By: Thulani Conrad Moore, Roots of Justice Trainer
Understanding racism and White supremacy starts with a question that White people need to ask themselves. People of Color need to ask themselves this question also but that subject will be discussed in another chapter. The question is how do you know what you know about who you are. We are all told who we are by the external forces around us. This question should create an existential crisis point. It is a fact that our identities are shaped by the people around us who tell us who we are. It starts with parents and grandparents. It moves on to other caregivers and school teachers, pastors or religious leaders who tell us who we are.
I want to acknowledge that as the storyteller here I decide where the story starts.
This is an exercise of power. The same power our education system uses to tell us all who we are. It tells white children that they are superior and children of color are nurtured to believe they are inferior. At least as it relates to White people. Having said that I will start the story in the middle. Racism shapes identity.
Columbus and Other Cannibals
“They brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things… They willingly traded everything they owned… They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features… They would make fine servants… With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
For too many of us this will be the first time we have read or heard these particular quotes from Christopher Columbus. As a matter of fact in our elementary school stories of Columbus and his discovery of the new world we really didn’t have any quotes from him at all. We are just told stories about him. However this quote from his journal is very revealing. Many of us when we learned about Columbus we learned the story about how in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. We learned the U.S. romantic story about how Columbus was looking for a trade route to the Indies. Then, there was something about spices. These were the romantic stories we learned about Columbus and his so-called discovery of the new world. However we can glean from Columbus’s own hand the attitude he had about the Arawaks Indians that he encountered when he reached the Americas. The question becomes where did Columbus get the idea that he had the authority to subjugate anyone. We learned absolutely nothing, as children, about Columbus’s desire to subjugate the native people he encountered. Yet we read from his own hand that he believed he had the authority to subjugate them.
Not only did he have the authority to subjugate them he recognized that with 50 men he also had the power to subjugate them. We will in this chapter say more about authority and power. They are not the same thing. But to find the source of his perceived authority we have to go back a few years… to the church.
In 1453 the church put out a document called the Bull Romanus Pontifex. In it Pope Nicholas V granted King Alfonso of Portugal the right…
“ — to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit -…”
So we see where Columbus got the illusion of superiority. Since we are discussing authority the question then becomes: from where did Pope Nicholas V get his authority to grant land and the subjugation of humans to anyone? He was God’s representative, God’s mouthpiece, God’s emissary on Earth. Because God gave him dominion over the Earth. Therefore, he had authority from God to grant King Alfonzo of Portugal the right to vanquish subdue et cetera.
You will notice that this is 1453 through 1455 and of course the so-called New World had not yet been discovered and invaded by Europeans. What lands and peoples were king Alfonzo granted the authority to subjugate? Africans. During this period of time Portugal already had a number of colonies sprinkled about the West Coast of Africa.
Basically what we see here is a form of religious superiority. Based on the document put out by Pope Nicholas V Bull Romanus Pontifex, the Church deemed those tribes in Africa enemies of Christ. Their traditional spirituality was determined to be demonic. As was that of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. The Papal Bull was written for King Alfonzo of Portugal. But like all Church proclamations it was spread throughout Europe. So between 1455 and 1492 and beyond, the people of Europe knew they were superior to the rest of the world because they were members of the right and only real religion, Christianity.
Back to Columbus. In Europe at that time we see that there is a sense of religious superiority. So the soon to be explorers such as Columbus and various other educated people in Europe would have known about the content of the Bull Romanus Pontifex and other Church documents. So Columbus was nurtured in an atmosphere of religious superiority. They believed that there was only one true religion and every other expression of faith or spirituality was in fact demonic. More about that when we addressed the other cannibals that invaded the Americas.
So Columbus clearly believed that his faith tradition was superior and that he himself and his people were in fact superior to every non christian on earth. Native Scholars have rightly assessed this document to be the Churchs’ declaration of War on the non Christian world. At one point they even began to question the humanity of the individuals they counter.They floated the idea that the Indigenous people didn’t actually have souls.
Imagine that. They thought so highly of themselves that they had the audacity to even question the humanity of the individuals and tribes they encountered.
The concept of religious superiority predated the construct of race. Therefore in King Alfonzo’s and Columbus’ time there was no concept of whiteness. So what we’ve seen so far is a form of religious superiority that was nurtured and flourished in Europe. Much later the people of Europe became White. So what we see here is the embryo of supremacy and it started as religious supremacy among people who would later become White. Thus the birth of white supremacy. When Columbus arrived in the Americas he had a pre-existing condition. Religious, ethnic European Supremacy.
The tyranny of a white Jesus
“I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.”
Just as Europeans would eventually become White, Jesus also became White. As Europeans hijacked Christianity they began to shape the historic Jesus Christ in their own image. The dark haired, olive skinned Jesus’ skin became lighter, hair became blonde, eyes became blue as Europeans created God in their own image (and in the image of them created they Him.) However the image of God, and Jesus shown to Africans and the Indigenous people of the Americas was not the Savior they claimed for themselves. As White women grab their pearls and scoff at the child separation policies of the Trump administration. They do not know White history. The following excerpt from the 1598 edition of A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies by Bartolome De Las Casas gives us a stark reminder of the never ending policy of separating Black, Brown and Indigenous children from their parents in the most horrid ways.
The tyranny began for the Indigenous people when the Spaniards arrived. Indigenous people had their own faith traditions. Those who refused to become Christian would be put to the sword.The depth of cruelty was unimaginable
“(The Spanish) took babies from their mother’s breasts, grabbed them by their feet and smashed their heads against the rocks…They built a long gibbet, low enough for the toes to touch the ground and prevent strangling, and hanged thirteen (natives) in honor of Christ our Savior and the twelve Apostles…Then, straw was wrapped around their torn bodies and they were burned alive.”
Bartolome De Las Casas, A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies
Frederick Douglas sized up the character of Christian slave owners in the Americas. De Las Casas documented the early mistreatment of the Indigenous people by the Spaniards upon their arrival. We remember that Christopher Columbus had already said something about subjugating them and making them “do whatever we want.” Obviously he was talking about making slaves out of the Indigenous people. While Columbus’ observation about making slaves was part of his learned behavior, the challenge also was to not just make slaves but to make Christian slaves. Slaveholders for generations made it clear that one could be a slave and be Christian. They understood that one could be a Christian slave owner with Christian slaves yet there was no moral imperative based on Christian love to free their human captives. As we have demonstrated here the tendency was to the opposite.
Roots of Justice trainers and friends share reflections on historical and current events