Columbus Day has become a source of muted controversy in the United States. While a growing number of states and localities have embraced the politically correct re-designation of Columbus Day as “Indigenous People’s Day” the movement has not really caught fire.
Some super-liberal Blue states like California or states like Oklahoma which claim large numbers of native American descendants have changed the holiday’s official name.
But many others continue to resist.
In contrast to the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, which has been supremely controversial from the beginning, Columbus Day doesn’t feature protests or effusive celebrations. If that seems surprising, it shouldn’t be.
It turns out that Columbus Day has complex cultural roots. The push for the holiday began in the 1930s and emanated from the ranks of America’s beleaguered Italian immigrant community. Between the 1880s and the 1920s nearly 5 million Italians arrived on America’s shores and found themselves subjected to bigotry and hatred the likes of which they had never seen.
In many ways, Italians were subject to the same kind of racism suffered by African-Americans, Often demeaned as filthy and lazy, and beaten and brutalized, Italians never felt fully accepted in American society.
It took several decades, but with the rapid assimilation of Italian immigrants, demands for greater official recognition emerged. And with those demands came a search for a symbol of Italian aspirations.
And that symbol soon became Columbus. While many non-Italians viewed him even then as a spearhead of European colonialism who ran roughshod over native peoples in search of gold and other riches, to Italians in America he was nothing short of a national hero.
His story seemed to capture the ethos of immigrants of modest means who had set out from their Italian homeland in search of a New World of their own.
That image may seem naive even incongruous to our modern sensibilities. But aside from Native Americans, who remain isolated from the main currents of American society, there are no obvious and vocal antagonists to the legacy of Columbus, even among African-Americans or Hispanics.
Columbus’s four voyages did set the stage for the Spanish conquest of the Americas, but he was not a conqueror himself. He was of middle-class origins and a former sailor who’d nearly died in a sea voyage in his youth. He hoped to attain a title and be credited with having established a western sea route to India, China, and Japan.
No doubt the human depredations associated with Columbus include rape, slaughter and even slavery. In one of his voyages, Columbus rounded up local people known as “Tainos” and loaded them on ships to be sold. Most died en route.
In theory, this is a story that many African-Americans especially might relate to. But the colonial narrative largely focused on the Caribbean, not America – which Columbus never actually found – doesn’t carry the same sting of stigma.
In the meantime, Italian Americans are still fiercely clinging to the holiday as a symbol of Italian pride. And in many states and local jurisdictions, they’re a powerful voting constituency. As a result, many politicians are reluctant to jump on the anti-Columbus bandwagon.
The National Italian-American Foundation which strongly supports the preservation of the holiday has tried to walk a fine line on this issue. Its national website calls for responsible dialogue:
“This nation provides ample opportunity to have a reasonable debate in the public square over various aspects of a historical figure’s legacy. NIAF does not blindly uphold any single figure as the representative of all things Italian American, since all individuals are flawed, and all monuments represent just a snapshot of our history, now measured against 21st-century sensibilities.”
So far, there have been public calls to remove the prominent statue in Columbus Circle in Manhattan. In 2017, the Columbus statue in Yonkers was decapitated and the statue in Baltimore thought to be the first-ever erected in the explorer’s honor, was vandalized.
In all likelihood, the pressure to rename Columbus Day will grow, albeit lowly, And sporadic attacks on the few statues and monuments that celebrate the explorer will likely increase, too.
But the paradoxical ethnic politics that surrounds Columbus seems to demand sober reflection.
Is our nation’s cultural history really so Black and White? Do only the victors – or the losers, for that matter – get to write that history? Should we preserve symbols of our past as opportunities for the ongoing debate about our future?
Many defenders of statues that commemorate Civil War general Robert E. Lee have made the same historic preservation argument as the NIAF. Are they simply racist – and wrong?
It could be that settling the controversy over Columbus Day can set a positive example to those engaged in far more aggressive and violent conflicts over the symbols of the Confederacy.
“E Pluribus Unum” – “Out of many, one” – is America’s national creed.
How can we forge more enduring unity based on the contributions of all peoples – White and non-White alike?
This may be the real cultural adventure of our times. Embarking on a daring exploration of our common fears and hopes as Americans.
And once again, like Columbus, finding the New World.