Happy Columbus Day

Mulberry_Street_NYC_c1900_LOC_3g04637u_edit

Mulberry Street, NYC, circa 1900

That’s right.  I said it.

I have blogged about Columbus statues here and here, but I also want to call your attention to Yoni Appelbaum‘s piece at The Atlantic: How Columbus Day Fell Victim to Its Own Success.”  The subtitle is “It’s worth remembering that the now controversial holiday started as a way to empower immigrants to celebrate diversity.”

Here is a taste:

Christopher Columbus has been, from the first, a powerful symbol of American nationalism. In the early American republic, Columbus provided a convenient means for the new nation to differentiate itself from the old world. His name, rendered as Columbia, became a byword for the United States. Americans represented their nation as a woman named Columbia, adopted Hail, Columbia! as an unofficial anthem, and located their capitol in the District of Columbia.

Italian-Americans, arriving in large numbers in the late nineteenth century, took note of the reverence which their famous countryman enjoyed. It was a far cry from the treatment they themselves received. Many Americans believed Italians to be racially inferior, their difference made visible by their “swarthy” or “brown” skins. They were often portrayed as primitive, violent, and unassimilable, and their Catholicism brought them in for further abuse. After an 1891 lynching of Italians in New Orleans, a New York Times editorial proclaimed Sicilians “a pest without mitigation,” adding, for good measure, that “our own rattlesnakes are as good citizens as they.”

Italians quickly adopted Columbus as a shield against the ethnic, racial, and religious discrimination they faced in their adoptive country. They promoted a narrative of national origins that traced back beyond Plymouth or Jamestown, all the way to San Salvador. How could a nation, they asked, reject the compatriots of its own discoverer?

Instead of accepting Italians, many nativists chose to reject Columbus. They cast about for a racially acceptable discoverer of the New World, and found him in Leif Erikson. The exploits of the great Viking explorer, recorded in Icelandic sagas, were already being promoted by Norwegian immigrants, eager to find acceptance of their own. If America did not, after all, owe its existence to an Italian Catholic, then there would be no need to accept his modern compatriots. “At a moment of increasing fear that the nation was committing race suicide,” explains historian Joanne Mancini, “the thought of Viking ghosts roaming the streets of a city increasingly filled with Irish, Italian, and Jewish hordes must have been comforting to an Anglo-Saxon elite.”

Read the entire piece here.

 

Why the Columbus Statues Should Stay

Columbus

I am in complete agreement with this piece by Laura Ruberto and Joseph Sciorra. (And it is not just because I am half Italian).  If we are going to make an argument against Robert E. Lee statues because of the Jim Crow context in which they were erected, then we can make an argument for Columbus statues based on the same principle–the meaning Italian-Americans gave to these statues at the time many of them were erected.  (I also blogged about this here).

A taste of Ruberto and Sciorra’s piece at Process:

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Italian immigrants saw the American idolization of Columbus as a way to deflect the onslaught of xenophobic and racial prejudice and violence they encountered, and for which they were relatively unprepared, as new arrivals in the United States. They bought into and contributed to a specific Italian reading of Columbus in relationship to their brutal experiences of bigotry. Italian Americans built their emerging identity as provisional whites out of this hagiography.

The connections between Columbus and Italian Americans developed in great part through the work of Italian immigrant prominenti, ethnic leaders who served as intermediaries between WASP elites and the working poor and who supported an upper-class notion of Italian national identity. These included Angelo Noce, a publisher who spearheaded the first declaration of Columbus Day as a state holiday, in Colorado, in 1907, and Carlo Barsotti, a banker and newspaper editor who solicited funds from primarily working-class immigrants to erect New York City’s Columbus monument in 1892. These leaders, many from northern Italy, “argued for full inclusion as Americans based upon an imagined ‘Italian’ heritage of civilization and whiteness,” as historian Peter G. Vellon reveals. In Columbus, they perceived a tool by which to forge an Italian national identity which did not exist among the vast majority of immigrants from southern Italy whose geopolitical affinities were to their local villages. By perpetuating ideas of a united Italian community based on racial hierarchies and a grand history of an assumed, singular Italian civilization, the prominentiimposed elitist notions of a unified Italian American community that was removed from working-class understandings of history and social formations, and that relied on Italians aligning themselves with a white majority. At the same time, the prominenti devalued and inhibited a whole host of Italian working-class cultural expressions that became more and more associated with ignorance and vulgarity—from undermining the practice of Catholic street feasts to belittling the use of Italian regional dialects.

