Examining Columbus and the hateful legacies of Whiteness

As the annual Columbus Day holiday once again comes and goes, I went back and combined some notes from two helpful books that I read in the past few years that continue to challenge and shape my thinking on these issues. I recommend them both to those of you wanting to educate yourself on these challenging issues. The books are The Myth of Equality by Ken Wytsma and Tears We Cannot Stop by Michael Eric Dyson.

This is why Columbus shouldn’t be celebrated and certainly nothing that he did should be considered as a source of inspiration. “The very first thing Columbus described about the new land was the nakedness of its people, and this was done intentionally. According to Thomas Cahill, ‘the nakedness of the people puts them in a category’ -the idea that these people were savages. The European explorers would read a standard text aloud to the curious natives who came out to see the arriving visitors. Of course, the natives couldn’t have understood what was being read.

An example of one such text:’Of all these nations God our Lord gave charge to one man, called Saint Peter, that he should be lord and superior of all the men in the world, that all should obey him…Wherefore, as best we can, we ask and require that you consider what we have said to you…that you acknowledge the Church as the Ruler and Superior of the whole world. But if you do not do this, and maliciously make delay in it, I certify to you, that with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church…we shall take you, and your wives, and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them…and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can…and the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this ARE YOUR FAULT…not ours…’ – The Myth of Equality by Ken Wytsma

Notes from Tears We Cannot Stop by Michael Eric Dyson.

“But the truth is that what so often passes for American history is really a record of white priorities or conquests set down as white achievement. In the end, history is never just what the people who experience it say it is. That’s particularly true if those people are not in power, or if their voices, or their view of things, run counter to what the larger culture thinks is true –in short, what the larger culture thinks is valuable, justifiable, even righteous. The winners, alas, still write history. To say this loud, in this day and age, when whiteness has congratulated itself for its tolerance of other cultures and peoples, is to invite real resistance from white America. My dear friends, please try to understand that whiteness is limitless possibility. It is universal and invisible. That’s why many of you are offended by any reference to race. You believe you are acting and thinking neutrally, objectively, without preference for one group or the next, including your own. You see yourself as colorless until Black folk dump the garbage of race on your heads. At your best moments you may concede that you started the race game, but you swear to the God you love that it is we Black folk who keep it going. You have no idea how absurd that notion is, and yet we have grown accustomed to your defiance of common sense. 

Whiteness has only two modes: it either converts or destroys. My Black body was a thorn in the flesh of whiteness. My very presence as a black man reveled that whiteness was as artificial as the idea of race on which it rested. And so my flesh, my history, my culture, my mind, my tongue, my being had to be removed. 

White or Black identity is nothing without the people and forces that make it true. White and Black folk are bound together, even when we breath very different meanings into race. 

Of course the paradox is that even though whiteness is not real it is still true. I mean true as a force to be reckoned with. It is true because it has the power to make us believe it is real and to punish those who doubt its magic. Whiteness is slick and endlessly inventive. It is most effective when it makes itself invisible, when it appears neutral, human, American.”

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