Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Monday, October 10, 2011

Occupy Columbus Day

As a kid of an immigrant family growing up in a "mill town" of Massachusetts, I loved Columbus Day.

For us, it represented how this country was built by the very immigrants whom "the landed gentry" now held in disdain. As if we weren't "worthy" enough to call ourselves "Americans" because we didn't come from the UK and the ink on some of our passports and visas hadn't completely dried.

We didn't have the "seniority" - a concept my labor-union organizing family understood. Which is why so many of us second and third generation immigrant Americans felt - and still feel - the burden and the challenge of bearing the hopes of The Great American Dream held deep in the hearts of our parents and grandparents.

Prince Henry the Navigator
So, we rejoiced with our Italian neighbors and celebrated our own "Great Portuguese Navigators" like Prince Henry the Navigator, whose statue sat at the intersection of Eastern Ave. and Pleasant Street in my home town of Fall River, MA.

My family joined hundreds of other Portuguese immigrant families who reverently placed flowers at the foot of his statue every Columbus Day as well as any other major Feast Day in the Roman Catholic Church.

My father would always tip his hat at Prince Henry as he drove by on his way from picking up some linguica or chourico sausage, or, perhaps some freshly fried and sugar-sprinkled malasada from the bakery. Tipping his hat was the same gesture of respect he used when he drove by a Roman Catholic Church or passed a woman on the street.

The history books I read in school, which were reinforced by the Roman Catholic Church of my youth, supported the idea of "Manifest Destiny" and the attendant notion of "rugged individualism"  that, I was told, "made this country great".

My real education, however, began one Columbus Day weekend, with an unexpected outburst of anger from a classmate of mine in nursing school.

Her name was Carol. She was the not the first but the only African American woman at St. Anne's Hospital School of Nursing where I attended. She was a senior which you could tell because she was allowed to wear white stockings and her white nurses cap which had three, thin 1/4 inch stripes of blue velvet. She would earn her "real" nurse's cap - a large, thick 3-inch band of black velvet across the width of her cap - after graduation.

I was yet a "probie" - in the first six months of my nurse's training - and wore no cap to crown my pale blue sack of a uniform, over which was a crisply starched white pinafore with equally starched white collar and white cuffs on my sleeves. As a "probie", we also wore black stockings, which would be traded in during a solemn "Capping Ceremony" in the hospital chapel for white stockings and a white cap with one, thin 1/4-inch blue velvet stripe. (Juniors were easily detectable by the two thin 1/4-inch stripes of blue velvet on their caps.)

Where there was rank, there was order. Sort of like the military. We all knew our place. 

Several of us were pooling gas money to take a ride to Newport, RI, to drive in the sparkling October afternoon along the 12-mile drive of mansions along the ocean, and then hit all the bars and pubs in the city, maybe getting a few sailors who were on "shore leave" from the Naval Yard nearby to buy us some drinks if we flirted and giggled with them.

Poster by Marty Two Bulls, Sr.
Carol came into the lounge and someone asked her if she'd like to join us. Carol was a fairly quiet and very serious young woman. Smart. All A's. A great clinician with excellent diagnostic skills. A real favorite of the nuns.

The word about her was that she had "not been allowed" admission to medical school. Some of us believed that was because she was a woman. None of us said what we really knew to be the obvious barrier to her acceptance in one of the prestigious medical schools in Boston.

If we didn't talk about race, it didn't exist.

Carol demurred from our invitation, saying she was going to catch up on some sleep and maybe visit her family on Cape Cod.

Someone said, "Hey, c'mon, Carol. Give yourself a break. Come with us and have some fun."

Carol continued to demure until someone said, "What kind of American are you? This is a holiday that celebrates the discovery of America! Remember The Nina, The Pinta and the Santa Maria!" Someone started to sing, "In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue!" And we all sang along, accompanied by gales of giggles and high spirits.

Carol had her back turned, leaning over the stove where the water she was boiling for her tea was starting to steam. So was she.

Suddenly, she turned around and, to our great surprise, the Carol we knew - and secretly admired and wanted to be closer to but she wouldn't allow it - was no longer there.

The calm, quiet, thoughtful, graceful, "nice girl" Carol seemed to have disappeared. In her place was an angry young woman, eyes flaring, who raised her voice in a mixture of anger and frustration and sarcasm and pain and said, "Discovered America? 'Discovered' America? How great an accomplishment is it to 'discover' something that was already there?"

