I rise refreshed on this holiday. Thanking dead presidents for my extra three hours of sleep. Sipping my coffee slowly, savoring the foreign flavors, I think maybe we’ll put our differences aside, at least for the morning: Washington’s slave mountain, Jefferson’s hemming and hawing, Jackson’s death marches, Lincoln’s foot dragging on the question of basic human equality. I file them away, at least until noon, grateful for the day off, with pay. And for the shortened work week ahead that is the delightful flip side of what already feels like a blessing.
To many, I guess, Columbus Day is scarcely different. A chance to catch one’s breath, to catch up on sleep. To go shopping.
How can the raping and pillaging of European marauders, the laying waste to a dozens of native tribes, the arrogance of Christian conquerors whose crosses doubled as pikes, the slave taking, the scalping, the dismembering of natives for the failure to pay an impossible tax in gold dust…How can any of this ‘ancient history’ compete with the sweet redemption of a three-day weekend?
Exhausted, maxed out on sleep debt, my students have trouble criticizing the legacy of someone who has bestowed upon them a holiday, a chance to rest up. It’s not that they can’t see Columbus’s crimes—colonialism’s crimes; with a little help from Howard Zinn’s People’s History at least, they can. (Though, of course, the crimes of American Presidents are more difficult for many to admit.) But, above all, they are afraid of losing a much needed chance to sleep in. And, perhaps, afraid that even if the holiday stays put, a critical consciousness may make it a bit harder to sleep soundly, even on those rare occasions when they are allotted the time to do so.
Can you really blame them? Most weeks, I’m exhausted myself. How can we not feel grateful today for the “Founding Fathers,” in body, if not in my mind?
Rhetorically speaking, it might go better for us radicals if we argued for *more* holidays, rather than fewer. (The changing of Columbus Day to some version of Remembrance Day or Indigenous People’s Day being here a relevant half-measure.) In addition to Labor Day and Martin Luther King Day, let us have a Monday off for Geronimo, for Nat Turner, and John Brown. A Friday free for Frederick Douglass, a Wednesday off for Rosa Parks.) Let us all sleep in and dream of liberation, and its slaughtered loss. Let us drown our overseers in ecstasies of sleep, like slaves after a weeklong festival of Jubilee. Let us lay in bed in memory of those who were worked such long hours as never to ever get enough sleep, who were reduced to zombies and died brutally (according to some estimates) on average only about six years after having been put to work in the rice fields, the sugar fields, the coffee plantations. Let us sleep and rejuvenate ourselves in the memory of those who were forced into eternal sleep before their time, so that their “betters” could party long into the night, rising when and if they wanted to, counting coin and making plans for more.
Let us take a few days off to remember that the masses of people can make history too. That the servants make the masters’ beds, as well as their own.
For what it’s worth, I try to keep from getting side-tracked with students by making it clear that, personally, I’m in favor of instituting a 30 hour work week, with no loss in pay, effective immediately. Which would be a good start. It’s amazing the difference that one day less of work a week can make to a body, and to a mind. (Without Presidents Day, alas, this very article would never have been written.)
So perhaps we should take tomorrow off, too.
Tomorrow, after all, February 19, is the birthday of Nicolaus Copernicus, (1473-1543) who labored intensively all his life to challenge the “common sense” of the time, helping to revolutionize how we humans saw ourselves in the universe. His telescopic observations proved that the earth was not the center of things, that it was not the case that the rest of the celestial bodies revolved around us, but that—with the exception of the nearby moon—it was us that revolved around them.
Now there’s a figure I’d like to see us have a holiday for. Copernicus Day, a day aimed at reminding us, not just of this singular scientist’s contribution, or of a long line of scientific heroes who challenged dogma and authority, but of the fundamental fact that—contrary to so many national holidays that suggest otherwise, painting America as an exceptional land and a chosen people with the right to rule over others, from sea to shining sea, to shining sea, to outer space and back—that we are not the center of things, but one more spinning mass in a universe that we cannot understand with the naked eye.
For, by our eyes alone, (when we rise early enough to watch the sunrise) the sun does seem to go around the earth. Our eyes, our senses, our bodies lie to us. Yet the truth of things is there somewhere at work, behind our backs, there to be understood by those who have the patience to study, who read and reflect on appearances and who recognize that they are not the center of things.
We ignore this truth at our peril. For it is not only a matter of astronomy; a similar truth conspires behind the back of the Master who has forgotten that his seemingly independent (and glorious!) existence is only made possible by an army of Slaves, sleeping zombies whose waking, whose collective act of will could reduce the Master in an instant from the shining center of the universe, to a deluded speck, easily snuffed out.
Sleep well, ye glorious Presidents of America, Masters of the Universe. And thanks, again, for the day off.
(Rest up, collective Copernicans. We have much work to do.)