“I Am Become Columbus, Destroyer of Worlds”

October 14, 2013

Dióscoro Teófilo Puebla Tolín, First landing of Columbus on the shores of the New World, at San Salvador, West Indies, 1862 (published 1892, Currier& Ives). (Dantadd via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Dióscoro Teófilo Puebla Tolín, First landing of Columbus on the shores of the New World, at San Salvador, West Indies, 1862 (published 1892, Currier& Ives). (Dantadd via Wikipedia). In public domain.

The title kind of says it all, no? On this Columbus Day, 2013, we should all acknowledge this as the beginning of the inadvertent (and frequently deliberate) genocide conducted against the indigenous groups that made up the Western Hemisphere as of October 12, 1492. The day that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America — as if First Nation tribes or Native Americans or American Indians were looking to be discovered — was the first day of more than half a millennium’s worth of physical and psychological assault on the peoples of the Western Hemisphere.

I talk about this in all of my courses — US History, World History (when I get to 1500 CE), and African American History. I describe how this notion of discovery was pretty much invented in the nineteenth century, to create a mythology about the greatness of God-fearing Europeans (and, in the US context, Americans) and their pre-ordained but altruistic triumph over the heathen Indians, those “noble savages.” I go over the fact that the Eurasian diseases that the Spaniards and other Europeans brought with them to the Western Hemisphere wiped out tens of millions of the indigenous between 1492 and 1700. Smallpox, measles, mumps, rubella, bubonic plague, chicken pox all helped reduce a population that experts have estimated to have been between 70 and 100 million at the time of first contact to between seven and 10 million by the end of the seventeenth century.

Drawing accompanying text in Book XII of the 16th-century Florentine Codex (compiled by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, 1540–1585), showing Nahuas of conquest-era Central Mexico suffering from smallpox, September 11, 2009. (Wikipedia). In public domain.

Drawing in Book XII of Florentine Codex (compiled by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, 1540–1585), showing Nahuas of Central Mexico suffering from smallpox, September 11, 2009. (Wikipedia). In public domain.

I talk about Columbus’ second voyage, where he helped establish the first European settlement in what is now Haiti and then in the Dominican Republic, all while searching for gold, enslaving Arawak Indians and engaging in full-fledged battles. Just a year and a half after the first, glorious “discovery!”

The justification, of course, was and often remains that Europeans were civilized Catholic Christians, whereas these half-dressed natives were hedonistic polytheists. Even now, we often get caught up in the human sacrifice rituals of the Maya and Aztecs and somehow use that as justification for exploitation, slavery, and the inadvertent wiping out of whole cultures — worlds, if you will. It’s a justification that should make any believer in a higher power queasy, and any non-believer extremely angry.

I’m disappointed. We still sugarcoat the real meaning of Columbus Day for people of all ages. I began to learn about all of this in fifth grade (thank you, Mrs. O’Daniel), in October ’79. But I didn’t come to know most of the full story until high school. Even then, no one — not Flanagan, Zini or Meltzer — mentioned disease, exploitation, slavery and warfare as the genocidal combination that essentially handed Western Europeans the Western Hemisphere. I guess they either didn’t know or thought that it would be too painful a lesson to teach fourteen-to-eighteen year-olds.

As J. Robert Oppenheimer said in ’65, twenty years after the Manhattan Project’s success in creating the world’s first nuclear bomb, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Well, one doesn’t have to have God-like powers or be a Hindu deity to create large-scale human suffering, as was the case with Columbus. All one really needs is the conviction necessary to treat other humans as if they are only meat with brains and eyes.

Know Food, Know The World

June 4, 2011

Chocolate Cake, Vanilla Icing, 2011. Source: http://www.tastebook.com

I don’t really dedicate much of my blogging to what I do these days, my college teaching work. I guess that I kick up enough dust talking about my Mount Vernon years, my Humanities years, my Carnegie Mellon years, and my former jobs and bosses as it is.

But this is a fairly positive post (mostly, anyway). It about something that I learned recently while teaching one of my World History courses. Something so simple that it’s amazing sometimes how stupid I can be.

I realized one day in discussing the age of exploitation, um, well, exploration that one of the best ways to think about this period — heck, any period in world history, really — begins and ends with one word: food. I’d taught this course a couple of times for University of Maryland University College already. Not to mention having served as a teaching assistant under the great Peter Stearns while a grad student at Carnegie Mellon a decade and a half before (see my “Ego Inflation” post from last month).

German Chocolate Cake, 2011. Source:http://blogs.courier-journal.com. Meet a cake that was never German, but named by an English guy. And, since when do coconuts grow in Europe or the US?

But on that fall evening in ’09, looking at exploration patterns, commerce patterns and the state of the world circa 1600 CE, it hit me how I could just about reorganize every aspect of the way I’d been teaching World History by just looking at how much food has influenced it. Every bite we take, everything we imbibe, has some history attached to it, and with it, stories of bloody conflict, imperial conquest or rare attempts at true humanity and cooperation.

This is about much more than Jared Diamond’s books on the rise and fall of civilizations because of resources and the lack thereof. Commodities like salt, sugar, black pepper and olive oil have all been written about over the past fifteen years. It’s fairly obvious that these spices and other foodstuffs were fundamental in the histories of the Middle East, ancient Greece and Rome, India, Timbuktu and Western Europe over the past 5,000 years.

