As classical musicians, we are faced with the legacy of colonialism almost every day. Our historic musical instruments often contain materials from colonized rain forests and the animals therein (ebony, ivory, pernambuco), and the music itself was often financed with revenues from subjugated lands and peoples. Indeed the very music we hold as our foundation (Handel, Mozart, Lully, Bach) can be seen as the result of an aristocracy bent of gaining territory and subjugating a populace. That’s rather awkward, indeed.
Luckily, most of the composers we hold in esteem were mere employees of a system, even if there is an occasional loudmouth like Richard Wagner who taints his chance of sainthood with racist views. If we can excuse their employment situation when they give us monumental works, we realize that great art extends beyond the reach of unpleasant realities. Yet for the most part, classical musicians are left with the uncomfortable understanding that something good emerged from dubious aristocratic and colonial-era policies.
Luckily with art, it is easy to see beyond the regimes that supported it financially. In fact we can easily come to the conclusion, that great music, literature and art actually transcended the otherwise questionable era of human greed and expansion. While the House of Hanover is left with a dubious legacy, the music of Handel lives on in glory. It would take and several political revolutions, and a Beethoven, to change this paradigm.
There comes a time in every musician’s life where one should question such things, and come to grips with them. The pernambuco wood that makes up my bow, the ivory that adorns older bows and pianos, are relics of an embarrassing past. Yet great music also came from such products. Amazingly, a decision based on possessiveness and control also resulted in great art. Most musicians I know today shun the destruction of the rain forest and wildlife. We have moved on to better choices in the making of our music. We have kept what was good from the past and discarded the undesirable baggage. We have learned to move on.
Which brings me to the real subject of today’s post.
Columbus Day is a sorry excuse for a federal holiday. Last night I witnessed the local Boy Scouts bedecking the neighborhood with U.S. flags. I will not be flying a flag to celebrate Columbus Day. Here are a few reasons:
Today’s national holiday has NOTHING to do with the history of the United States of America. Columbus “discovered” an island in the Bahamas in 1492. In his four voyages, he never reached either continent of the Americas. He died thinking he had sailed to Asia. More time elapsed between 1492 and 1776, than the span from 1776 to the present, 2015. (284 years elapsed between Columbus’s first landing and the writing of the Declaration of Independence. It’s only been 239 years from 1776 until today). In fact, the very founding of the United States of America is based on overthrowing the colonialism that Columbus helped initiate.
Columbus wrote in his diary and later reported to the King and Queen of Spain that the natives would be easily subjugated and exploited. Here are some highlights:
“I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men, and govern them as I pleased.”
“They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion. If it pleases our Lord, I will take six of them to Your Highnesses when I depart, in order that they may learn our language.”
I concede that Columbus’s voyages are an important point in history, something that changed the course of the entire world. But the collateral damage he created in the lives of millions must be denounced. It led to an economy based on extermination of indigenous peoples and the African slave trade. While it is true we live on the other side of that history, I cannot condone celebrating such events. I make the choice to not celebrate such things.
Columbus Day became an official U.S. holiday in April of 1934, the result of pressure by the Knights of Columbus and New York Italian leaders. It was touted as a way to celebrate Italian-American heritage. But by the 1970s, when I remember getting Columbus Day off from school, Italian heritage was never mentioned. Instead we learned a fantasy about the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria. We did not learn that Columbus had the native people killed, raped, maimed and sold into bondage. Rather, Columbus Day was promoted as the first of a line of great explorations, something that predicted the space race that dominated my childhood.
Sadly, 1492 had been appropriated long before it was declared a federal holiday. Columbus Day has often been a ruse to promote specific agendas. During the 400th anniversary in 1892, Columbus Day celebrations were used to teach ideals of patriotism–ideas such as such as citizenship, loyalty to the nation, and celebrating social progress–all things that the colonization of the Americas hardly espoused.
There are some solutions offered to this thorny problem, namely creating an official Indigenous Peoples’ Day and Italian Heritage Day to replace Columbus Day. Certainly, celebrating Italian-American heritage is a good thing. So is the honoring of indigenous people. But neither of these groups should use Columbus Day as a reason to celebrate. They deserve their own days, separated from the carnage and tyranny of the explorer and colonial governor. We have found a way to do this with our great art. We should also do it for others without the deception and lies.
Italian-Americans should celebrate their heritage with the music of Vivaldi, Verdi, Puccini and Respighi. The art of Michelangelo and the literature of Dante is more fitting for praise than a colonial governor who maintained his rule through slavery, torture and dismemberment of native peoples. Similarly, indigenous people should have their own day, not stained by the legacy and resentment of Columbus Day. Their culture, music, food, language, dance, and religion, stands on its own and deserves many days of honor for what it continues to give the world.
According to Wikipedia, Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon, and South Dakota are U.S. states that do not recognize Columbus Day. I urge United States federal government to join their leadership on the issue. It’s time to discard the fantasy and embrace the people and cultures who continue to contribute to this country and world.
Copyright, 2015. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat.
Columbus Day, legacy, history, America, music, classical music, indigenous, colonialism