We shape our heroes, and then they shape us. That’s why we have a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, after all. We want to instill a reverence for racial equality and peaceful, nonviolent protest in both ourselves and in the generations that follow us. It’s a worthy, universal aspiration to create national heroes to venerate and draw inspiration from.
Which is why it’s utterly absurd that we have a day devoted to Italian explorer and indigenous mass murderer Christopher Columbus.
Schoolchildren are taught that Columbus braved the violent North Atlantic seas and heroically landed in the New World, opening up the vast lands for European colonization. From that was born the United States of America, the greatest country in human history and the last best hope for democracy on Earth. Worth celebrating, right?
But most teachers usually leave out Columbus’ darker aspects. Under his rule of Hispaniola as colonial governor, Columbus’ policies killed thousands of indigenous peoples and enslaved many more with impunity. His actions set the precedent for brutal Spanish colonial rule that would guide European colonization of the New World for generations to come — with implications that would last well into the present day.
As if this weren’t enough, Columbus didn’t even really discover America; you can’t “discover” something if millions of people already live there. Nor was he the first European to set foot in the New World! That honor goes to Scandinavian explorer Leif Eriksson, who helped settle a Viking colony in the New World in the 11th century. It’s like celebrating Buzz Aldrin for being the first man on the Moon while simultaneously ignoring Aldrin’s legacy of slaughtering and enslaving the native lunar inhabitants.
It’s clear to me that we need a new mid-October holiday, so I set about scanning the historical record. My first impulse was to celebrate John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, which began on October 16th, but I tabled that one after realizing his birthday would be preferable (which, unfortunately, isn’t in October). Fortunately, a far better option soon presented itself, one that preserves a celebration of immigration without glorifying the horrors of colonial oppression.
Picture it: Princeton, New Jersey. The date: October 17th, 1933. As Adolf Hitler takes power in Nazi Germany, a man flees the hatred and persecution now coursing through the Old World’s veins and takes refuge in the New. His generation is replete with brilliant scientific minds, but in both scientific discovery and raw intellect, he already towers as far above them as they tower above a kindergartner. In six years, he would write a letter alerting Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Nazi atomic bomb program; in eleven years, he would call for the abolition of nuclear weapons and become a symbol of peaceful scientific progress for the benefit of all humanity.
He is Albert Einstein, the greatest scientist of our age. He changed our understanding of the universe just by thinking about it. He lent his global fame to the fight for African-American civil rights in the age of segregation and lynching. He advocated for world peace as a tangible goal instead of just an abstract ideal. Einstein symbolizes everything America could be and should be and must be: a refuge for the oppressed and the exiled, a beacon for freedom and justice, and a vibrant center of human and scientific achievement.
So happy Albert Einstein Day, everyone! Thank you to all the immigrants who have made America great!