When fiction is celebrated as history, the damage is real. As the US slowly comes to its senses in reconsidering the honoring of Confederate heroes, it should do the same with Christopher Columbus.
Inspired by political pragmatism, sustained by the internalized oppression that props up the zero-sum game of American racialism and celebrated as a misguided expression of ethnic Italian pride, Columbus Day (Oct. 9) has as much validity as a US national holiday as one devoted to Robert E. Lee or Jefferson Davis.
Separated by more than three centuries, these men had in common one overarching belief: their God-given right to perpetuate slavery. As an Italian-American, that precise connection resonates in a visceral way, given our own sidelong history in a country that enshrined the enslavement of its black population in its constitution. Eighty-four years of commemoration are enough.
The ugliest of truths, from the start
“The European market in African slaves, which opened with a cargo of Mauritanian blacks unloaded in Portugal in 1441, and the explorer Christopher Columbus, born in Genoa ten years later, were closely linked,” Peter Nabokov wrote at the start of his 2016 essay “Indians, Slaves and Mass Murder: The Hidden History” in The New York Review of Books. “The ensuing Age of Discovery, with its expansions of empires and exploitations of New World natural resources, was accompanied by the seizure and forced labor of human beings, starting with Native Americans.”
Nabokov calls Columbus the “first transatlantic human trafficker—a sideline pursued by most New World conquistadors until, in the mid-seventeenth century, Spain officially opposed slavery.”
It would be centuries more until the Civil War would end the practice in the US. Alongside slavery, the ravages of genocide, disease, colonialism and the rapacious ends of empire stand as the starkest consequences of the voyages Columbus undertook starting in 1492. The litany of the horrors acknowledged today—especially around this time of year—would not surface as a broadly broached topic until the 1970s, with counter-proposals to honor indigenous peoples. Long before that, Italians who came to America would find themselves in the grip of the cutthroat commerce Columbus’ expeditions set in motion.
Counting votes for the New Deal
Under president Franklin D. Roosevelt, Columbus Day was made a federal holiday in 1934, his advocacy capping more than a century of fibs and fabrications about the explorer who never made it to the mainland of North America. FDR’s decree can be attributed to political expediency, with Italian-Americans emerging as an important urban voting bloc.
Much of the mythologizing of the explorer can be traced to Washington Irving’s A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, published in 1828. In the decades that followed, the story of Columbus as a brave and brash adventurer would be embroidered into the broader patriotic tale of American exceptionalism. Italians in the US, who faced derision, discrimination and quite often death when they arrived in mass numbers as cheap labor starting in the 1880s, came to cling to the Columbus myth as a source of pride, a way to assimilate amid misery.
Nowhere were things much worse for them in the early years of the 20th century than in the coal, gold and silver mines of Colorado, where my paternal grandfather was among those who did the dangerous work. The missionary nun Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini would be staggered by a visit. As Tom Noel, a history professor at Colorado University-Denver recounted in the Denver Post in 2010, Cabrini wrote that “the hardest labor is reserved for the Italian worker. Few regard him with a sympathetic eye, care for him or remember that he has a heart and a soul: they merely look upon him as an ingenious machine for work.”
Cabrini, an immigrant from Lombard province, would become the first American to be canonized as a Catholic saint. She wrote that she saw the Italians “slave away until someday a cave-in, explosion or accident of some kind cuts their life short, leaving their wives widowed and their children fatherless. They did not even need a grave, having been buried in the tomb in which they spent their whole lives.”
In 1907, prodded by an immigrant printer from Genoa, Colorado became the first US state to mark Columbus Day as an official holiday.
The complex legacy of bigotry
The ongoing quest to celebrate Columbus as a point of pride in a country where Italian-Americans have struggled for acceptance is understandable. They have been lynched and scapegoated in some of the most infamous cases in US history. Today, Americans of Italian descent routinely encounter the slurs popularized in mass media, be it the folklore centered on organized crime or their depiction as an unlearned subset of the populace, wise to the ways of the street and not the halls of academia.
Still, expressions of ethnic pride can be troublesome enough in a pluralistic society, particularly one in which Italian-Americans now occupy an enviable place in the political, economic and social firmament. Officially sanctioning Columbus Day morphs it from a mere specious recognition of tribal pride into an exclusionary racial statement by the dominant political structure.
Commemoration of Confederate heroes runs aground on the same shoal. (A large share of the monuments across the American South were erected decades after the war, in an effort to give more teeth to the Jim Crow laws that restricted the rights of black citizens.) You can preserve, protect and even defend history as you choose it in your own home or within the confines of a privately held space. Americans, especially in the form of their government, have no intrinsic right to impose those views on one another when it comes to public spaces and officially backed activity.
Columbus’ own origins could be enough for Italian-Americans to reconsider any desire to promote the Genoan as the symbol of their contributions. As the Library of Congress has noted, the explorer himself would have reason to be perplexed by any pan-Italian ethnic devotion:
When Christopher Columbus set foot on American soil in 1492, he launched a flood of migration that is still in motion, and that transformed the continent completely. Although Italy as a unified nation did not exist until 1861, the Italian peninsula has sent millions of its people to the shores of North America. These new arrivals thought of themselves as Neapolitans, Sicilians, Calabrians, or Syracuseans. They might not have understood each other’s dialects, but on arrival in the United States they became Italian-Americans.
Then as now, the descendants of Italian immigrants have more in common in the US than their forebears might have had across the ocean. They can join with all Americans in celebrating the achievements of Fermi and Fauci, DiMaggio and Marciano, Ferlinghetti and Donofrio, Talese and Paglia, Sinatra and Benedetto, Ciccone and Germanotta, Scorsese and De Niro. Famous, flawed or both, their discoveries in the sciences, sports, literature and the arts are nothing to be ashamed of.