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BEATTS ME!

It's Oppressor of New World Peoples Day

October 11, 1998|ANNE BEATTS | Anne Beatts is a writer who lives in Hollywood

Monday is Columbus Day one of those gray-area borderline is-it-or-isn't-it holidays. Some Americans--people in banks, postal workers and schoolchildren--get the day off. Yet for others it's simply a day for discovering that not only is the check not in the mail there isn't any mail for the check not to be in, and even if you had the check there isn't any way for you to deposit it. (From now on when I say "you" I will mean "I" although at other times "you" will also mean "you." Is that clear? No? Talk to my lawyer David Kendall).

When I was a schoolchild myself, way back in the dim, misty eons of a time before VCRs, cell phones or (gasp!) color TV, the historic figure of Christopher Columbus loomed large in my consciousness. I spent most of fourth-grade art class working on a construction paper series, employing the full palette of the 48-crayon Crayola box, depicting Columbus' adventures.

There was Columbus aboard ship dramatically searching the empty horizon with a spyglass, Columbus arriving in the New World, and of course, Columbus and Queen Isabella, who, as I recall, was wearing a gorgeous outfit encrusted with emeralds, diamonds and pearls. (It wasn't often in those days that you got to draw female historical figures, so I figured why not make the most of it? I was already looking forward to Pocahontas.)

Of course, back then nobody ever raised the issue that there might have been some people to whom the so-called New World wasn't all that new: the people who were living there already. In the white-European-male-dominated universe that was fourth grade in Millbrook, N.Y., in the '50s, Columbus was unequivocally a hero.

Nowadays we know that, in fact, he was a sexist, racist oppressor whose accidental landfall resulted in the subjugation and, in some instances, the extermination of native peoples--and worse yet, he was played in the most recent movie by a seriously overweight Gerard Depardieu, who isn't even Italian--yet every year we still celebrate his accomplishment.

In New York City, Columbus is commemorated annually by a traffic-snarling parade, oppressing any native New Yorkers trying to get uptown in a cab, and incidentally giving young Italian American males yet another reason to shave and dye their heads like red-white-and-green soccer balls.

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Here in staid, repressed L.A., the melting pot that didn't melt, the day appears to pass without incident--although I admit I've never experimented to see what would happen to someone who tried standing at any major intersection screaming out, New York-style, "Kiss me, I'm Italian" while waving a 40-ounce bottle of Miller's.

There's a movement afoot to change the name of this holiday to "Discoverers Day," maybe on the theory of spreading the blame around, sort of the way those early "discoverers" did with VD and smallpox. But what will that give us but another ho-hum holiday with nothing good to crayon? We lost the image of George and his little hatchet and the cherry tree when Washington's and Lincoln's birthdays morphed into the bland Presidents Day. Now they're about to take away the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. Not to mention Queen Isabella and her potential for snazzy outfits.

Don't get me wrong. I have no illusions about the Conquest of the Americas, or the Depressing Time When Yellowhair Came And Killed Lots Of Us And Took Our Land, or whatever you want to call it. When one bunch of people tries to come along and occupy the same space already occupied by another bunch of people, it inevitably gets ugly. I see this all the time with my cats. They just won't both fit into that little space next to the refrigerator. And you should hear the fuss they kick up, but they're both so adorably cuuuute--OK, where was I? Yes.

It gets especially ugly when the people doing the discovering have guns and armor and the people being discovered don't. Unlike in Vietnam, there was no need to "bomb them back to the Stone Age"--most of the inhabitants of North America were already living in the Stone Age.

Even the Aztecs, sophisticated as they were when it came to calendars and human sacrifice, didn't have the wheel. So aside from that little contretemps involving some overreaching by Gen. Custer, it was pretty clear who was going to end up living on reservations and who was going to be making them at Spago.

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When I was little, I felt strongly empathetic toward the Native American people, despite my enthusiasm for Columbus. (This ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in my head at the same time demonstrates either my early maturity or my fitness to be president.) When well-meaning grown-ups patted me on the head and kindly asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, "An Indian."

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