September 22, 2020

What Does Columbus Day Mean?

I'd like to take a break from watching our slow-motion Trump-led social suicide and talk a little about this

The Pittsburgh Art Commission unanimously voted on Wednesday to schedule a special hearing for the public to voice their opinions on the potential removal of the Christopher Columbus statue in Schenley Park.

Mayor Bill Peduto asked the commission in a letter Tuesday to begin a public review to determine the future of the statue.

The statue, which was erected in Schenley Park in 1958, was vandalized in 2010, 2017 and most recently again in June and July as part of nationwide protests against monuments honoring Columbus.

After the statue was vandalized in June, an online petition was created calling for its removal.

Let me say as a proud Italian-American that it's probably time for the statue to be removed.  As a cultural signifier, "Columbus" has way too much negative baggage to support it's continued presence in Oakland.

But instead of talking about the statues, let's talk about Columbus Day - something with similar calls for removal. What does "Columbus Day" mean? Evidently, different things to different people at different times.

From The New York Times:

Few who march in Columbus Day parades or recount the tale of Columbus’s voyage from Europe to the New World are aware of how the holiday came about or that President Benjamin Harrison proclaimed it as a one-time national celebration in 1892 — in the wake of a bloody New Orleans lynching that took the lives of 11 Italian immigrants. The proclamation was part of a broader attempt to quiet outrage among Italian-Americans, and a diplomatic blowup over the murders that brought Italy and the United States to the brink of war.

Here's the story:

It began with the murder of David Hennessy. A popular police chief, Hennessy was shot down by gunmen while walking home from work. As he lay dying, a witness asked him who did it. “Dagoes,” he reportedly whispered, using a slur for Italians.

And so, more than a few Italians were rounded up and put on trial. The trial ended in a way that the public didn't like (six not guilty verdicts and 3 mistrials) and then:

In response, thousands of angry residents gathered near the jail. Impassioned speakers whipped the mob into a frenzy, painting Italian immigrants as criminals who needed to be driven out of the city. Finally, the mob broke into the city’s arsenal, grabbing guns and ammunition. As they ran toward the prison, they shouted, “We want the Dagoes!”

A smaller group of armed men stormed the prison, grabbing not just the men who had been acquitted or given a mistrial, but several who had not been tried or accused in the crimes. Shots rang out—hundreds of them. Eleven men’s bodies were riddled with bullets and torn apart by the crowd.

It's not surprising that the crowd rejoiced. The Italian government, evidently, did not.

Back to The Times on President Harrison's proclamation:

President Harrison would have ignored the New Orleans carnage had the victims been black. But the Italian government made that impossible. It broke off diplomatic relations and demanded an indemnity that the Harrison administration paid. Harrison even called on Congress in his 1891 State of the Union to protect foreign nationals — though not black Americans — from mob violence.

Harrison’s Columbus Day proclamation in 1892 opened the door for Italian-Americans to write themselves into the American origin story, in a fashion that piled myth upon myth. As the historian Danielle Battisti shows in “Whom We Shall Welcome,” they rewrote history by casting Columbus as “the first immigrant” — even though he never set foot in North America and never immigrated anywhere (except possibly to Spain), and even though the United States did not exist as a nation during his 15th-century voyage.

Seems obvious that the establishment of Columbus Day was initially intended to appease an angry Italian government in light of a brutal Southern lynching and not necessarily a celebration of Columbus himself, who, let's remember, was a man of his time and thus could scarcely be seen today as anything but ignorant and vicious.

Harrison was also a calling for patriotism. From the proclamation:

Now, therefore, I, Benjamin Harrison, President of the United States of America, in pursuance of the aforesaid joint resolution, do hereby appoint Friday, October 21, 1892, the four hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America by Columbus, as a general holiday for the people of the United States. On that day let the people, so far as possible, cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life.

Columbus stood in his age as the pioneer of progress and enlightenment. The system of universal education is in our age the most prominent and salutary feature of the spirit of enlightenment, and it is peculiarly appropriate that the schools be made by the people the center of the day’s demonstration. Let the national flag float over every schoolhouse in the country and the exercises be such as shall impress upon our youth the patriotic duties of American citizenship.

In order to push the patriotism of the moment, Harrison had to shoe-horn Columbus into something he definitely (and absurdly) wasn't: an enlightenment-age "pioneer of progress." But what about all those who have since felt that the day is not about the misery brought by Columbus (and many others after him) but cultural pride in being written into the American origin story? The day means one thing if you see it as a celebration (or commemoration) of the beginnings of what turn out to be some very bad long-term abuses and another if you see it as a de facto Italian American heritage day and not a celebration of the misery and pestilence that followed Columbus' "discovery" of Hispaniola.

So we're at odds. What does "Columbus Day" mean? Who gets to define its meaning for everyone else? Those pushing for the "heritage day" risk offending those focusing on the very real abuses and those focusing on those abuses risk offending the cultural pride of a large swath of the population.

I don't know the solution.

Here's my domanda piuttosto pericolosa: is an Italian-American Heritage Day even necessary at this point? The fact of the matter is that every ethnic/cultural group deserves recognition for its unique contributions to The American Experience.

Perhaps it's time retire the day and use the temporal space it inhabits to make election day a national holiday instead. Perhaps we can all celebrate the American Experience that way.