Less than a year out of high school, I was given a book that would rock my world and propel me to question everything I ever learned about US history. It was Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.”
On the very first page, Zinn recounted what Christopher Columbus wrote in his log about the Arawak people he encountered upon reaching the new world: “They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawk’s bells. They willingly traded everything they owned …They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features …They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane …They would make fine servants …With fifty men we could subjugate all of them, and make them do whatever we want.”
Up until that moment, Columbus Day, the second Monday in October, was in my mind always reserved for parades or barbecues — a day to celebrate America’s origins. After reading Zinn’s book, the holiday became something else: a reminder of the conquest, displacement and even the genocidal origins of our nation. This knowledge would compel me to want to know more about — and to even advocate for — our native brothers and sisters who were violently driven off the land that we call home.
Not long after reading Zinn’s book, I learned about another dark episode in American history that pertained to people who look like me — something that took place during World War II. After the Japanese government bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 that forcibly removed Americans of Japanese descent from their homes and into prison camps.