COLUMBUS DIED 511 YEARS AGO, BUT IF YOU’RE STILL HOLDING A GRUDGE DON’T READ THIS

By Bill Tonelli

ONCE, WE WERE TAUGHT, he was a brave and bold explorer who sailed into the unknown and discovered the place we call home. Now, we understand, he was a genocidal mercenary who arrived thinking he was someplace else and kicked off five centuries of bloody oppression and exploitation. Okay, fine, nobody’s perfect, though it seems possible to believe he was both. Meaning we just have to decide which Columbus we’re going to ignore.

The holiday is a relic of when we admired conquistadors, when schoolchildren memorized their names (Ponce de Leon, Vasco da Gama, Cortes, Cabot, Magellan, Drake, where are they now, where are their statues for us to topple?). We identified with conquerors then, whereas now we must side with the conquered — all of them, everywhere, of all time — to be on the right side of history. Now that we are in full possession of the bountiful real estate those men stole for us.

Is there any better indication of how trivial our public lives have become that, with all the real life-or-death torments in the world, we’re arguing about holidays and statues?

If we’re serious about this, we’ll have to do more than relocate some sculpture and change the label on a day off. There’s a whole country in South America, a province in Canada, a district that’s the seat of the U.S. federal government, and quite a few cities and counties all over the place that bear his name. Here, in New York, there’s an Ivy League university and a major avenue. If we’re going to start sanitizing our environment, we’re in for a lot of changes.

It seems strange there was no widespread interest in creating either Indigenous Peoples’ Day or Diversity Day until it was determined that Columbus Day had to go, to be replaced by a holiday that could also serve as an apology. Even now, we seem in no hurry to make amends beyond the ceremonial. Maybe we think that should be enough.

Meanwhile, future generations will someday believe that we have always honored the native people and cultures here before Columbus, a lie we may be happy to tell.

ALL WE KNEW was that he was Italian and he did something big and important, and that was enough for us. We had to dig deep to find a countryman whom all Americans might agree to admire. It fell to Columbus. Maybe if there were two Italians the nation liked, we’d be celebrating the other guy. But there was just the one.

The fact is that the immigrants whose naive hearts swelled with pride were possibly the least Columbus-like people on the planet. What they had in common with the great man was a boat, an ocean, a dream, and no clear picture of what they’d find here. Those peasants did not come to plant a flag, claim ownership, or take advantage of anyone. If anything, they came to be exploited by those who were here first. That was their best-case scenario.

To understand how those immigrants were welcomed in the years before there was a Columbus Day, we can refer to an article in the New York Sun newspaper, dateline Rochester, NY, July 17, 1887, that begins:

There has been recently organized in this city a society known as the Anti Italian Nuisance League of the Fifth Ward, the object of which is to rid that portion of the city of the presence of swarthy sons and daughters of sunny Italy…

The article then names several local officials and influential citizens who were

…waging vigorous warfare against their obnoxious neighbors. These gentlemen say that whatever is done will be done legally, but that their organization will remain organized until the Italians are removed from their community. Their watchword is “The Italians must go.”

Carlo Barsotti was an immigrant who came to New York City not from the lowly south of Italy but the more refined north. In 1880 he co-founded a national newspaper, Il Progresso Italo-Americano. It was his idea that statues honoring Italians of great accomplishment might offset the image (more or less accurate) of uneducated immigrants teeming in the city’s squalid Little Italy slums. In his paper he started a fund-raising campaign, and succeeded at getting his impoverished readers to pay for monuments not only to his fellow Genovese Columbus, at the traffic circle that bears his name, but also to Verdi (on the Upper West Side), Dante (at Lincoln Center), Garibaldi (at Washington Square) and Verrazzano (on Staten Island).

As Bénédicte Deschamps wrote, in the European Journal of American Studies:

The building process seemed almost of a carnal nature as it allowed Italian Americans to actually dig into the flesh of the city.

“As long as Columbus looks at those small creatures who press around him today, and stays on his pedestal,” Barsotti said, “as long as people bow to Verdi and now to Verrazzano, I feel happy,” because “monuments remain while petty talks, gossips and calumny die away with men.”

But petty talks, gossips and calumny have only increased their permanence since then, while stone and metal monuments are suddenly on shaky ground.

In Los Angeles, it was decreed, Columbus Day will henceforth be celebrated as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Denver, Seattle, Phoenix, Tulsa and other cities have done likewise. Statues are in jeopardy in New York, Philadelphia, San Jose and Columbus, Ohio, where, it’s safe to guess, they’ve got their hands full. In Minneapolis, there’s a petition to replace a statue of the explorer with one of hometown hero Prince and rename the holiday in his honor. (Maybe they can compromise and call it Prince Spaghetti Day.) There have been earnest proposals to rename the holiday with anodyne, self-congratulatory titles like Immigrant Day, or Italian American Heritage Day, or to simply swap honorees — to dump the murderous swashbuckler and replace him with the Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci, or the socialist thinker Carlo Tresca, or the doomed anarchist thinkers Nicola Sacco (shoemaker) and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (fishmonger).

The poet Robert Viscusi foresaw all this 24 years ago, when he wrote “Oration Upon the Most Recent Death of Christopher Columbus,” in which appear these lines:

the americans loved columbus in those days

he was the right kind of italian

not like these dirty dagoes and guineas and wops

And these, referring to how the explorer’s halo had faded by the 500th anniversary of his trip:

no one wanted columbus

except the italians

they sat in their kitchens and said

he was ours when he was rich and lovely

and he has to be ours tomorrow

otherwise what are we anyway

Here’s the thing that’s easy to forget: The immigrants who chipped in to erect those statues, they didn’t particularly love Columbus either, even if they weren’t evolved enough to hate him. Chances are they barely knew who he was. These monuments were built as a tribute to beaten-down, disrespected, funny-talking foreigners who came here with the dream of becoming Americans someday, shiny and new. Columbus was just their stand-in. He has not aged well. But Columbus probably doesn’t care how we remember him today. Our ancestors, though — they may feel differently.

This year the New York Columbus Day parade’s grand marshal will be the philanthropist and Barnes & Noble founder Leonard Riggio, who has decided to do something unprecedented in the history of the event and perhaps all such events: he has invited over 100 Italian American authors to march with him. Given the conflict over Columbus’s glorification, and the typical agonizing nature of writers, some will no doubt decline to take part. I confess I deliberated — for two, three seconds at least — before deciding what I’ll do.

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Bill Tonelli is the editor of The Italian American Reader (William Morrow, 2003).