Author William Faulkner’s most often-quoted passage may be these nine words from his 1951 novel, “Requiem For a Nun:” “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Indeed, in Vermont and the U.S., our history shades our present, and is thus a part of our present. When that history is regrettable, including slavery, subjugation and discrimination, its shadows into our present are regrettable, too. We can’t expunge history, but we do well when we learn from it and take declarative steps to remediate its long-lasting effects and create a brighter history for future generations.
Amid all the bargaining, deal-making, soul-searching and calculating taking place as our state Legislature nears adjournment — seeking resolution on critical topics like raising the minimum wage, defining family-leave provisions for Vermont workers, figuring out how we’ll pay for restoring and protecting our water resources — our Legislature and our governor have admirably addressed dark shadows from our past.
The Senate has passed a proposal that addresses language in Vermont’s Constitution that inadequately forbade slavery in this state, merely forbidding slavery of people 21 years or older, except by their own consent through indentured servitude, rather than barring all slavery, period. In its time, this apparently was progressive language; in 2019, it’s disturbingly insufficient. The proposal will ask Vermonters to adopt a change to their constitution, declaring that “slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited.”
Meanwhile, the governor has formally ended the celebration of Columbus Day in Vermont, signing a bill passed by the Legislature that will replace that October holiday with Indigenous People’s Day.
The name of the new holiday sounds trendy and will inevitably be smeared as “politically correct” (a phrase routinely employed to demean words or actions that are actually just respectful of other human beings). But it’s well past time we honored and showed respect for the people who lived for thousands of years in North America and the Western Hemisphere before Europeans arrived, and who then suffered some 500 years of disease, slaughter, slavery and banishment at the hands of their conquerors. Christopher Columbus, lamentably, played a part in that villainous history, shipping slaves from the Caribbean to Europe in 1495.
We’re not trailblazers here; New Mexico and South Dakota have already made the switch, and Maine is on a parallel path. Municipalities such as Seattle, Los Angeles, Denver, Phoenix and San Francisco celebrate Indigenous People’s Day rather than Columbus Day. Vermont has done so informally since former Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, signed a proclamation to that effect in 2016. With Republican Gov. Phil Scott’s signature on the bill last week, it takes effect as a bipartisan statement that, while it cannot abolish a shameful part of our history, it explicitly shifts our tribute from the oppressors to the oppressed.
These recent actions were not without controversy. Some Vermonters saw no need to alter our constitution when slavery is already prohibited by the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. State Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, contended that Vermont’s original antislavery language, progressive for its time, was “a source of great pride [that] ought to be preserved.”
“What we’ve done,” he said colorfully, “is we’ve put a smiley face on our history.”
In these pages (the Weekend Magazine, April 13) historian Mark Boonshoft, of Norwich University, saw the value of updating our constitution so it more closely reflects standards of humanity that we expect of ourselves today, but argued that replacing the original language amounted to an obliteration, a concealment, of the historical record, as if Vermont had no need to improve upon itself. Boonshoft would have preferred an amendment, so that the original concept and our reconsideration of it both were charted.
Terminating Columbus Day also stoked objections. Largely, these came from Vermonters of Italian origin, who take pride that it was an Italian explorer who navigated the dangerous seas and changed the course of history to, eventually, include a United States of America.
There’s so much, especially in Vermont, for Italian-Americans to take pride in. Correcting the ingrained myths or our origin story may be difficult for some, but we must not allow that to prolong untruths and extend the disregard of others.
Faulkner was right: The past will not die with these remediations. And it will take a years-long process of public approval to alter our constitution. But when we’re done, we will have written a new historical chapter to add to the old — one more declarative of human rights and cognizant of the cruel intertwinement of discovery and exploitation.