We were all stunned into silence as she continued, "And, what did he 'discover'? Native American people whom he stupidly called 'Indians' because the idiot thought that by going west from Portugal he could actually find a shorter route to Asia where he could bypass "The Silk Road" which had been closed by the collapse of the Mongol Empire and the rise of the Ottoman Empire."

I remember thinking, "What is she talking about? I took history in high school, too. I never heard about 'The Silk Road'. And, what has Christopher Columbus got to do with the Mongol or Ottoman Empires?" I made a mental note to check out what it was she was saying.

"And then," she said, "Columbus 'discovered' the First People and tried to make them just like Europeans. But first, he took their land. And, enslaved them. Other Europeans would follow the "Doctrine of Discovery" which he laid out and continued to take their land because it was the White European "Manifest Destiny"."

"And then," she continued without seeming to take a breath, "other White Europeans would take my people - MY PEOPLE - from Africa and enslave them to work the land that they had stolen from the Indigenous People."

"So," she concluded, "go ahead and celebrate Columbus. Go ahead and drive by mansions in Newport that were built on the backs of slavery and colonialism and  the post-colonialism that still persist today.  But, know this. What you're really celebrating is GREED. Human greed that justifies slavery and colonization in the name of progress and 'discovery' and 'adventure'. "

Carol turned her back to us as we stood in silence as she prepared her tea. When she turned around again, suddenly, Carol was back. Composed and confident. "Have a nice day, ladies," she said as she smiled and returned to her room.

You could have cut the silence in the room with a knife. As I remember, we all quietly disbursed for about twenty or thirty minutes before finding our way back again into the lounge to plan our trip, but this time, the mood was much more subdued - and, remained so for the rest of the day.

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce
It would be years before I would read about "The Doctrine of Discovery" and what that did to the nations of The First People.  I wept the first time I read Chief Joseph's 1879 address at Lincoln Hall in Washington, DC. I weep at them today:
"Too many misinterpretations have been made; too many misunderstandings have come up between the white men and the Indians. If the white man wants to live in peace with the Indian he can live in peace. There need be no trouble. Treat all men alike. Give them the same laws. Give them all an even chance to live and grow.

All men were made by the same Great Spirit Chief. They are all brothers. The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it. You might as well expect all rivers to run backward as that any man who was born a free man should be contented penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases.

If you tie a horse to a stake, do you expect he will grow fat? If you pen an Indian up on a small spot of earth and compel him to stay there, he will not be contented nor will he grow and prosper. I have asked some of the Great White Chiefs where they get their authority to say to the Indian that he shall stay in one place, while he sees white men going where they please. They cannot tell me.

I only ask of the Government to be treated as all other men are treated. If I cannot go to my own home, let me have a home in a country where my people will not die so fast.

When I think of our condition, my heart is heavy. I see men of my own race treated as outlaws and driven from country to country, or shot down like animals.

I know that my race must change. We cannot hold our own with the white men as we are. We only ask an even chance to live as other men live. We ask to be recognized as men. We ask that the same law shall work alike on all men. If an Indian breaks the law, punish him by the law. If a white man breaks the law, punish him also.

Let me be a free man, free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to talk, think and act for myself — and I will obey every law or submit to the penalty.

Whenever the white man treats the Indian as they treat each other then we shall have no more wars. We shall be all alike — brothers of one father and mother, with one sky above us and one country around us and one government for all. Then the Great Spirit Chief who rules above will smile upon this land and send rain to wash out the bloody spots made by brothers' hands upon the face of the earth. For this time the Indian race is waiting and praying. I hope no more groans of wounded men and women will ever go to the ear of the Great Spirit Chief above, and that all people may be one people.
Sounds like something we've heard before, doesn't it?

"Jesus looked up to heaven and said: ‘I do not pray for my disciples alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me because of their word, that all may be one as you Father are in me, and I am in you.” (John 17: 20-21)"

Frederick Douglass said, "Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property exist."

Sojourner Truth said, "We do as much, we eat as much, we want as much," and asked, "And, ain't I a woman?"

Martin Luther King, Jr., said, "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."

My long-ago classmate, Carol, made all those connections long before I did. I find myself grateful for her anger. Grateful for the courage she had to express her anger. Grateful that her anger started me on the journey to understand the effects of slavery and how the effects of colonialism affected my immigrant family and my own post-colonialist mindset. 

