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Zirpoli: Honor John Lewis, not Columbus as we come to grips with our unabridged history l COMMENTARY

When I was an elementary school student we were taught that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America. This information was presented as if the “new land” didn’t already have people living there for thousands of years.

Somewhere later in the textbook, we would begin to read about people, now known as Native Americans, who were getting in the settlers’ way and doing bad things to them. My teachers never explained to us that these Native Americans had been living here for thousands of years before Columbus came along and that this was their home.

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We curiously referred to them as “settlers,” yet Columbus and the others who followed were invaders from Europe and other places across the Atlantic Ocean. They brought diseases that the Native Americans had no natural defenses for, they drove the Native Americans from their homeland, enslaved many others, and killed any Native Americans who got in their way or tried to protect their land from the white invaders. Yet, it was the Native Americans who were always portrayed as the aggressors, and this was reinforced in hundreds of Hollywood movies.

I never learned this horrible history in elementary school.

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Instead, I was taught to be proud that, as a fellow Italian, Christopher Columbus was a hero. After all, he “founded” America.

The same is true for the history of slavery in America, the history of the civil rights movement, the history of Black lynching, and so many other inconvenient truths that are part of the history of the United States, but were never taught in American History courses back in the day.

The story of Columbus is one of many historical cover-ups of white European writers who wrote uplifting stories of exploration and discovery, not actual history. I remember my older sister telling me during a visit home from college that I would learn some real history later in my educational experience. This was the first time I ever suspected that my school curriculum was inaccurate and incomplete.

The history I learned was a whitewash, told and written per the perspective of white European invaders, who had good reason to leave out the perspective of the Native Americans and African Americans whose lives they sacrificed so they could prosper.

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Needless to say, attending college was an awakening as I read about the slave ships where people were valued less than livestock, and how they were treated and have been treated since their kidnapping from their homeland, from their families, from their lives as a free people.

My dad used to tell me that “the more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know.” The more I learn about the birth of our nation, the more I realize that what I learned was inaccurate and incomplete, at best.

When we have the complete story, if that is ever possible, we learn that having a statue of Columbus in Baltimore is not only an insult to Native Americans but an insult to the values outlined in our nation’s constitution and Bill of Rights. Columbus and many of our “founders” had ideas that are not congruent with the values of our nation or Constitution.

Perhaps the statue should be replaced with one honoring the thousands of Native Americans who were killed so that we could have a place to live? Or, we could honor true American heroes like Congressman John Lewis who, unlike Columbus, worked for social justice and equality for all, and was willing to protest and fight for those rights, even in the face of police brutality.

Lewis would be a better example of an American to honor than all those Confederate statues, mostly erected between 1910 and 1920, of men who enacted numerous laws to disenfranchise Black Americans.

History had nothing to do with the erection of over 700 Confederate statues in America; it was all about reminding Black Americans that the war over slavery was not over. These statues honor people who went to war against our nation, promoted slavery and preached continued mastery over Black people. Clearly, our nation has better heroes to honor, like Lewis and dozens like him.

Our nation was forged by protests and conflicts which continue today that challenge the inaccurate and incomplete history we learned as children. As adults, coming to grips with our history, the unabridged version, is a first step to becoming a stronger and more just nation.

Tom Zirpoli is the program director of the Human Services Management graduate program at McDaniel College.  His column appears Wednesdays. Email him at tzirpoli@mcdaniel.edu.

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