Christopher Columbus: The Heroification of a Mass Murderer

In most American history classrooms, children are taught that in 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and “discovered America.”  In this narrative, Columbus is portrayed as an adventurous explorer and a national hero.  It is a narrative that is profoundly romanticized and even mythical, yet despite the historical records and accounts of Columbus’s heinous crimes against indigenous peoples, he is still glorified and honored in American history and culture.

Heroificiation, as defined by author James W. Loewen, is a “degenerative process” that distorts reality and transforms “flesh-and-blood individuals into pious, perfect creatures without conflicts, pain, credibility, or human interest.”  Christopher Columbus represents but one example in human history where an individual responsible for some of the most dreadful atrocities in our human history is molded into a savior-like figure and commemorated with a national holiday.  It is disturbing how most American schoolchildren learn from history teachers and textbooks to not only venerate Columbus, but also to recite poems, sing songs, and perform in romanticized reenactments about his arrival to the Americas.  These praises, accompanied with “Columbus Day” celebrations and parades, grossly gloss over the horrors of American Indian genocide initiated by Columbus’s expeditions.

American public schools rarely discuss Columbus’s atrocities. As Corine Fairbanks points out:

Recently, Roberta Weighill, Chumash, shared that her third grade son disagreed with his teacher about the Columbus discovery story and added that he knew Columbus to be responsible for the deaths of many Native people.  The public teacher corrected him: “No. Columbus was just a slave trader.” Hmmm, just a slave trader? Oh! Is that all?

American history textbooks paint Columbus as a hero by treating his voyages into the “oceanic unknown” as exceptional and unique, as if he was the only explorer who ever journeyed to the Americas.  Aside from the fact that indigenous peoples already lived in the land we now call the United States and weren’t waiting to be “discovered,” Columbus was not the first to set sail to the Americas.  In his book, “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” Loewen provides a chronological list of expeditions that reached the Americas prior to Columbus, including explorers from Siberia, Indonesia, Japan, Afro-Phoenicia, Portugal, among other countries.  Most of the eighteen high school history textbooks surveyed by Loewen omit the factors that prompted Columbus’s voyage in the first place: social change in Europe, advancement in military technology, use of the printing press – which allowed information to travel faster and further into Europe – and the ideological and theological rationalization for conquering new land.   For example, Columbus’s greed and pursuit of gold in Haiti is either extremely downplayed or absent in textbooks.  Columbus himself aligned amassing wealth with salvation, writing:  “Gold is most excellent; gold constitutes treasure; and he who has it does all he wants in the world, and can even lift souls up to Paradise.”  Accompanying Columbus on his 1494 expedition to Haiti was Michele de Cuneo, who wrote the following account:

After we had rested for several days in our settlement it seemed to the Lord Admiral that it was time to put into execution his desire to search for gold, which was the main reason he had started on so great a voyage full of so many dangers.

In elementary school, I remember learning that Columbus was peaceful to the indigenous people, who were in turn friendly and welcoming of the Spaniards.  If anything was mentioned about war, it was always presented as, “There were good people and bad people on both sides.”  Such an explanation shamelessly ignores the fact that “over 95 million indigenous peoples throughout the Western hemisphere were enslaved, mutilated and massacred.”  The myth that Native Americans and Europeans were equally responsible for gruesome brutality was also reinforced in Disney’s animated feature, “Pocahontas.”  The film placed Native American resistance and European violence on the same plane, i.e. the extremists on “both sides” made it bad for those who wanted peace, and colonialist domination and power was not a contributing factor to any form of resistance from the Natives.  This distortion of history often likes to behave as sympathetic to Native Americans, but what it actually does is consistently depict them as “inferior” and “backwards,” while lionizing European colonizers and settlers, as well as constructing a history that is complimentary to the nationalism and pro-Americanism preached in most American schools.

I don’t think I would have learned about what Columbus really did if I didn’t start reading about Islamic history, which, too, was either ignored or vilified (especially during lessons on the Crusades) in my history classes.  1492, the same year Columbus sailed to the Americas, was also the year of the Spanish Inquisition, when Jews and Muslims were forced to convert or leave the country.  The Catholic reconquest of Spain – the Reconquista – by King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella heightened interest in expanding European Christian domination, which led to their eventual agreement to sponsor Columbus’s voyage.

