Columbus and the old country

Words: Rachel Carr

In the summer of 1492, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain with three ships on a quest to find a westward sea route to India. Instead, he arrived in the Americas – in what is now the Bahamas – and in doing so, started the process that has made him a symbol of the divisiveness of history.

Until very recently, popular culture remembered him as the original American icon. Columbus paved the way for European colonisation and thus the creation of the world as we know it. But he also initiated centuries of oppression and genocide for the Indigenous people he met – and those since.

The tension around his significance is especially important and emotionally charged in the Italian American community. At the turn of the 20th century, approximately four million Italians emigrated to America fleeing hunger and unemployment. They faced discrimination in their new home: Italians were deemed uncultured and uncivilised, and were heavily associated with crime. They were also seen as racially inferior because of their darker skin, and this, along with the regularity with which they worked and lived alongside African Americans, meant they were victims of lower pay, housing discrimination, and in the worst cases, lynchings.

Italian Americans soon began to align themselves with Columbus. Over 400 years after his voyage from Italy to the New World, they had followed in his footsteps. As he came to symbolise ‘the first Italian American immigrant’, so too was the Italian contribution to America acknowledged. The mythical quality of Columbus’ story as father of the nation gave Italian Americans a role in the American narrative and became a sort of protective charm against the discrimination they faced.

The past few decades have seen the US rethink Columbus’ legacy. The legendary status afforded him by Americans has historically overlooked the destruction of Native American civilisations and the theft of their land, and the transatlantic slave trade, all of which helped to create the modern US. And his legacy isn’t confined to the past: Native American communities still endure high levels of poverty and unemployment, poor healthcare and education services, and disproportionate rates of incarceration. Italian American communities, by contrast, have risen to relative affluence, and their culture, including food and music, is very much a part of the national identity. An indication of their success is the vast number of Italian American celebrities, sports stars and political figures.

Calls to remove Columbus statues, rename dedicated towns and public spaces, and end the celebration of Columbus Day have gained traction, galvanised by the conversations about race and legacy that have followed the death of George Floyd. Already several US states and cities have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day.

Columbus Day was made a one-time national holiday in 1892, the year after 11 Italian American men were lynched in New Orleans. In 1906, Colorado became the first US state to officially observe Columbus Day due to the lobbying of Angelo Noce – a first-generation Italian immigrant. In 1934, Congress proclaimed Columbus Day a national holiday after campaigning by the catholic Knights of Columbus and Italian American businessman Generoso Pope, and finally, in 1968, it became a federal holiday. American observance of Columbus Day was brought about by the work of Italian Americans who wanted their culture, identity, and contributions brought into the American mainstream. 

Today, the Italian American community is in no way united on Columbus’ legacy. The official position of the National Italian American Foundation is that it ‘supports Columbus Day and opposes public campaigns that advocate for its elimination as a federal holiday’ but that it also supports the establishment of a nationwide Indigenous People’s Day, with hopes that the two can coexist. The ex-president of the foundation has called taking down statues a ‘tearing down of history’.

But the foundation doesn’t speak for all Italian Americans, and the divide has been a public one. In 2019, a group called ‘Italian Americans for Indigenous Peoples’ Day’ was formed. Heather Leavell, co-founder, has publicly stated how inappropriate it would be to celebrate both holidays simultaneously: ‘we simply cannot celebrate the perpetrator alongside the victims’. She has also said that the urge to ignore Columbus’ genocidal actions is to prioritise personal comfort over the real needs of Native Americans, who are still suffering, and told her community that ‘we unfortunately allied ourselves with a white supremacist in our attempts to be recognized in this country.’ 

It is difficult for a community that experienced discrimination to come to terms with its own engagement with white nationalism. But the implication of Leavell’s words is that the modern USA’s history is one in which to be American was to be white, and so to be white was to be safe and accepted – as Native Americans and African Americans were, and often are, not.

The conversation across America about the role of statues and celebrations goes beyond Columbus, but his legacy remains one of the best examples of the challenges posed by the past, and our own interactions with it. We contribute to history through the way we interpret and remember it, which means being forced to evaluate not only the statues erected, but the intentions, experiences and decisions of the generations that chose to erect them. We must be prepared to relinquish idols who no longer serve their purpose, to acknowledge that which we might rather ignore, and above all, to become irreverent.

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Rachel Carr is a history student at the University of Bristol.