Every year I dread Columbus Day. I dislike Columbus Day for the same reasons that all decent people dislike Columbus Day — but I dread it because of the inevitable op-ed written by some cafone claiming that we should continue celebrating a genocidal maniac on account of how it is also a celebration of our glorious Italian-American heritage.
Which, as an Italian-American myself, I find deeply, deeply embarrassing. Scaramucci Week levels of embarrassing. Also, as an Italian-American, I feel it’s important for me to be as loud as possible, in general, but especially about this issue given that it’s my people who are the ones trying to keep Columbus Day around.
This year’s big one is an op-ed in the New York Times from John M. Viola, president of the National Italian-American Foundation, titled “Tearing Down Statues of Columbus Also Tears Down My History.”
And it starts out just about as wrong as anything possibly could:
As I watched the disturbing events unfold in Charlottesville, Va., several weeks ago, I knew our Italian-American community would soon be called to once again address questions about statues celebrating Christopher Columbus and the day named in his honor. We would once again be called on to “defend Columbus” against efforts to remake his day into Indigenous People’s Day.
I’m gonna say that if you’re comparing your holiday to statues defended by Nazis, you are already starting off on the wrong foot, no? “Ugh, it’s so unfair how we just can’t celebrate people who were monsters without people raining on our parade, amirite?”
After lamenting the recent beheading of a Columbus statue in Yonkers, Viola goes on to explain just why the holiday is so important to him and other Italian-Americans who are definitely not me. In fact, he even notes that “Columbus’s earliest critics were the same white supremacists preying on our nation today, who loathed the idea that a non-Anglo-Saxon Catholic could be an American icon.”
This is true! In fact, it’s quite likely that the same type of people who are today defending Columbus Day would have, back in the day, thought of the holiday as some kind of Social Justice Warrior bullshit. At the time, Italians were very unpopular. They were “swarthy” in that suspicious “white but not quite” kind of way. They were poor, having come to this country largely as a result of unification leaving Southern Italy economically devastated. Oh, and they were Catholic, which was definitely not an OK thing to be at that time.
Plus lots of them were here “illegally.” My own great-grandfather did not become an American citizen until after my grandfather was born, which actually gives me (and lots of other Italian-Americans) dual citizenship in Italy. People will tell you that this does not count because “things were different back then” — but they actually were not. People were quite hysterical about immigration back then as well. Particularly immigration from poor areas of the world.
There was the Chinese Exclusion Act, as well as the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which limited the amount of immigrants from any country to 3% of their population as of the 1910 census. Darling pieces of legislation those were!
So no, people weren’t cool with immigration back then, we were not popular, and any Italian-American who tells you otherwise is full of shit. Except they probably don’t know it, on account of the fact that our path to assimilation often involved siding with white supremacy rather than challenging it. Thus, their relatives probably didn’t tell them those kinds of stories. Thus, Columbus.
Thus, Viola’s argument that you don’t see Italians going around demanding the statues of various Roosevelts torn down:
There are many monuments to Franklin Roosevelt, and although he allowed Japanese-Americans and Italian-Americans to be interned during World War II, we as an ethnic group are not demanding that his statues be destroyed. Nor are we tearing down tributes to Theodore Roosevelt, who, in 1891, after 11 falsely accused Sicilian-Americans were murdered in the largest mass lynching in American history, wrote that he thought the event “a rather good thing.”
This, too, is true. That happened. There were also lynchings of Italians throughout the country following the lynchings of those suspected of murdering New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy. People were fine with that. One of the men who organized that lynching, John Parker, would later go on to become Governor of Louisiana. Notably, he said that Italians were “just a little worse than the Negro, being if anything filthier in [their] habits, lawless, and treacherous.”
And, again, it’s true. We don’t demand statues be taken down. We don’t complain. As Frank Gardaphe points out in his essay “Whites On A Leash: Italian-Americans and White Privilege in the U.S.,” not complaining about these things is part of the price we paid for our status as Official White People.
For a few generations we have had to trade-in or hide any customs which have been depicted as quaint, but labeled as alien, in order to prove equality to those above us on the ladder of success.
