Skip to main content
Columbus Myth and American Exceptionalism

If you go to the bank next week, you may be surprised to find that it is closed. And when you go to your mailbox, you will find it empty because October 12 is a federal holiday, Columbus Day.

In this part of the world, Columbus Day is not much more than an immanently forgettable holiday celebrating the landing of a 15th century seriously lost sailor landing on a Caribbean island that had millions of inhabitants which, in spite of the densely populated island where he landed, he claimed to have discovered. Which would be roughly the equivalent of me claiming that I had discovered the Rocky Mountains after my first trip to Colorado.

For the first 400 years after Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas, not much was said about the allegedly Italian explorer sailing under the flag of Spain. In fact, Columbus was dusted off and represented to Americans in the early 19th century after a tragic mass murder of Italian immigrants in New Orleans.

Eleven Italians were lynched when a trial failed to find them guilty of a plot to murder the city’s police chief.

I am sure that you are aware that the current president’s disdain for Mexican immigrants is of a cloth with the anti-immigrant sentiments in past centuries for Irish, German, and Italian immigrants who usually came in waves when conditions in their home countries became so inhospitable that making a new start in America was an attractive solution. And, like the Mexicans who risk life and limb to immigrate, most are agricultural workers with little education and not much by way of English skills.

To try to dilute this dangerous anti-Italian sentiment following this lynching in New Orleans, President Harrison, in 1892, called for a celebration of Columbus as an Italian who discovered the Americas and made the existence of the USA possible.

This was both to quell tensions in America and to calm down the Italian government that was getting quite agitated about how Italians were being portrayed and treated in the USA. The idea caught on in places where there were large Italian populations and even though Columbus never set foot on what is now US mainland territory, you find statues of him in historically Italian neighborhoods as a virulent claim from the immigrant families that they discovered this place and they have every right to be here.

Columbus Myth and American Exceptionalism

While there are statues erected in honor of Columbus all through the new world, largely because he brought Spanish language and culture to take root in Central and South America, there are also a few statues and memorials like this one in Portugal because there is a strain of historical argument that Columbus was really from Portugal and that someone portrayed him as being Italian to polish his sailing credentials.

In fact, one of our listeners lives in Portugal and given the conversation we had on line about Columbus the last time I mentioned him, there are people in Portugal willing to fight for the dubious honor of claiming Columbus as their own.

The historical truth about Columbus is that he was an absolutely horrible human being, a cruel murderer, and a greedy slave trader who captured children to be sex slaves in Europe to fatten his own estate.

All of you folks who buy a DNA test and are surprised to find a trace of Native American blood in you . . . yeah, that’s not a happy story. Your ancestors may have brought that back to America from Europe in their veins and the way they got it is an ugly story.

Last month, President Trump gave a speech in which he was literally demanding that schools become propaganda centers, teaching the next generation to be more proud of being American by downplaying actual history.

He even specifically named the work of the famous American historian, Howard Zinn, as being someone to be removed from libraries and avoided in classrooms. I don’t know who wrote that into Trump’s speech. I am relatively certain that he had no idea who the late Howard Zinn was and I am confident that he never read his books since, obviously, Trump doesn’t read books.

Columbus Myth and American Exceptionalism

It was my honor to meet and talk with Howard Zinn on three occasions, the first two times, when he spoke at Missouri State and then returned to speak at Drury University, and then I got to have a longer conversation with him when I was a fellow at Harvard.

He was such an amazing man, so insightful and so powerful in his ability to strip away propaganda and tell the truth about history that when we started this church in 2008, our very first class was led by our own Dr. David Adams as we spent nearly a year studying Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.”

Columbus the Slave Trader

Trump doesn’t know much about history, but he knows that he doesn’t want you to know that Christopher Columbus was a murdering slave trader who got rich abducting native children for the sex trade. Still, the problem here is not just that Columbus was historically a bad guy, there were lots of bad guys in history and lots of dark chapters in our history of conquest, invasion, and pathological land theft on our way to being “the greatest nation in the world.”

The problem is that Italians picked Columbus to be the central figure in a useful myth. Myths may be based on facts or based on thin air, but myths function in society to put a spin on history, to give us self-confidence, pride, and to justify our privilege.

In this sense, the Hebrew Bible is a perfect example of the use of myth as propaganda. The stories that were recorded while the Israelites were in captivity in Babylon described their history as being a rather testy love story between their nation and God.

Their story claims that they grew as a nation while they were slaves in Egypt and that God delivered them from slavery and gave them a land of their own. There is no persuasive reason to believe that any part of that myth is based on historical fact.

