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Columbus & After: Rethinking the Legacy

Columbus & After: Rethinking the Legacy was a National Endowment for the Humanities-led initiative to commemorate—rather than celebrate—the Columbus Quincentenary in 1992. In California, the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World raised memories and recognition of violence, atrocities, and generations of oppression for Native Californians and brought to light an important counterpart to the dominant narrative of European conquest and expansion. That year Berkeley was the first city in the state to designate Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a day of remembrance, replacing the commemoration of Columbus Day.

Columbus & After sought to bring people together to discover a shared history of California, in all of its complexities, through the means of dramatic portrayals by scholar-performers of four figures of the colonial period, representing a diversity of viewpoints and experiences: Christopher Columbus, Father Junípero Serra, Jessie Benton Frémont, and Antonio Garra. Jim Quay, Executive Director of California Humanities from 1983-2008, explains “the real genius of the Chautauqua model” is the way it enables audiences to gain a deeper understanding of history. First, the scholar-performer speaks to the audience in character, delivering a dramatic monologue. Then, still in character, the scholar-performer fields questions from the audience, responding as he or she believes the historical figure would have. Then, in the final half hour, the scholar breaks character and responds to audience questions as an expert on the character and the historical period, careful to negotiate the complexities of history without risking “presentism.”

The program was not uncontroversial. Quay explains, “Columbus was a figure of some lightning back then” and recalls being warned that the events would be protested. In fact, protesters were among the thousands of attendees at the 16 events that took place under big tents in Santa Barbara, Merced, Santa Clara, and Ukiah. But rather than disrupting the programs, Quay feels the protesters raised important issues and enabled long suppressed voices to be heard, fostering a more meaningful dialogue around this controversial historical moment.

By acknowledging the ways in which different communities have experienced history in different ways, the program enabled multiple narratives of a common history to emerge, reflecting national ideals of “E Pluribus Unum.” For Quay, the lasting legacy of Columbus & After was that “people suddenly knew things about each other that they wouldn’t have otherwise known.” Quay notes, “It knitted people together. Things never got so heated as to alienate people from one another. That was a success.”

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