Upon his arrival to the Bahamas, Columbus and his sailors were greeted by Arawak men and women.  Columbus wrote of them in his log:

They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned… They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… . They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

Worth noting is how Columbus’s description of the Arawak correlates with his sense of European entitlement and superiority.  In several accounts, he praised the Arawak and other indigenous tribes for being hospitable, handsome, and intelligent, but not without saying they would make “fine servants.”  When Columbus justified enslavement and his wars against the Natives, he vilified them as “cruel,” “stupid,” and “a people warlike and numerous, whose customs and religion are very different from ours.”

It is also important to understand the genocide of indigenous people could not have been possible without racism and sexual violence. Indigenous scholar and feminist-activist Andrea Smith cites Ann Stoler’s analysis of racism to illustrate the relationship between sexual violence and colonialism: “Racism is not an effect but a tactic in the internal fission of society into binary opposition, a means of creating ‘biologized’ internal enemies, against whom society must defend itself.”  Racism marks the “other” as “inherently dirty,” and subsequently “inherently rapable.”  For this reason, Smith argues that sexual violence is a weapon of patriarchy and colonialism, as opposed to being a separate issue altogether:

Because Indian bodies are “dirty,” they are considered sexually violable and “rapable,” and the rape of bodies that are considered inherently impure or dirty simply does not count. For instance, prostitutes are almost never believed when they say they have been raped because the dominant society considers the bodies of sex workers undeserving of integrity and violable at all times. Similarly, the history of mutilation of Indian bodies, both living and dead, makes it clear that Indian people are not entitled to bodily integrity.

Sexual violence and degradation of Native bodies is evident in how Columbus used Taino women as sex slaves and sexual rewards for his men.  Columbus profited off of sex-slave trade by exporting them to other parts of the world.  In fact, most of his income came from slavery.  In 1500, he wrote to a friend:  “A hundred castellanoes (a Spanish coin) are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten (years old) are now in demand.”

During an online conversation, some defended Columbus by arguing he was only carrying out the “norms of his time.” Justifying Columbus’s actions by the “standards” of his time, or through historical moral relativism, is problematic, not only because it dismisses genocide, sex slavery, and land theft, but also because it suggests there are overall honorable traits about Columbus and that he should be commemorated.  For instance, Bartolome de las Casas, the Spanish-born Dominican Bishop of Chiapas, witnessed and documented the horrors of Columbus’s subjugation, enslavement, and massacre of indigenous people. He is often quoted for writing:

What we committed in the Indies stands out among the most unpardonable offenses ever committed against God and humankind and this trade [in American Indian slaves] as one of the most unjust, evil, and cruel among them.

In numerous accounts, de las Casas reports about Columbus commanding his men to cut off the legs of children who would run away; about Spaniards hunting and killing Natives for sport; about colonialists testing the sharpness of their blades on living, breathing Native bodies; about Columbus’s men placing bets on who would cut a person in half in a single sweep of their swords. De las Casas wrote:  “Such inhumanities and barbarisms were committed in my sight as no age can parallel. My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature that now I tremble as I write.”

[UPDATE 10/13/2014] It is important to note that by no means am I romanticizing de las Casas here nor would I suggest that Columbus Day should be replaced with “Bartolomé Day,” as this well-intentioned, though extremely problematic essay on The Oatmeal advocates. As Tria Andrews writes in her brilliant critique of the essay:

Although “Christopher Columbus was awful” is perhaps well intentioned, the logics guiding the essay’s trajectory are nevertheless harmful to Indigenous peoples, whose own struggles for recognition and sovereignty are entirely excluded from the discourse, and African Americans, whose enslavement and humanity are superficially gestured to, but ultimately ignored.

The essay is flawed in its inability to understand that there is no need to substitute Columbus Day with “bart-oh-low-may-day,” since Indigenous People’s Day, an international event of counter-resistance to Columbus Day, already exists.

Andrews points out that de las Casas “himself was a slave owner and temporarily supported the enslavement of African Americans.” Although de las Casas’s views changed over time, his advocacy of indigenous rights and ending slavery was motivated by his desire to “convert and baptize the ‘heathen’ Indians.”  In his debate with Juan Gines de Supulveda, who argued that the Natives were “barbarians” and predisposed to slavery, de las Casas argued that they were intelligent and capable of attaining salvation in Christianity without coercion.

