In fourteen hundred and ninety two…’
October 12 has long been observed as Columbus Day, coinciding with the day that the New World was ‘discovered’ some five hundred years ago. For the last few years, I have been saying we should change it to Neil Armstrong Day. It started as a little joke, one of the random, somewhat humorous off hand remarks I am likely to make.
But every year when the day comes up, or when the Apollo 11 mission gets mention, my resolve grows more serious. I have decided to add to my list of goals, along with a few other personal missions like Standardization of the English Language, the preposterous bucket list I have gathered with little hope of ever achieving, but never-the-less remain adamant and vocal about.
On October 12, 1492 Cristóbal Colón landed in the Bahamas while searching for a new and easier trade route with Asia and the Indian sub-continent. This much is true. The fact that the people who already lived here for thousands of years are still referred to at times as ‘Indians’ attests to his stubborn insistence that he thought he had sailed his way around the world. It didn’t take long to realize that this was not true, yet the ignorant if not offensive misnomer persists.
We were told in school that Columbus ‘discovered’ the Americas, but by now we all know this, also, is not true. Besides discounting the hundreds of thousands, more probably millions of Native Americans already living here, it has recently become generally accepted fact that he wasn’t even the first European to land on the continent. The Norse, The Vikings, specifically Leif Erickson, are currently considered to be the first to make the trip across the Atlantic some five hundred years previous. There are others who cite evidence of the Knights Templar, Irish Monks, The Dutch, The Scottish Freemasons, or the Merovingian French may have made the trip.
But the Natives, the ‘Indians’ as he insisted on calling them to downplay the mistake he had made in navigation or estimating the size of the planet, they were here first. And we know their story does not end well.
For a long time we heard that Columbus himself was not involved in the tragedy and travesty that is the story of the Native Americans after they were ‘discovered’, and he couldn’t be held responsible, in fact that it was wrong to blame him at all for the ultimate genocide that was committed on two continents.
This, we find out, is also not true. Columbus set himself up as Governor of the island he named San Salvador, took natives as slaves, the rest were forced to give up their own ways of life and beliefs and convert to Christianity, or be subject to violence or death.
Why then would we want to celebrate this man?
Indeed, for almost as long as there has been a Columbus Day, there has been protest and sometimes outrage against it. In much of South America it has been renamed as Discovery Day, which still seems like a slap in the face to the people who had already been living here. Other attempts to rename the holiday with politically correct titles and euphemisms has led to Dia de la Raza (‘The Day of the Race’), ‘Hispanity’ Day, and quite a few variations on the theme. It has also been called Day of Indigenous Resistance and Native Americans Day in more recent times. Hawaii is one of a handful of states that do not recognize the holiday, but instead mark a day of observance for the Polynesians who are credited for first landing on the Hawaiian Islands.
So I propose, instead of dragging this stale, immoral, and degrading celebration any further into the future, why not rename it, re-brand it for someone who truly deserves recognition?
On July 21, 1969, as part of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. Almost immediately and ever since, he has been likened as a ‘Modern Day Columbus’, although now I would argue this comparison is an insult to Armstrong’s legacy.
But if anyone is deserving of a Holiday in their honor, truly few can dispute Neil Armstrong.
He did not design or build the Saturn V rocket. He did not invent or collaborate on the hundreds of technological advances that came forth from these missions; many of our modern household devices such as cell phones, computers, navigation devices, and much of the progress made in health care, transportation, internet and communications, nanotechnology and robotics was born from NASA and the moon missions. And it is true, Neil Armstrong was just one man in the mission, the captain of the crew, and the first to step onto an alien surface and proclaim it ‘a giant leap for mankind’, but still just one man among the half million people who worked to make the moon landing possible.
But as a spokesman, as a symbol of the achievement, there really is none more deserving in my opinion. After returning to Earth and making the obligatory rounds; the parades, the interviews, the speeches and such, he quietly slipped back into anonymity. He shrunk away from the spotlight, wishing just to live a normal, quiet life. He famously turned down requests to bask in the glory, to sell out the achievement, to promote his own name, or use this new status to his advantage.
This is why I suggest, a little more vocally and emphatically every year, we rename the day as Neil Armstrong Day, or at the very least Explorers Day.
He was just one man on the team, and indeed everyone involved should be considered a hero in his or her own way. But as a symbol of the achievement, and as the first man to actually step onto a surface that was not Earth, he is a perfect candidate for the honor. For the celebration of what mankind can achieve when we set our minds to it and all pull together and work as a team.
Add to it the fact that he actually achieved what history says he achieved, unless you believe the conspiracy theorists who claim it was done on a Hollywood sound stage, or until we find proof that the Vikings in fact landed there first five hundred years before.
© Robert Emmett McWhorter