The “woke” thing to do is reject Columbus Day because of the problematic history of Christopher Columbus — mass genocide, rape and a host of other atrocities are rightly attributed to him. What is tricky is the temptation for Black people to spotlight the presence of Black explorers, instead of Columbus. Pedro Alonso Niño captained the Santa Maria, accompanying Columbus on his first expedition to America in 1492. His brothers, Francisco and Juan, also accompanied Columbus. When Black talent is dependent on white funding, it will be used for aims that are not those of Black people.
When Black explorers participate in the genocide of indigenous people, is it an example of Black excellence? The Niño Brothers were certainly skilled navigators and are a part of world history, yes. Still, they are noted in history for participating in atrocities against another darker people, simply because they were funded by an imperial, racist power. That theme runs deep in Black history and it is one that should be retired. The story of the Niño Brothers is but one example that illustrates the need for Black people to have independence — when Black faces carry out the ambitions of white funders, there are bound to be problems.
The Buffalo Soldiers are often highlighted as an example of how Black people have contributed to the story of American expansion. It is true that roughly 20 percent of U.S. Cavalry troops that participated in the “Indian Wars” were Black men — we call them Buffalo Soldiers. It is also true, however, that these men were used to wage war on Native Americans, for the benefit of white men. It is also true that in the days following the American Civil War conflict Black people had more pressing needs than fighting “Indians.” Those needs could have been addressed with the strength, valor and excellence those men possessed. Still, they had needs personally, which they had to address in that moment.
This discussion need not stop in days past for it is a present reality. How many young, brilliant Black professionals desire to work to improve their community but instead work for nonprofits who pay them to serve another community? How many Black political operatives work for organizations that pay them to work for an agenda that isn’t a true Black agenda? It’s easy to look back and pick on Black people who may have been on the “wrong side” of history. However, we should look at them and ourselves honestly and simply acknowledge that all of us are playing the same game. Until Black people have independent institutions — schools, businesses and the like — the cycle will simply repeat.