Andrews points out that when we recognize the brutal atrocities of Columbus, but then praise another colonial figure, this “reinforces the false notion that Indigenous peoples need outsiders as protectors.” When people celebrate figures like de las Casas as “champions” of human rights, what does it say about the voices of Native Americans, especially those who live today and continue to struggle against genocide? In her conclusion, Andrews states:

Although de las Casas’s personal and political transformations are important, the solution to the violence of Columbus Day is far more complex than replacing Columbus Day with de las Casas Day. If mainstream histories view de las Casas as “one of the first advocates for universal human rights,” we might begin by asking who is constructing “universal human rights,” and how? Who has access? And whose perspectives are we foregrounding?

Each year, I hear people make the argument that Columbus and de las Casas cannot be “judged by today’s standards.” When these arguments are made, we need to seriously question and challenge what “today’s standards” are. Inherit in the romantic mythology of Columbus’s heroism is the white supremacist heteropatriarchal imperialism that colonizes, exploits, and unleashes massacres and sexual violence upon people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and in parts of the world like Pakistan where war eerily operates as if there is no war, despite US military presence, airbases, drone assaults, political intervention, etc.  Entire peoples are being vilified, demonized; their histories distorted, omitted; and indigenous peoples continue to resist and struggle against ongoing genocide that seeks to exterminate them. It is the logic of genocide, as Smith reminds us, that insists Native peoples must fade into nonexistence. War criminals are still glorified; war crimes are still justified; inhumane practices against humanity are still occurring.

The Reconsider Columbus Day effort challenges the status quo, not just for the sake of restoring dignity and honesty to human history, but also for eradicating tyranny, colonialism, and imperialism that exists in the present.  When American schoolchildren are taught to identify with Columbus, they are aligning themselves with an oppressor and making a racial distinction between “us” and “them.”   The point of dismantling the way we celebrate and honor Columbus goes beyond exposing Columbus’s personality, it’s about taking responsibility for the ways we are complicit in reinforcing the logic of genocide. It’s about decolonizing ourselves in order to bring about radical, revolutionary change to society.

Decolonize for the sake of today, and for the sake of tomorrow.

Eradicate Masculinity

Advocating for the eradication of masculinity is not reactionary, nor is it self-hatred.  It is a diligently honest and critical examination of the fundamental concept and construct of masculinity, how it is defined, particularly in mainstream North American societies, and how its normalization in daily life and culture is interrelated with homophobic, sexist, racist, classist, and oppressive social structures in white heteropatriarchal capitalist states.  Abolishing masculinity is not anti-male, nor is it about extermination of all heterosexual men.   It is a bold struggle for radical personal and societal transformation; for vigorous rejection and elimination of harmful and dangerous social norms that are interlocked with oppressive forces in society.

Speaking from the perspective of a heterosexual Pakistani Muslim-American man, there is a lot to analyze and discuss about the way I have seen masculinity, sexism, homophobia, racism, and Islamophobia function in my life and my surroundings.  It is impossible to cover the details in this post alone about how complex and intertwined these oppressive systems are, but I want to emphasize that being a man of color and a Muslim in post 9/11 white supremacist patriarchy obviously makes my experience different than white non-Muslim men and women from privileged race and class backgrounds.  Most of the literature I have read so far about masculinity centers on the experiences of non-Muslim white men, with occasional mentioning of some men of color.  Though there certainly is a lot of overlapping in the way sexist socialization influences and affects men in our society, other forms of oppression rank men, like men of color, differently on the social hierarchical ladder.

Very little has been studied about the way masculinity surfaces and operates among Muslim men who have grown up in North America.  At some point, research in this field will enable us to grasp a richer understanding of how masculinity is conceptualized and socialized for Muslims in North America, but for now, I will speak mostly from my experiences and observations.

Dominant conceptions of masculinity and manhood in North America are profoundly shaped by sexism and homophobia.  This means men are socialized by sexism and participate in sexist ideology, even passively or unknowingly.   At an early age, boys are taught to be anti-female.  For a male to behave in any manner that is generally perceived as “feminine” is to be stigmatized by others, especially male peers, because the worst insults for boys and men are designed to deprive him of his “manhood.”  If a boy or man is not aggressive, dominant, tough, athletic, unemotional, sexually aggressive in the heterosexual context, he cannot be a “real man.”  He is a “coward,” “sissy,” “pussy,” “faggot,” “gay;” a “girl,” a “homosexual.”  Inherent in these insults are the extremely sexist and homophobic ideas, stereotypes, and mores in our society. Any man who has resisted to “acting feminine” or “acting gay” has been both a participant and victim of the ruling masculine culture.

