The young Asian man in the picture, soiled, hungry, shaking a Styrofoam cup at me so that I’d drop some change in it, crouched at the donut shop’s doorway. He hadn’t bathed or shampooed in a while. His hands needed a double dose of Boraxo. He shook the cup at me like a shaman, its meager coins rattling. At first, I ignored him because he really needed a cleanup. Finally, I went back outside and placed a couple of dollars in his darkened hand, saw him jerk it away like a puppy grabbing a bone. He said nothing. I said good luck. It was one of those dumb things I say when faced with the enormity of a person’s misfortune.
I reentered the donut shop.
The young owner said, “Dude, don’t give that bum anything. He’s always there bothering my customers.”
The look on his face revealed despair and helplessness.
I answered, a little angry, “Man, that could be you or me out there.”
He answered, “I’ll never be like that bum.”
I said, “You can’t guarantee the future.”
He said, “Yes I can. I work for a living. I don’t beg.”
This being the month that Columbus fumbled to this hemisphere, I, after I got my donuts and again passing in front of the crouching young man, he not meeting my eye, thought about that European cataclysm that ultimately has led to this young man’s condition.
Trailing Columbus to the Bahamas in 1492 were the European traditions of superiority, racism, discrimination, classism and inequality, all of which were planted on the island Columbus dubbed San Salvador. This portentous disembarkation also led to the conquest and genocide of the indigenous people and the founding of imperialist nations that faithfully adhered to European colonialist traditions and monarchical forms of government. The result: Indigenous people were practically annihilated, and White men conferred upon themselves the advantages of divine rule, the right to vote and violently
appropriated (bolstered by the 1900s’ Manifest Destiny) all of the land in what is now the United States.
As centuries passed, more Europeans arrived and avidly joined in the killing, raping and pillaging in order to rid the territory of its original inhabitants. The attitude that allowed this travesty to occur was a sense of superiority, a Puritan principle encouraging White people to believe that they had the divine right to do as they pleased because they had invented godly civilizations and traditions, conveniently forgetting the myriad wars and carnage that took place as monarch after monarch sacrificed thousands so that he or she could remain rich and build palaces and have grand parties and bed all of the young wenches and fops they could.
This inhumane philosophy stipulated that only White men were worthy of acquiring riches, which led to the rise of a corrupt and monopolistic capitalism. This endless search for enormous wealth ultimately led to the violation of peoples’ human rights. Slavery and later indentured servitude became the norm for people of color.
Subsequently, tired of suffering humiliating mistreatment and being lynched at will, Blacks in the early 20th century initiated a civil rights movement, which coincided with the women’s suffrage movement. Women subsequently got their right to vote, but Blacks were left behind. The country could stomach civil rights for White women but not for Blacks. The rights of anyone not White, even though they were citizens, were ignored or violated. Plessy v. Ferguson was perhaps the most egregious sanctioning of segregation and racism in our history.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement of the 1960s, through the judicious use of television coverage, exposed the historical abuse of rights in this country: Blacks, and White supporters, were beaten, bitten by police dogs, water-hosed and many times killed and labeled criminals at least and communists at worst. J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO allowed the FBI to spy on anyone he proclaimed anti-American “insurgents” and “communists.”
Still, King and the movement constituted our own American Spring, which mostly ended with his assassination in 1968. Since that time, the subject of civil rights has quietly faded away from the country’s conscientiousness, until we’ve become more concerned with iGadgets than with why so many people have lost jobs and become homeless in this country. It’s as if Manifest Destiny has been resurrected, but in a much more insidious manner: Corporations have taken over the country and government, have lulled people into becoming mindless consumers who believe existence revolves only around buying more and more stuff and sporting more and more corporate logos.
The corporations now are destroying unions, laying off tens of thousands of workers (sending their jobs to other countries), destroying the pension and health plans, and disbursing billions of dollars to assume further control of the government. All the while the concern for the rights of others has withered, the vine of democracy now almost dead.
These occurrences are the result of Columbus’ arrival, including, currently, the rise in homelessness and joblessness and the condemnation of homeless and jobless people as social lepers bent on taking advantage of the kindness of responsible people who work for a living and who believe in God.
This history, this worsening situation, has funneled down to a young man crouching dirty and exhausted at the door of a donut shop, itself on life support.
This young man, hopelessness in his eyes, may survive this winter in the open. But how many freezing nights can he survive? How long can he go without eating properly? How long can he live without health care, without a clean bed and a safe place to live?
This is the legacy that Columbus has left us. It crawled off his boats like plague-rats, and its effects are not diminishing. It’s all the worse because this country began with a good idea: modeling its constitution after the Iroquois’ Great Law of Peace, a document that in its principles stipulated above all that people are to come first and be treated with respect and that the law should never be used for self-enrichment, the acquisition of resources from other countries, and for the allowance of people to be sentenced to a life of deprivation and exclusion because of ethnicity or class.
Nowhere did Christ say that anyone could think him or herself superior or godlier or more blessed than others. Nowhere did he sanction the intolerance and injustice that Columbus, financed by the supposedly pious Queen of Spain, let loose on this hemisphere, an act that has led to the deaths of millions of indigenous people and to the current misery of so many homeless and hungry people of all colors.
Nowhere did he say a young man should have to crouch and beg at a donut shop to survive.
Leonard Adame has retired from teaching college English. He now plays drums in various bands, takes photographs, reads mystery novels to a fault and has published poetry in college anthologies. He most enjoys re-learning about human beings from his grandkids. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.