NoColumbusDay

Three years ago we launched a “NoColumbusDay” campaign which specifically aimed to raise consciousness in the Italian American community about the historical crimes associated with this historical figure. We created a petition and sent a letter to all members of the Italian American Congressional Delegation and another to leaders of Italian American associations to support our call for repealing the federal status of Columbus Day. Ours was one of several petitions which, for decades, had demanded this act of symbolic reparation. And like others, it fell on deaf ears, at the time.

Three years later, the combined toppling of Confederate monuments and statues of Christopher Columbus have made crystal clear how intertwined the history of Indigenous genocide and Black slavery are in this nation. The message is now louder and clearer.  And one of its mandate unequivocal:  Columbus Day Has Got to Go!

This site is designed to explain the reasoning behind this petition, and addresses questions anyone signing our petition might have:

What exactly is the connection between the celebration of Columbus Day and racism?

The history of Columbus Day is a textbook case of home-grown institutionalized racism.  Celebrated for the first time in 1892 by a growing community of Italian immigrants, who were deemed not fully white, the commemoration of Columbus Day was used by this group to gain acceptance into white America. It became a state holiday in several states starting in 1907, an annual congressional proclamation beginning in 1934, and a federal holiday in 1971 marking the ascendency of the Italian American community’s participation in white majority rule. Columbus Day, therefore, is a covert celebration of white supremacy for it unites the cover-up of Indigenous genocide with the maintenance of “whiteness” as the normative racial standard for European immigrants. No matter what the emotional attachment of Italian Americans to this figure might be, the celebration of Columbus day reinforces, by concealing it, the structural racism that infiltrates our institutions and the high-sounding ideals at their roots. It is time we definitively reject the symbolic legacy of white supremacism wrapped in the laurels of Discovery and Immigration.

What is the history of Columbus Day and why has the Italian American community been so defensive of this holiday?

The first celebration of Columbus Day in 1892 was organized by a growing community of Italian immigrants, which the previous year had suffered one of the first and the largest recorded public lynchings in America. Columbus Day represented a way for this maligned and beleaguered immigrant group, who were deemed not fully white and hence unfit for full citizenship, to align themselves with the established Columbian hero cult in a bid for acceptance into white America. These early efforts, however, were not the work of the vast majority of the immigrant working poor but instead of a few immigrant elites known as prominenti who were ultimately concerned with their own self-interests.

Congress has never decreed Columbus Day as an official day for Italian Americans, and it was not even made a federal holiday until 1968.[1] Nevertheless, over time and through much politicking, an association between Italian Americans and Columbus has been passed off as “real” and the holiday has long come to be celebrated as a day honoring Italian Americans alone. For example, just recently, while replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day as a city holiday, the City of Los Angeles also decreed October 12 “Italian Heritage Day.”

The “discovery” date of October 12, and the figure of Columbus, were unofficially commemorated for the first time in 1792, before Italians ever emigrated en masse to the United States of America, and, therefore, initially, the date had nothing to do with them, because Italy was not even a nation. This celebration initiated the process of making Columbus a symbol of the European “spirit of adventure,” of Europeans’ claims to the “discovery” of the “New World,” and their right to “civilize” it. By the 1860s however, around the time Italy became a nation, a sizable, and mainly laboring class of Italians began settling in North America. Starting in 1866, in New York, these Italian immigrants and their families began to accept this colonial narrative by associating the commemoration of Columbus’ Discovery of America with the celebration of the contribution of Italian Americans to this nation. This acceptance occurred in great part because of the success of prominenti, self-defined community leaders, many who in various ways enhanced their own economic status by taking advantage of this laboring class of Italians, and who “often acted as ethnic brokers between Italians and the dominant society.”[2] Prominenti, especially in cities and towns in the North East, encouraged the celebration of Columbus, soliciting funds for the statues and monuments of Columbus and other notable Italians (e.g., Dante Alighieri, Giuseppe Verdi) with appeals to the working poor.[3]

The connection between Columbus Day and white European identity was key to Italians in the United States, precisely because their status as “whites” was challenged by both the failures of mainland Italians as imperialist colonizers of Africa (Adwa 1896), and by the unprecedented influx of poor and under-educated Italians from the South, which marked all Italian immigrants as racially different (i.e. inferior) from Northern-White-Aryan Europeans. Italian American community leaders reacted by seeking to appropriate the “heroic” legacy of Columbus for the community itself. By 1907, Colorado was the first state to declare Columbus Day a state holiday, and, over the next three decades, forty states would institute Columbus Day celebrations. Finally, three decades later, in 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the first federal observance of Columbus Day, to honor, as he proclaimed three years later, “the courage and the faith and the vision of the Genoese navigator,” which:

“glorify and enrich the drama of the early movement of European people to America. Columbus and his fellow voyagers were the harbingers of later mighty movements of people from Spain, from Columbus’s native Italy and from every country in Europe. And out of the fusion of all these national strains was created the America to which the Old World contributed so magnificently.”[4]