In this way, Italian Americans have become white, but a different kind of white than those of the dominant Anglo/Saxon culture. Italian Americans have become whites on a leash.
And as long as we behave ourselves (act white), as long as we accept the images of ourselves as presented in the media (don’t cry defamation) and as long as we stay within corporate and sociocultural boundaries (don’t identify with other minorities) we will be allowed to remain white.
To complain would be to align ourselves with other groups who have faced persecution in this country. To complain would be to deny the Whiteness we worked so hard for.
Viola explains that Columbus Day was a reaction to these acts of violence on Italian-Americans.
It was in reaction to these tragic killings that the early Italian-American community in New York scraped together private donations to give the monument at Columbus Circle to their new city. So this statue now denigrated as a symbol of European conquest was from the beginning a testament to love of country from a community of immigrants struggling to find acceptance in their new, and sometimes hostile, home.
I have a certain amount of understanding of and empathy for why they did that at the time. I honestly do. Especially because I’m reasonably sure that a bunch of poor Italian immigrants didn’t know anything of Columbus’s genocidal tendencies and only thought of him as a way to claim their right to be here, in some way. They thought that by taking a piece of American history for their own, people here would start to see them as Americans too. They’d see them as having just as much a right to be here as the Anglo-Saxons who invaded the country centuries later. It was a move that, more than anything else, was about survival. “You guys like Columbus, right? You think he was a good guy? He was an Italian! Like us!”
This was especially important during a time when Italian-Americans were considered suspiciously un-American — when it was assumed we were anarchists, socialists or mafiosi, or even just too strange and quaint and superstitious and brutish and “swarthy” to ever be “Real Americans.”
But I don’t think honoring a man who perpetrated violence against an ethnic group is the right way to honor an ethnic group that was victimized by violence. In fact, I think it is the absolute worst way to do that. Columbus wasn’t us, Columbus was John Parker. He was a lot worse, frankly, than John Parker.
I am honoring the victims of crimes like those lynchings by standing against Columbus Day, by standing with those whose ancestors were victims of an even worse crime.
I have a lot of frazzled, disorganized, bad feelings about the process by which my capital-W Whiteness was obtained. I have a lot of anger towards Italians who embraced racism against black people in order to assert their own Whiteness (AHEM, Frank Rizzo), and fierce anger towards those (AHEM, Scalia, Joe Arpaio) who shit all over those immigrants who came after us. Columbus is a part of that. “Oh look, we killed tons of Native Americans too, so we’re on your side, white people!” isn’t the look I’d like to see us going for.
I believe with my whole heart that Columbus Day should be replaced with Indigenous Peoples Day. But I also would not be opposed to having a less gross holiday to celebrate the heritage of my people. To say that we need to celebrate a genocidal maniac in order to celebrate our heritage is completely insulting to me, and should be to every other Italian-American out there who is not a genocidal maniac.
Tear the Columbus statues down and replace them with statues of those who were lynched in New Orleans, with statues of Sacco and Vanzetti, with the bad ass Italian anarcho-feminist Maria Roda, with union organizer Angela Bambace, with Frank Sinatra’s bad-ass illegal-abortion-providing feminist anti-racist mom who is my hero. HELL. Replace them with statues of Louis Prima and Keely Smith, a much better meeting of Italians and Native Americans than Columbus represents.
Or replace them with pizza. Pizza never hurt anybody (who wasn’t lactose intolerant) and has only brought joy and deliciousness to this country.
Viola argues that we need to celebrate Columbus Day and have statues of him to remember our history, to remember things like the lynching in New Orleans, to remember the hardships and hostility Italian-Americans endured. But this holiday and those statues are not doing that. They are doing the exact opposite. People know all about Columbus, but most people do not know about the lynchings, they don’t know about those who fought and died for labor rights in this country, they don’t know about the Italian-Americans who actually were fighting against racism, or those who were victims of it.
Columbus Day doesn’t just disrespect the indigenous people Columbus massacred, it disrespects us. It puts a happy, patriotic, pro-America face on an ugly history that many are still too afraid to confront.