality of Indigenous People as a testament to the importance of Indigenous lives. Rethinking Schools relies on supporters like you to help us continue this important work. Please donate today to  help us continue to teach the truth and to help make our world more equal and more just.

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Columbus Protest at UW-Madison

Time to Abolish Columbus Day

By Bill Bigelow

Once again this year many schools will pause to commemorate Christopher Columbus. Given everything we know about who Columbus was and what he launched in the Americas, this needs to stop.

Columbus initiated the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in early February 1494, first sending several dozen enslaved Taínos to Spain. Columbus described those he enslaved as “well made and of very good intelligence,” and recommended to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella that taxing slave shipments could help pay for supplies needed in the Indies. A year later, Columbus intensified his efforts to enslave Indigenous people in the Caribbean. He ordered 1,600 Taínos rounded up—people whom Columbus had earlier described as “so full of love and without greed”—and had 550 of the “best males and females,” according to one witness, Michele de Cuneo, chained and sent as slaves to Spain. “Of the rest who were left,” de Cuneo writes, “the announcement went around that whoever wanted them could take as many as he pleased; and this was done.”

Taíno slavery in Spain turned out to be unprofitable, but Columbus later wrote, “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”

Book: The African Slave TradeThe eminent historian of Africa, Basil Davidson, also assigns responsibility to Columbus for initiating the African slave trade to the Americas. According to Davidson, the first license granted to send enslaved Africans to the Caribbean was issued by the king and queen in 1501, during Columbus’s rule in the Indies, leading Davidson to dub Columbus the “father of the slave trade.”

From the very beginning, Columbus was not on a mission of discovery but of conquest and exploitation—he called his expedition la empresa, the enterprise. When slavery did not pay off, Columbus turned to a tribute system, forcing every Taíno, 14 or older, to fill a hawk’s bell with gold every three months. If successful, they were safe for another three months. If not, Columbus ordered that Taínos be “punished,” by having their hands chopped off, or they were chased down by attack dogs. As the Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas wrote, this tribute system was “impossible and intolerable.”

And Columbus deserves to be remembered as the first terrorist in the Americas. When resistance mounted to the Spaniards’ violence, Columbus sent an armed force to “spread terror among the Indians to show them how strong and powerful the Christians were,” according to the Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas. In his book Conquest of Paradise, Kirkpatrick Sale describes what happened when Columbus’s men encountered a force of Taínos in March of 1495 in a valley on the island of Hispañiola:

The soldiers mowed down dozens with point-blank volleys, loosed the dogs to rip open limbs and bellies, chased fleeing Indians into the bush to skewer them on sword and pike, and [according to Columbus’s biographer, his son Fernando] “with God’s aid soon gained a complete victory, killing many Indians and capturing others who were also killed.”

WoodcutIf Indigenous peoples’ lives mattered in our society, and if Black people’s lives mattered in our society, it would be inconceivable that we would honor the father of the slave trade with a national holiday. The fact that we have this holiday legitimates a curriculum that is contemptuous of the lives of peoples of color. Elementary school libraries still feature books like Follow the Dream: The Story of Christopher Columbus, by Peter Sis, which praise Columbus and say nothing of the lives destroyed by Spanish colonialism in the Americas.

No doubt, the movement launched 25 years ago in the buildup to the Columbus Quincentenary has made huge strides in introducing a more truthful and critical history about the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. Teachers throughout the country put Columbus and the system of empire on trial, and write stories of the so-called discovery of America from the standpoint of the people who were here first.

But most textbooks still tip-toe around the truth. Houghton Mifflin’s United States History: Early Years attributes Taíno deaths to “epidemics,” and concludes its section on Columbus: “The Columbian Exchange benefited people all over the world.” The section’s only review question erases Taíno and African humanity: “How did the Columbian Exchange change the diet of Europeans?”

Too often, even in 2015, the Columbus story is still young children’s first curricular introduction to the meeting of different ethnicities, different cultures, different nationalities. In school-based literature on Columbus, they see him plant the flag, and name and claim “San Salvador” for an empire thousands of miles away; they’re taught that white people have the right to rule over peoples of color, that stronger nations can bully weaker nations, and that the only voices they need to listen to throughout history are those of powerful white guys like Columbus. Is this said explicitly? No, it doesn’t have to be. It’s the silences that speak.

sis_page_wcaptionFor example, here’s how Peter Sis describes the encounter in his widely used book: “On October 12, 1492, just after midday, Christopher Columbus landed on a beach of white coral, claimed the land for the King and Queen of Spain, knelt and gave thanks to God…” The Taínos on the beach who greet Columbus are nameless and voiceless. What else can children conclude but that their lives don’t matter?

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.

More cities—and school districts—ought to follow the example of Berkeley, Minneapolis, and Seattle, which have scrapped Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day—a day to commemorate the resistance and resilience of Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas, and not just in a long-ago past, but today. Or what about studying and honoring the people Columbus enslaved and terrorized: the Taínos. Columbus said that they were gentle, generous, and intelligent, but how many students today even know the name Taíno, let alone know anything of who they were and how they lived?

Last year, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant put it well when she explained Seattle’s decision to abandon Columbus Day: “Learning about the history of Columbus and transforming this day into a celebration of Indigenous people and a celebration of social justice … allows us to make a connection between this painful history and the ongoing marginalization, discrimination, and poverty that Indigenous communities face to this day.”

We don’t have to wait for the federal government to transform Columbus Day into something more decent. Just as the climate justice movement is doing with fossil fuels, we can organize our communities and our schools to divest from Columbus. And that would be something to celebrate.

Columbus Day Protests

edited by Bill Bigelow , Bob Peterson

billbigelow-100x100Bill Bigelow was the co-editor of Rethinking Columbus. He is the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine and co-director of the Zinn Education Project. He co-edited  A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis.