It is because masculinity teaches us to be powerful, dominant, in control, defensive, and violent – literally and metaphorically violent, as radical feminist-activist and author Robert Jensen describes it.  We cannot show our weaknesses otherwise we will not be accepted in society.  Men of color are even more pressured to assert masculinity because white supremacist culture assigns stereotypes, generalizations, and expectations to their race.  In high school, I remember my personal religious values of being a virgin and restraining from “checking girls out” were ridiculed by my white friends and peers.  The question was always, “Are you gay?” or a harsher variant of that, followed by attacks on my religion/culture being “strict” and “stupid.”  Not only did their remarks attempt to degrade my “manhood,” they also characterized my religion, culture, and race as inferior to theirs.

It surprised me a few years later when a close Muslim male friend told me he was depressed about being a virgin and that he was envious of his non-Muslim male friends who had sexual experiences.   I was surprised because, at the time, my views on Islam and pre-marital sex were very rigid and conventional, i.e. sex before marriage is “forbidden,” and, due to my lack of exposure to other Muslims during my adolescence, I never thought Muslims felt pressured or coerced into having sex, let alone wanted to have sex before marriage.  I now see these realities as complex and recognize the importance for Muslims to engage in an open and honest discussion about pre-marital sex, without dogmatic judgments and stigma.  There are Muslims who have pre-marital sex and make a personal, conscious decision to do so, but my point here is neither a condemnation of that choice or even about pre-marital sex.  In the particular case of my friend, it’s more about the social pressures he felt in losing his virginity and the belief that having sex, not an emotionally intimate relationship, would make him more “masculine” and “manly,” and possibly even serve as a catalyst to “fit in” with his non-Muslim friends.

Jensen and anti-pornography author and feminist Gail Dines boldly argue that we live in a porn culture.  Pornography and the hyper-sexualized images we see in movies, television, magazines, billboard ads, video games, etc. reminds us of our “standing” in the world as women and men.  White men represent the default human being, while women are rendered as sex objects.  The exoticization and sexual objectification of women of color operates in conjunction with racial stereotypes and prejudices, which are perpetuated by mainstream media representations.  Throughout society, this porn culture, which seats white men on the highest throne, sends a very powerful message about masculinity and how men must rule and exercise power – power that Jensen defines as “the ability to make someone do what they would otherwise not do” – not just over women, but over other men as well.   In his book, “Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men,” Michael Kimmel describes the socialization of heterosexual men in porn culture:

“Daily life is filled with beautiful and sexual women everywhere [guys] look – in the dorm, in classes, on the street, at work.  And the Guy Code is playing an endless loop in their heads: ‘Gotta get laid, you’re not a man unless you try for it, keep going, what’s wrong with you?”

Masculinity is a dangerous game that cannot be won.  It is dangerous because it shapes and fuels the ideology of male supremacy which is so deeply connected to imperialism, capitalism, sexual violence, and other oppressions.  In addition to rape and war, there is misogyny, homophobia, dehumanization, racism, and other forms of oppression.  The recent news of 4 teenage males committing suicide in the month of September because of anti-gay bullying and bigotry also exemplifies its danger.  Masculinity cannot be won because it is something that men need to constantly prove.  It is never permanently sustained.  Feminist-activist bell hooks writes:

In patriarchal culture men are not allowed to simply be who they are and to glory in their unique identity. Their value is always determined by what they do.

I admit there are times when I struggle with this and I’m sure a lot of men can relate.  Particularly among South Asian Muslims, there are communal, religious, cultural, and family pressures to prove you are a “real man,” i.e. you have to be confident, fearless, strong, assertive, etc.  There are expectations for South Asian Muslim men to study hard and establish well-paying, respectable jobs to either preserve or boost the image and reputation of their family.  For example, parents who are doctors often want their sons to also be doctors to preserve the prestige of the family (I believe it can apply to daughters too, but my feeling is that the pressures on men are stronger in most cases). Parents who aren’t doctors and have occupations outside of STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) also pressure their sons to establish careers in “respectable” fields, as if to “succeed” where the parents have “failed.”