Some of you reading this will sigh and point to evidence of the fact that I am just another "bleeding heart liberal," and how I'm spoiling all the fun of this holiday.

I'm not trying to spoil anyone's 'fun'. Well, wait a minute. Strike that. Yes, I am. Especially if your 'fun' is had at the expense of the ignorance of the true story - the 'history' - of this country.

To quote Chief Joseph, "You might as well expect all rivers to run backward" as that I - or any person - should enjoy the freedoms we know without being mindful of how the freedom of others were - and continue to be - compromised or denied so that we might "enjoy" the freedom we have.

Part of the "Occupy Wall Street" Manifesto
Which is why "Occupy Wall Street" makes more and more sense to me as this movement grows day by day and is sweeping the nation.

A friend sent me this link to an essay by Dante Atkins in the Daily Kos which, I think, sums up what I'm feeling this Columbus Day:
The legions in New York and across the country do not protest wealth; they do not hate success. Rather, they object to those who extract value through predation (plundering, marauding) rather than contribute value through innovation and creativity.
You know. Just like the greed that inspired Christopher Columbus to "discover" America in 1492.

We have much yet to discover about the true story of this country, which will help to set the history straight. The Episcopal Church has repudiated The Doctrine of Discovery and has urged the U.S. government to endorse the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

You can see a good video of it by clicking this link.

It's a good start, but it's just that:  a start. 

Why not consider spending at least a bit of today on your own "discovery"? Teach your children. And, your grandchildren.

Perhaps we can transform Carol's righteous, justifiable anger into passion to right the wrongs of the past. Perhaps we can transform the understandable despair of the First People of this Nation into the hope of the "Patriot's Dreams".

This Columbus Day, let's turn The Doctrine of Discovery on its side so we may  Occupy the Truth of our Story.

Some of us still hold this truth as self-evident: Until all are free, no one is free.


Brother David said...

Yes, many of us in the New World live with the consequences of white European greed. Now take these same thoughts and apply it to what the white European world allowed the Israelis to do to the Palestinians in just the last century to assuage their guilt about the Holocaust.

Nothing has been learned. Nothing has changed.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Oh, God, Br. David. It's comments like that which make me think the Calvinist have it right.

LVTfan said...

So how do we live together, in justice and with widely-shared prosperity, without victimizing each other or relying on privileges ("private laws" which benefit some at the expense of others)?

The best answers I know of come in the writings and speeches of Henry George (b. 1839, Philadelphia; d. 1897, NYC), author of "Progress and Poverty" and "Social Problems" -- both online -- and some fine speeches (ditto), including "The Crime of Poverty," "Thou Shalt Not Steal," "Moses" and "Thy Kingdom Come." He spoke to a General Convention of the EC -- in Michigan, I have in mind -- and one of his associates in the Anti-Poverty Society was the Rev. James Otis Sargent Huntington, founder of Holy Cross Monastery, about whom James Keifer wrote a very fine piece, which explains George's ideas as well as anything I've read.

You can read more about Henry George at,, and a newish site,, among others.

George was a mensch, and a wise man (some called him "the prophet of San Francisco," which was where he wrote P&P). I commend his ideas to your attention!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you so much, LVTfan. I will check out those links.

Paul Powers said...

There was really nothing new about what Columbus et al did. Over time, your ancestral homeland was settled/overrun/conquered by indigenous Iberians, Celts, Phoenicians, Romans, Goths and Moors. Substitute Picts for Iberians, Saxons for Goths, and Normans for Moors, and you're describing England. Almost all of us have the blood of both conquerers and conquered, of both oppressors and victims, running to our vein. Welcome to the messy human race!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Paul - I know you don't mean this but I have to say it anyway: History is not an excuse to continue the mistakes of the past into the future.

Paul Powers said...

I don't disagree, especially with respect to Europeans bringing Africans to the Americas as slaves. There's no way to pretend it was anything but evil. And if you want to talk about oppression of racial minorities today (as well as blatant disregard even today of treaty obligations to Native Americans), I'm with you all the way. And while I will also agree that European exploration and settlement in the New World has resulted in a whole lot of human suffering, on the whole, I don't regret that Columbus reached the New World.

wv= blody

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I'm glad I'm here in America too. I just wish the history could have been better than I imagine the future will be.