Roosevelt’s statement rhetorically connected three different moments: Columbus’ sixteenth-century voyages, the contributions of late nineteenth-century Italian (and other European) immigrants, and the creation of the United States from the traditions of Europe. Roosevelt’s confirmation of a specific national day to recognize Columbus came about in great part due to the pressure mounted by groups such as the Knights of Columbus, as well as individuals such as the newspaper editor and businessman, Generoso Pope. In hindsight, such pressure is entirely comprehensible, as a way to gain recognition for all Italians as fully “white,” and to validate their contributions to this nation. At the same time, Roosevelt’s decision may have had as much to do with a feeling of retributive justice towards Italian immigrants, as with calculations on how to further the assimilation of Italians, and perhaps distract them from their growing identification with Fascist Italy.[5] These relationships—which were foundational to the creation of the holiday—point precisely to the problematic origin of Columbus Day, because as they suggest some of the ways that Italian Americans were in some sense sold a bill of goods. In time, however, the disturbing connections between whitewashed colonial history, and the racist treatment of Italian immigrants as not fully white (or racially ambiguous), were buried under the increasing identification of Columbus Day with the contributions of “all immigrants” to American history, which is the motivation by which Columbus Day was finally established as legal federal holiday in 1968.

Over the past four decades, however, the number of states choosing to observe Columbus Day as a paid holiday has diminished to just twenty-three. By the same token, Columbus Day is no longer identified as a celebration of all immigrants, but of Italian Americans only, and regularly defended only by some leaders of this community. Most significantly, we can also trace a quiet but growing disregard for the holiday among many Italian Americans, even as other Italian Americans remain the only recognizable group to support it.[6]

Today, in 2020, the social and economic position of Italian Americans is markedly changed. Do Italian Americans still suffer from the sting of white-on-white racism, as they did in the past? Do they still need a federally-mandated holiday in order to celebrate their contributions to the success of America? But, most importantly, as a community, do Italian Americans wish to remain attached to a holiday and a historical figure so clearly linked to genocide, colonialism, and white-washed memory? We believe that the majority of Italian Americans, and of American citizens do not.

Who was Christopher Columbus ‘the historical figure’?

The historical jury on the first Viceroy and Governor of the West Indies, Admiral Cristoforo Colombo, is no longer out.[7] Thanks to the work of several historians over the past two decades—and including the publication of thirteen volumes of documents and contemporaneous writings — Columbus can be credited with having been the first white European, not to “discover” a land that was known for centuries and inhabited by civilizations, but rather, to initiate specific and legacy-filled practices leading to enormous and centuries-long sufferings for indigenous people of the Americas:

a) He claimed possession of a land and named it Hispaniola on behalf of a distant and absent King, establishing a precedent that would be followed by all European colonizers thereafter;

b) He took native peoples captive and shipped them to Europe into slavery;

c) He instituted the encomienda system of forced-labor that brought thousands of Spaniards to the New World to brutally exploit Native Americans, which was then exported by other conquistadores throughout Latin America, and is considered by most historians to be one of the principal causes for the brutalization of the indigenous populations of the Americas, and for their dying in ever greater numbers under the ravaging consequences of contact with the Europeans.

Like any man in any age, Columbus surely had positive aspects to his moral compass. Some of his writings reveal moments of great sympathy for the individuals, those “savages,” he ruled over. For sure, he was an exceptional sailor, and he may have been a pleasant companion, generous with his friends, and possessed any number of apparently good qualities. But none of these personality traits or talents can be made to count as “historical legacy.” They provided real-life elements for his hagiography and the mythmaking activity that surrounded his figure for centuries, but they cannot be made to stand next to the record of his actions as Governor of the West Indies and their short- and long-term consequences.

To all those who claim that Columbus was just a “man of his times and should not be judged by the standards of today,” the answer we give is straight forward: Bartolomè de Las Casas and Michel de Montaigne were also men of Columbus’ times, and both were horrified by the treatment of Native Americans by Columbus and his followers. And to those who say that it was not Columbus, but the Spanish who were the “ferocious conquistadores,” one need only offer Columbus’ least famous words upon setting eyes on the inhabitants of Hispaniola: “with fifty men they could all be subjected and made to do all that one wished;” or refer to the new evidence, uncovered in 2006, of the trial for “cruelty” that the Spanish Crown instituted against Columbus, and which led to his deposition as Governor of the West Indies.

Last but not least, to those who defend Columbus, the man, and Columbus Day, the holiday, on the basis of their “cultural reference” to the so called “Columbian Exchange” of things, people, and cultures, between the New and the Old Worlds, we respond that this cultural exchange has very little—if anything—to do with the historical figure of Viceroy Columbus, and that the very name “Columbian” attached to this exchange is evidence of the myth-making activity that has been ongoing for centuries, in order to mask the colonialist roots of the tale of Columbus’ “discovery of the Americas.”

