Say a bad word about Columbus this time of year and an Italian-American’s bound to take it personally. The explorer, as anyone who’s watched The Sopranos or read Howard Zinn or The Oatmeal now knows, wasn’t as cute as the nursery rhyme we’re all taught about him in grade school: he was a genocidal slave-trader with a taste for brutal, spectacular violence, who also sailed the ocean blue in 1492.
Uh, granted, nobody’s perfect; even Martin Luther King, Jr., is said to have had his personal demons. But his public life and professional work were dedicated toward the advancement of a subjugated and disenfranchised people; when we take a Monday off in January, we do it in honor of those accomplishments, and not in honor of his private failings. Columbus, on the other hand: you could credit him with initiating the wave of European migration to the Americas that eventually brought us the United States we know and live in today (as well as Canada and Mexico and the Caribbean and Central and South Americas), but if you do, you can’t do so honestly without also acknowledging that he did so by decimating the indigenous peoples and their lands. The problem with Columbus is that his accomplishments are as morally suspect as his character.
So why do the Italians double down on him as their guy? He didn’t even sail for Italy: the Italians famously wouldn’t finance him, and instead he sailed for the Spanish crown. Shouldn’t today be a celebration, then, of Spanish culture? (And didn’t the Scandinavians get here centuries before Columbus, discovering the Americans without destroying an entire peoples and bringing the whole of the world onto its shores?)
Historically, Columbus didn’t rise to prominence until after the Revolution, when Columbia become synonymous with America, NPR reports. Washington Irving fictionalized the explorer’s exploits in the early 19th century, initiating the mythmaking that would lead, in 1892, to President Harrison observing the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage. He didn’t make reference to the explorer’s heritage, but Italian immigrants at the time, victims of ethnic and anti-Catholic prejudice, found Columbus to be an American hero onto whom they could latch, one who could provide cover. One early 20th century bar owner named his tavern after Columbus, “thinking that he was one Italian [that] Americans would not throw rocks at,” NPR reports.
Prejudice against Catholics and Italians begat that group’s association with Columbus, and their aggressive push to canonize him as their unimpeachable American godfather. A century later, we have better access to real history: the stories of awful violence and hatred that pierce and dismantle the Columbus myth. Still, such a myth wouldn’t have been necessary or so celebrated if we’d not mistreated those Italian immigrants; one of the largest lynchings in American history was in New Orleans in 1891, when 11 Sicilians were hung up after the police commissioner was killed.
As many use Columbus Day to grapple with the prejudice with which Europeans looked upon indigenous Americans so many years ago, we could also use it as a day to deal with the many prejudices our country has nurtured and exercised over its history, from Columbus’s attitude toward the Bahamans he met to 20th century anti-Catholicism and today’s anti-Islam. Maybe the Italians should find another day—to celebrate Amerigo Vespucci, maybe—while we reconsider Columbus Day as Coping with America’s Racist History Day.
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