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This article is part of the Zinn Education Project’s
If We Knew Our History
series.

Published on: Huffington Post.

Banning Critical Teaching in Arizona: A Letter From Curtis Acosta

Perhaps you’ve seen the wonderful film, Precious Knowledge, about the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson. One of the teachers featured is Curtis Acosta, along with his remarkable students.

In the letter below, which Acosta allowed Rethinking Schools to reprint here, he offers a perspective on the curricular repression that teachers and students are confronting in Tucson. For a flavor of what knowledge is outlawed by the new law, take a look at the essay assignment Acosta gave students about Ana Castillo’s novel So Far From God, excerpted below, and the changes that school district authorities demanded.

Rethinking Columbus bannedThere has been a lot of national attention paid to the banning of Rethinking Columbus and other books used in the Mexican American Studies program. But the book banning is just collateral damage. The real target of those in Arizona who have pushed the Mexican American Studies ban is critical, social justice teaching—teaching that is alert to issues of race, class, and culture, and that asks students to reflect on issues of oppression and struggle.

There is a kind of curricular ethnic cleansing going on and educators and people of conscience around the country need to stand in solidarity with Tucson students and teachers.

As Curtis Acosta indicates in his letter, teachers there are meeting to reflect on the kind of national support that would be most helpful. In the meantime, it’s up to us to keep this issue alive in our workplaces, unions, professional organizations, Facebook pages, listservs, and in local and national media we may have access to.

Bill Bigelow
Curriculum Editor


To my friends and all our supporters,

Let me try a few cleansing breaths before all of this.

First, I am deeply moved by the love, commitment and creativity to help honor our plight and support our fight. Thank you all so much and I apologize to all of my friends who I have not responded to as of yet. We all are overwhelmed here in Tucson and I need a new email system for organizing all the love. Muchismas gracias y Tlazocamatli.

Curtis Acosta

Mr. Curtis Acosta

This week has provided more challenges. The teachers have still not received specific guidelines for curriculum and pedagogical changes that need to be made in order to be in compliance of the law. TUSD leadership has asked the site administrators on each campus where our classes are taught to lead the process which means that my colleagues and I are all separated from each other, and have not yet come together as a group since the destruction of our program. It also is a way to divide and conquer since we are all struggling at our individual sites for clarity and consistency. To be more specific, I meet alone with my site administration, with only my union representative as support, but separated from my MAS colleagues who also work at my school. The district leadership has done this move to wash their hands of us and any accountability to us. However, they continue to send out press releases that claim that books that are now boxed in a warehouse are not banned, and that anyone can teach critical issues like race, ethnicity, oppression, and cultura, but do not mention the exception being the censored teachers in the MAS program. The double speak is unseemly and lacks honor. I am so happy that our friends around the nation are holding them accountable since the power structure in Tucson has made sure the local media tows the line. This has been the case for years.

What I can tell you is that TUSD has decreed that anything taught from a Mexican American Studies perspective is illegal and must be eliminated immediately. Of course, they have yet to define what that means, but here’s an example of what happened to an essay prompt that I had distributed prior to January 10th.

{Chicano playwright Luis Valdez once stated that his art was meant to, “…inspire the audience to social action. Illuminate specific points about social problems. Satirize the opposition. Show or hint at a solution. Express what people are feeling.” The novel So Far From God presents many moments of social and political commentary.} Select an issue that you believe Ana Castillo was attempting to illuminate for her audience and write a literary analysis of how that theme is explored in the novel. Remember to use direct citations from the novel to support your ideas and theories.

{Culture can play a significant role within a work of fiction. For generations in this country, the literature studied in English or literature classes rarely represented the lives and history of Mexican-Americans.} In a formal literary analysis, discuss what makes So Far From God a Chican@ novel and how this might influence the experience of the reader. Remember to use direct citations from the novel to support your ideas and theories.

The brackets indicate what I had to edit since the statements were found to be too leading toward a Mexican American Studies perspective. In plainer terms, they are illegal and out of compliance. A quote from a great literary figure, Luis Valdez, is now illegal, and a fact about education in our nation’s history is also illegal.

You can imagine how we are feeling, especially without any clear guidance to what is now legal and what is not, and what makes matters worse is that TUSD expects us to move forward and redesign our entire curriculum and pedagogy to be in compliance.

I cannot speak for all my colleagues but it has become clear to me that I must abandon nearly everything I used to do in the classroom and become “born again” as a teacher. At least for the foreseeable future, since the list of individuals that are waiting to pounce upon us at our first wrong step is long and filled with powerful figures.

However, we have not lost faith that we will overcome all of these atrocious, absurd, and abusive actions to our students and to learning environment centered upon love and academic excellence. Our students have already learned so much this year and this process is teaching them so much more. They are restless, ready to act and eager for their voices to be heard, and our community is equally supportive to their desires. Our lawsuit moves forward and the unconstitutionality of the law will be debated before Judge A. Wallace Tashima. Three of the four men who voted to disband our program will be accountable on November 6th since their seats on the school board are up this election. We are strong in spirit that a better day is ahead.

Lastly, there has been an idea put forward by my good friends, Tara Mack and Keith Catone, that there should be a national day of solidarity where teachers would teach our curriculum all over the nation. I will be discussing this with my colleagues in MAS this weekend and then to Tara and Keith. They have been amazing and fired-up to help, but I have had to navigate the Tempest in our classrooms and schools before more specifics come your way. The first day we are to be officially in compliance is February 1st, so that may be a wonderful, symbolic day to keep our spirit alive through the nation.

Respectfully,

Curtis Acosta
Chican@/Latin@ Literature Teacher (forever in mind and in spirit)
Tucson