The quintessential prominente, Generoso Pope, was instrumental in cementing Italian Americans to Columbus. A powerful businessman and influential newspaper owner in New York City, Pope was pro-Fascist. He used his Italian language daily Il Progresso Italo-Americano during the 1920s and 1930s as propaganda for the Italian dictator, and he led Columbus Day gatherings at Columbus Circle where audience members made the fascist salute (and anti-fascist Italian Americans protested both vocally and physically). Critical in securing the Italian American vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt, he later lobbied FDR’s administration for an annual national Columbus Day, eventually proclaimed in 1937.

Significantly, many Columbus statues around the country were commissioned, paid for, and built by Italian immigrants. The statues were not created—as in the case of Confederate statues—to impose political dominance over others; on the contrary, the monuments were a means to gain entrance into a racist society under the cover of whiteness. Theirs was no doubt a troubling, but all-too-common, approach to assimilation. Contributions of small change from working-class Italian immigrants helped underwrite statues like the grandiose marble one dedicated in 1892 in New York City or the smaller bronze one erected in 1930 in Easton, Pennsylvania. In some communities like Easton and Richmond, Virginia, the Ku Klux Klan actively campaigned to prevent the placement of Columbus statues in public spaces in opposition to Catholics and “foreigners.” In short, these monuments were historically contested sites where Italian immigrants sought visibility in the remaking of local landscapes and the larger political sphere.

Read the entire piece here.

Statues of Christopher Columbus and Italian-Americans

Columbus Cirlce

Columbus Circle (Wikimedia Commons)

In case you have not heard, New York City mayor Bill DeBlasio is considering removing the statue of Christopher Columbus in the circle that bears his name.  David Marcus of The Weekly Standard explains how that statue got there:

The earliest celebration of Columbus in North America took place in in 1792. A newly formed New York City government called Tammany celebrated the 300th anniversary of his discovery of America. Eight years earlier, the Manhattan college formerly known as Kings College had been renamed, Columbia. This happened before many people who actually were Italian became residents of the world’s first constitutional democracy, and it greatest city. One hundred years later, Italians would begin to pour through Ellis Island like water drained through pasta. By 1900, Italians were becoming a fixture in the United States.

These Italian immigrants weren’t greeted warmly. In the 1890s, a group of Sicilian immigrants were lynched in New Orleans. Few Italian Americans today would suggest that they faced greater bigotry than blacks have. But, the lynching happened, and it is a part of our country’s dark history of racial resentment. In the wake of this bigoted violence, Il Progresso, the leading Italian language newspaper of the time in New York City, began a campaign to raise money for a statue of Columbus, as a gift to the city, and a symbol of Italian Americans’ dedication to be good citizens.

It worked: Small dollar donations led to an image of Columbus towering over the city. Italian immigrants chose Columbus as their avatar for good reasons. Not only was he a great man, who had inaugurated the trade between the New and Old World, he was a founding father of America. Only the Norwegians with Leif Erickson had a similar figure, but he was a tourist, not a man who changed the course of history.

This is interesting.  Many have argued that Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson monuments need to be removed because they were erected during the Jim Crow era as a way of glorifying the “Lost Cause” and white supremacy.  In other words, we need to understand these monuments in light of the meaning they carried at the time they were erected.  Could a similar argument be made for Columbus statues?