From an Islamic perspective, Muslim men are taught that a real Muslim man provides and supports his wife and family economically.  This construction of masculinity easily establishes gender role expectations for Muslim men and women.  Muslim men are the breadwinners, while Muslim women stay at home, cook, clean, and raise the children.  I would argue that the growth of Islamophobia can also be linked with masculinity, not only in the way it has been produced by a xenophobic and racist social structure, but also in how we are expected to respond to it.  I remember reading a comment on a forum once where a Muslim reader rightfully felt that the Muslim man interviewed by the network was a poor representative of the community, but then wrongfully said, “We need a man to speak for us.”  A “man” as in a “real man,” someone who knows exactly what to say, knows how to keep his composure, who holds a degree in “debating Islamophobes” and utterly destroys any racist and xenophobic argument that is flung his way.

But it’s not only about the pressures from family, friends, and religious institutions.  Heterosexual men also believe it is necessary to assert their masculinity to impress women.  I’m sure a lot of men can relate to this.  The subject of marriage in the Muslim community always generates a lot of discussion and I think when most Muslim men contemplate marriage, they think about establishing a career, independence, and stability.  Since masculinity is something that always needs to be in operation, it drives us, men, to prove that we are capable of providing for a woman.  If we are unable to do so or struggle with doubts and uncertainties about our self-confidence, we feel like we aren’t good enough.  More precisely, we don’t feel like “real men.”

By talking about the struggles that men experience in patriarchy, it is important to understand that it is in no way greater than the oppression of women and to place the experiences on an equal plane would be irresponsible, inaccurate, and extremely counter-productive.  While it is true that Muslim men and men of color are also stigmatized and oppressed in white patriarchy, it does not excuse the responsibility we have in challenging male supremacy, male privilege, and sexism within our communities.  Briefly touching upon the struggles of men is not to belittle, trivialize, or dismiss the oppression of women, but rather to simply point out the hurt men experience as a result of patriarchy exists.   We have insecurities, we can have body-image problems, we may compete with other men or may feel intimidated by them – men who we think are better-looking, smarter, and physically stronger than us.  We feel this way because we are socialized to view everything in relation to dominance and power; we feel like we need to live up to a standard, even though that standard is about being something no human can be: perfect.  Being “tough” about it doesn’t help.  Masculinity cannot solve these issues for us because it teaches to shield, conceal, act, perform.  We need to vocalize our struggles, talk it out, and communicate.

bell hooks calls male advocates of feminism “comrades in struggle.”  She states that men, too, have a contribution to make to end sexist oppression.  Eradicating masculinity is one of many contributions that we, as men, can make to feminist struggle, a struggle that advocates for revolutionary and radical transformation in society as a whole.   I am sure someone will ask, “If you’re talking about the social construction of masculinity, then why not reform masculinity?  Why do we have to eradicate it?”  This is a valid question, but I believe once we transcend beyond the hegemonic conception of masculinity, we come to the realization that there isn’t any personal characteristic or trait that is distinctly “masculine” or “feminine.”  If to be “feminine” is to be compassionate, caring, and Loving, can a man not have those traits as well?  And if to be “masculine,” according to those who argue that there are positive things about “masculinity,” is to be protective, confident, and assertive, is that to say women cannot have those qualities?

These are all characteristics that can be found in any human being.  The label of masculinity takes these traits to another level because it is always dichotomous and in opposition to something – to being a woman, being homosexual, being anything outside the narrow and singular social construction of what it means to be a man.  This is not to say women and men are the same.  We are different physiologically and those physiological factors may contribute to some psychological differences, but these differences are not so conflicting, extreme, or insurmountable that we must close off dialogue and refuse to collaborate with one another.

A world, as Jensen describes, in which “masculinity is shaped by dominance, aggression, conquest, and violence is a world that is unsafe and unsustainable.”  We, men, shouldn’t be afraid or feel threatened to deconstruct the social norms of masculinity and eradicate the way it operates in our daily lives.   The prison of masculinity is tight and suffocating, and it alienates us from embracing our humanity.  It obstructs us from seeing the possibilities, that there is something new within ourselves, something we can create.  Rather than constantly thinking that we have to be prove something to ourselves, to others, and those we Love, let us focus on being good human beings.  Feminist struggle is not to dismiss other issues like racism, classism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and other oppressions.  It recognizes the interlocking nature of oppression and how they all affect us.

With the help of women and men, we can find a transcendent model for humanity – one that teaches us to value each other not as objects, not as labels, not as social constructions, not as expectations, but as complex, multi-dimensional human beings.