The Jews were one of many Palestinian tribes, fighting for control of real estate that happened to be at the crossroads of continents where empires have been fighting since humans laid down their clubs and built walled cities. I never cease to be amused by Evangelicals who have never noticed how ironic it is that the Jewish holy book, written by and for the Jews, is where they get the claim that God gave them this particular piece of real estate.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

I took an Israeli government subsidized trip to Jordan and Israel when I was in grad school. I was out of place on a bus full of Evangelical preachers but I was excited to see what even I, at that tender age, thought of as the “holy land.” But as we crossed the Jordan River and saw the impoverished refugee camps in the West Bank brimming with displaced Palestinians, our government guide shrugged off the obvious poverty and suffering of the camp, saying, “They don’t belong here, God gave this land to us.”

Columbus Myth and American Exceptionalism

The bus erupted in loud amens from the preachers on the bus and a wry grin spread across our guide’s face because he had obviously practiced and perfected that line over the years to play American preachers like a fiddle.

Folks, God doesn’t work for Century 21. God no more parcels out land to one rival group over another than believing that God prefers one football or baseball team over another. Besides, apparently, God is a hockey fan.

Religious myths and national myths help to gloss over some of the sordid details of reality. We want to think of George Washington as a courageous military leader who helped the American colonies gain freedom but we don’t want to dwell on the hundreds of slaves he mercilessly kept on his Virginia farm.

While some myths just evolve in the self-congratulatory stew of civilization, many are created to promote and justify the abuses of the dominant culture.

White Man's Burden

Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” was written to promote our invasion and conquest of the Philippines, suggesting that just like white people had to carry blacks, Native Americans, and Latinos towards civilization, we were also obligated to care for the Philippine natives, Muslims, and Asians. As if our enslavement of Africans, genocide of Native Americans, and abusive labor practices towards Latinos was all a charitable education exercise on the part of white America. Did I tell you that I discovered the Rocky Mountains?

It is similar to the passionate support for America’s manifest destiny portrayed in John Gast’s late 19th century painting, depicting the “spirit” of Columbia guiding the westward movement of white people, building rail roads and stringing telegraph wire as they drove the Native Americans out of their way. She carries a text book as if education was the hallmark of our conquest of lands that simply did not belong to us. The assumption was the education, agriculture, and technological advance justified genocide and homicidal land theft.

But myths don’t have to be bad. If myths play a role in defining a society or given a nation certain goals to accomplish, then what we need are better myths.

Columbus Myth and American Exceptionalism

When I was a very little child in the deeply racist, segregated South, I sat on the painted wooden chairs of my basement Sunday School class and learned to sing the 19th missionary song:

“Jesus loves the little children, all little children of the world: red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

And as saccharin as the notion of white Jesus holding little African and Asian kids on his lap surrounded by adoring white kids may be, it was probably the most healthy message about race that I was going to get in the first 20 years of my life. A lot better than “God gave this land to us,” manifest destiny, or white man’s burden, kinds of myths!

If myths can be manufactured to hold out to society to define a goal, why don’t we create a noble myth? One that doesn’t rely on genocide, racism, exploitation, or greed?

And it doesn’t have to be necessarily religious or having to do with nationalism. It could be about virtue. I think that we could even go back a century and grab it out of the annals of American history, to give it a good mythic ring.

I’m thinking of that time in 1944, when we were still up to our eyebrows in WWII when Franklin Roosevelt used his State of the Union address to try to plant a more noble vision in America’s minds than simply defeating the Germans and the Japanese. Without rattling all of the skeletons in Roosevelt’s closet, we could just take his words that described a nation on the other side of a great World War.

He said in that speech that America’s Bill of Rights had afforded us political rights, but they didn’t go far enough to ensure that Americans could actually pursue happiness. Happiness requires some security, some creature comfort, and a real place in society. Franklin proposed a second Bill of Rights that would be an economic bill of rights. He said that Americans should be guaranteed a decent job with a living wage, that farming should be fairly compensated, that health care, retirement and education should be available to everyone.

Columbus Myth and American Exceptionalism

Call me crazy but what if we tried to polish our reputation as being the greatest nation on earth by actually becoming the greatest nation on earth? What if we created a civilization that finally eradicated racism, poverty, war, environmental destruction, and class strife?

We have done the impossible over and over. We harnessed electricity. We perfected the train, invented automobiles and airplanes, computers and the internet. We went to the moon and split an atom. We did great things when history brought us to the point where we could do it. Now history has brought us to a point where we actually can end poverty, make education and health care available to everyone, and finally come to accept that the whole red and yellow, black and white was much ado about melanin.

I’m willing to sign on to the myth of America’s greatness, I just think it is a future goal to be obtained rather than a past state of inequality to be recovered.

Dr. Roger Ray

And the great thing about this myth is that you don’t have to be convinced because you already know in your hearts that I am right.

Rev Roger Ray

The Emerging Church