In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
We all remember that rhyme from elementary school, and as Americans, observed a celebration this week for one of our nation's most legendary heroes, Christopher Columbus. The mythology of the man who defied common thinking, chased his dream, and opened up European trade routes into the New World remains the epitome of all that is American, all that is innovative, and all that is good.
Or does it?
The truth is that after his "discovery" of what he thought to be India, Columbus returned in 1493 with 17 ships and thousands of germ-carrying soldiers who had an affinity for raping women and children and set up what amounted to a theocratic government. A few years of exerting sadistic power over the peaceful Tiano tribes resulted in Columbus and his men initiating one of the most atrocious and widespread genocides in the history of the Western world. By 1496, the indigenous population of the Americas declined from eight million to three million.
But that part of the story doesn't have a nice rhyme to go with it. Which, quite literally, begs the question: If our need for a mythologized history, one that is grossly and erroneously slanted, has created a national holiday which actually celebrates Christopher Columbus, what else have we blindly accepted under the guise of national myth and patriotism? And are those who don't accept our whitewashed myths simply petty, divisive, or — worse — unpatriotic?
The question brings to mind someone who, almost inadvertently, became a national figure this year and played a role in our 2008 presidential election. This would be the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the controversial long-time pastor — now ex-pastor — of Democratic candidate Barack Obama, who disowned Wright several months ago on account of the clergyman's more incendiary statements.
Wright basically became the poster child for "unpatriotic." To say, as he allegedly did, that we deserved 9/11 was an unforgivable statement, especially in the eyes and ears of a public that is just now coming to grips with the fear of terrorism — a fear that the rest of the world has dealt with for centuries.
What did he say that bothered us so much? What foreign and domestic policies have we initiated to stir up such anger from radical Islamists, civil rights activists, and religious leaders who see firsthand the suffering of our nation's disenfranchised and poor citizens? And beyond the admittedly hate-filled rhetoric, on some level, was Wright right? Did we invite, with our aggressive policies in the Third World, what another presidential candidate, the iconoclastic libertarian Ron Paul, would call "blowback?"
Michael Kammen, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor of American cultural history at Cornell University, once said, "We arouse and arrange our memories to suit our psychic needs." Americans, at their core, have a savior complex. We want to save the world from terror and stand, as Ronald Reagan proclaimed, as a shining beacon on a hill. To suggest that we have been or done anything to the contrary is, well, unpatriotic.
But where does myth begin and honesty end, and how do we assure that our international and domestic policies reflect actual integrity rather than imagined greatness? No one wants to live in a fantasy land.
I would venture to say that questioning the established myth of our nation is not only patriotic — it is absolutely vital if we are to learn from our mistakes and create a new chapter that has more honor. There is a difference between blind acceptance and historical fact; the salvation we seek to impart to the world can only be borne through the labor pains of acknowledging the truth — in all of its ugliness. Only then can we move forward and be a nation of truly mythical proportions.
And, in that sense, perhaps the vilified Jeremiah Wright was himself an explorer — typical of those among us who set out to rediscover facts, unpleasant as they are, that are nevertheless worth remembering.
Tonya L. Thompson, a former Memphis City Schools teacher, operates eWriter, Inc.