 

Columbus ‘the Day’

 

Notes

[1] In 1968 Congress passed the Monday Holiday Law, which changed pre-existing federal holidays so that they always fell on a Monday and it also established Columbus Day for the second Monday of October—this law only went into effect in 1971, under President Nixon. Among the main reasons noted for the holiday was that: “By commemorating Christopher Columbus’s remarkable voyage, the nation honored the courage and determination of generation after generation of immigrants seeking freedom and opportunity in America” (Congressional Research Services Report for Congress, 1999, https://www.senate.gov/reference/resources/pdf/Federal_Holidays.pdf, accessed September 3, 2017).

[2] Joan Saverino. “Italians in Public Memory: Pagentry, Power, and Imagining the ‘Italian American’ in Reading, Pennsylvania,” in Joseph Sciorra (ed), Italian Folk: Vernacular Culture in Italian-American Lives (New York: Fordham University Press 2011), pp. 155. For a discussion of the characteristics and role of the prominenti within this large wave of Italian immigration to the U.S., see Donna Gabaccia’s Italy’s Many Diasporas (London & NY: Routledge, 2001).

[3] See Saverino. “Italians in Public Memory.” See also Stefano Luconi, “Opera as a Nationalistic Weapon: The Erection of the Monument to Giuseppe Verdi in New York City” Italianamericana 24, 1 (2016): 37-64, and Bénédicte Deschamps, “Italian-Americans and Columbus Day. A Quest for Consensus between National and Group Identities, 1840-1910,” in Fabre G. et al. (eds.), Celebrating Ethnicity and Nation. American Festive Culture from the Revolution to the Early Twentieth Century (New York-Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2001), 124-139. By the 1920s, the prominenti similarly aligned themselves with Mussolini and Fascism and encouraged the Italian American communities at large to do the same. See Philip V. Cannistraro, “The Duce and the Prominenti: Fascism and the Crisis of Italian American Leadership.” Altreitalie (July-December, 2005): 76-86.

[4] http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=15869, accessed September 6, 2017.

[5] Pope had used his influential Il Progresso both to show loyalty to Mussolini and to secure the Italian American vote for Roosevelt.

[6] In 1992 a group of Italian Americans in New York City formed the Italian Americans for a Multicultural United States (IAMUS) in part as a reaction to the celebrations around the quincentenary of Columbus’s 1492 voyage. For some information on IAMUS as well as other actions related to Italian Americans and Columbus see Philip V. Cannistraro and Gerald Mayer, The Lost World of Italian American Radicalism: Politics, Labor, and Culture. (Paegar, 2003). For other analyses from the quincentenary also see Stephanie Jed and Pasquale Verdicchio “The Other Coast: A Superficial Look at 1492” Lies of Our Times, (December 1992): 19-20. Beginning in 1999 the “Dump Columbus, Embrace Humanity” event was held for many years in San Francisco. The anthology, Avanti Popolo came out of that event (Italian American Political Solidarity Club, Avanti Popolo: Italian American Writers Sail Beyond Columbus. San Francisco: Manic Press, 2008). More recently, a Facebook group is devoted to Italians and Italian Americans against Columbus (see https://www.facebook.com/Italian-Americans-Against-Christopher-Columbus-182290058511791/, accessed September 4, 2017). See also the Columbus Day Legacy (director Bennie Klain, 2011) for a documentary that mostly focuses on the celebration of Columbus Day in Denver, Colorado and begins to move towards an understanding of the holiday and its celebration that might “allow indigenous peoples and Italian Americans to retell tell American history outside the grammar of the invasion” (Dina Fachin, review of Columbus Day Legacy, Italian American Review, 2.2, Summer 2012, pp. 135-139; http://qcpages.qc.cuny.edu/calandra/sites/calandra.i-italy.org/files/files/Fachin%20from%20IAR_2_2_p3.pdf, accessed September 4, 2017).

[7] For a general introduction to the myth-making activities connected with the historical image of Columbus, see James W. Loewen’s book, Lies My Teacher Told Me About Christopher Columbus: What Your History Books Got Wrong (The New Press, 2014); for a deeper look into the evidence emerged in the last two decades of scholarship, see Christopher Columbus and the Enterprise of the Indies: A Brief History with Documents, G. Symcox and B. Sullivan (McMillan, 2005); for direct access to newly published documents and narratives regarding Columbus in the “New World” see the thirteen volumes of the Repertorium Colombianum published between 1995 and 2004 (http://cmrs.ucla.edu/publications/books/, accessed September 1, 2017). The full account of Columbus’ fall from grace with the Spanish crown has not been translated into English, but has been published by Consuelo Varela and Isabel Aguirre in Spanish with the tittle La caída de Cristóbal Colón : el juicio de Bobadilla (Madrid : Marcial Pons Historia, 2006).