Still, I’m not really talking about that kind of history, either. It’s more about something as simple as taking a modern dish and using its ingredients to tell a story. Take something like a chocolate cake with vanilla icing. If the ingredients are natural and not ones cooked up at a chemical plant in northern New Jersey, then they’ve come from all over the world. Cocoa, the main ingredient to mix with the flour, is from the cacao plant, which originally from South America, but is primarily produced in sub-Saharan Africa. Sugar’s needed to sweeten it, and though originally from India, has been grown in Florida, Louisiana and in the Caribbean for centuries. One of the main economic drivers for the enslavement of Africans was the European need to rot out their teeth with the stuff.

Vanilla extract or vanilla beans are originally from Mexico and other parts of Central America. But the largest producers of it are Indonesia and especially Madagascar. There’s history in every gram of devil’s food cake with vanilla icing that we eat.

You could do the same thing with a “traditional” Chinese stir-fry. Especially if ingredients like baby corn or

Sweet-and-sour-chicken, 2011. Source: http://www.foodnetwork.com

sweet and sour sauce are added to the mix. That’s because baby corn and tomatoes (the latter the main ingredient in sweet and sour sauce) are both from the Americas, not Asia or Europe. Both arrived in Ming China nearly 500 years ago.

Every dish, whether invented in 2011 CE or 2011 BCE, has a rich story attached to it. From that story, we can all find important patterns in world history, cultural development, domination and destruction within. It may not be the most profound thing I’ve ever stumbled upon. Still, I didn’t get this from Peter Stearns or Jared Diamond. If anything, I might’ve gotten this from Forrest Gump.

Early November

November 8, 2008

I don’t usually have much to say about my life during the month of November. It’s usually been a lackluster month, at least until Thanksgiving. But there are a couple of interesting things to note about early November that have occurred in my life in recent years.

Election Day 2000, Tuesday, November 7, was the day of my first interview with my last full-time employer, a nonprofit organization called AED (aka Academy for Educational Development). I wasn’t exactly euphoric about Gore’s prospects at beating W, but I was hopeful. I brought that sense of hope and optimism with me to my first interview. After a year and a half of working with a small civic education organization that didn’t care very much about education, I was ready for something more in line with my interests in helping others and a better fit for my talents as an educator and thinker. I was blown away by the ambiance of the organization. Its expensive artwork, spacious conference center and conference room, its professional, almost corporate style gave me confidence that I would be a better fit with them than with my employer at the time.

If I’d paid closer attention, I would’ve recognized two or three glaring signs that would’ve warned me against taking a job there. One was my eventual immediate supervisor, who seemed extremely nervous around me. At the time, I took it as him being a generally nervous man. Yet given how often he mentioned his two masters degrees during the interview process, I should have acknowledged that gnawing sense that was forming in the back of my mind. That my doctorate intimidated him. That he had serious qualms about hiring a thirty-year-old Black man with a doctorate and with career accomplishments that were nearly on par with his own. I should’ve recognized this, but didn’t.

I should’ve also known based on the number of indirect questions about it that I was overqualified for the position that I would eventually accept. I assumed that a program officer position was the same everywhere, whether working for AED or the Ford Foundation. That’s what happens when most of your job experience has been with government or in academia. My degree and my years of experience put me at a senior program officer position with the organization, but no one in HR bothered to put it in those direct terms. Given the low salaries of a full-time academic position, a job paying $50K seemed great by comparison.

Then there were the little things that I either didn’t ask or didn’t notice. Like the fact that each project within the organization had as part of their charge the heavy responsibility of sustaining itself. Projects came and went regularly at AED because there was little organizational support for sustainability. I never asked about it. Nor did I ask questions about travel expenses. AED didn’t and doesn’t provide corporate cards, and you have to risk your own credit to get one that’s business-related. I asked about benefits, but not about salary increases. I asked about organizational culture, but didn’t pick up on the fact that most staff of color worked in HR, accounting, facilities and contracts.

When I was offered the position on November 17, I probably should’ve said no. I wanted to do something wonderful, something that had symmetry with my educational background, my interests as an aspiring author and writer, something that would leave me inspired everyday. I wanted to have a job and career that was fulfilling. One of my graduate school mentors was a senior program officer and director of the Spencer Foundation’s Dissertation Fellowship Program at the time. I had the image of that kind of work and that kind of career trajectory when I said yes to my first job at AED. Boy was I wrong! Still, given the circumstances of my work prior to AED, I don’t think I had many options other than to say yes. I just should’ve left much sooner.

Tomorrow marks a year since I tendered my resignation letter to my last supervisor at AED. The letter cites all of the issues I sensed during my first interview in 2000. The lack of job and financial security as being part of an initiative whose money was about to run out. The knowledge that I was hired in a position that was beneath my actual level of experience and expertise. The fact that I had frequently used my own credit and money to pay for business-related travel and expenses. Despite all we face financially right now, it was a good decision for the long-term.

There are other November issues to remember related to money and carving out the best possible future, but those will have to wait.


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