I am half-Italian.  I have spent a lot of time listening to my late grandfather (died a few years ago at the age of 103) talk about discrimination against Italian-Americans. White Americans treated him as a member of another race.  None of my grandfather’s stories about working in the breweries of Newark, New Jersey were as bad as the lynchings that Italians suffered in 1890s New Orleans.  And like Marcus, I do not pretend to believe that the story of Italian-Americans is synonymous with the sufferings faced by African Americans in this country.  That would be bad history.  But Columbus became a symbol of pride for Italian-Americans.  The statue in Columbus Circle, as Marcus points out, was erected “as a symbol of Italian Americans’ dedication to be good citizens.”

What do you think?  Should Columbus go?

Coming to Terms With Our History

Columbus

Recently on Facebook I saw a picture of a statue of Christopher Columbus in Buffalo covered in red paint.  It is pictured above.  The person who posted the photo wrote “When good things happen to bad people.”  The responses to the post were similar.

I have also seen a variety of Facebook posts by folks who demand that monuments of Confederate soldiers and anyone who owned slaves be torn down immediately.  These folks reject the idea of contextualizing the monuments or deliberating about how they should be handled.  Sadly, many of these folks identify themselves in their Facebook bios as history and social studies teachers.

Perhaps the time for civil conversation is over. Maybe the monuments should come down–Lee, Stonewall, Washington, Jefferson, Columbus, etc….  Maybe as one teacher put it, the “erasing history” mantra is getting old.  Frankly, it scares me that these history and social studies teachers might be bringing such views into their classrooms.  And let me be clear–this is not about white supremacy.  This is about a civil debate how to handle these monuments that bring good history to bear on their meaning and purpose.

I thought about these Facebook posts again after I read Robert Kuttner‘s recent piece at Huffington Post.  Kuttner is the co-editor of the progressive magazine American Prospect, but he is also the guy who landed the last interview with Alt-right policy wonk Steve Bannon before the Trump senior adviser was fired.  Kuttner worries that we are playing directly into Bannon’s hands on this whole monument debate.

Here is a taste:

Last week in Baltimore, some far-lefties took a sledgehammer to a statue of Christopher Columbus. A video uploaded to YouTube declared:

“Christopher Columbus symbolizes the initial invasion of European capitalism into the Western Hemisphere. Columbus initiated a centuries-old wave of terrorism, murder, genocide, rape, slavery, ecological degradation and capitalist exploitation of labor in the Americas. That Columbian wave of destruction continues on the backs of Indigenous, African-American and brown people.

“What kind of a culture clings to those monuments in 2017? Part of our evolution as humans requires tearing down monuments to destructive forces and tearing down systems that maintain them.”

Now, this requires some careful thought. The speaker is not entirely wrong, but he manages to sound like central casting’s parody of a lefty. Unless we all want to “return” to Europe or wherever our ancestors came from, America is our home and Columbus was among the first European explorers.

What’s required is a long-overdue process of truth, reconciliation and healing. Even before the latest outburst of virulent racial hate encouraged by our president, Confederate statues were coming down all over the former Confederacy. That’s a good start.

But do we really want to tear down statues of Washington, Jefferson and Columbus? In some ideal, utopian world, that may feel overdue. But in the real world of politics, will it contribute to healing―or serve as raw meat to the Bannons?

For better or worse, there is no central committee of American progressivism. Most of us may conclude that the right place to draw a bright line is at statutes commemorating the Confederacy and slavery. But that doesn’t stop people acting on their own behalf.

The bitter truth is that half the founding fathers held slaves. And the other half assented to the continuation of slavery under the Constitution. That’s why we had to fight a civil war almost a hundred years later.

We can’t undo that history. But we need to come to terms with it. And we need to  rectify the shameful parts of the legacy that live on in the present. I can’t believe that taking sledgehammers to statues of Washington, Jefferson, and Columbus will help.

Read the entire piece here.

Is Columbus Day a Racist or Anti-Racist Holiday?

It’s a day or two late, but I highly recommend reading Jay Case’s post on Columbus Day at his excellent blog The Circuit Reader.  


Case, who teaches American history at Malone College in Canton, Ohio, shows how Columbus Day was created by Italian-American immigrants in order to celebrate their heritage in the midst of racist attacks against them.   

As some of you know, my father’s side of the family is Italian-American and I grew up in an area of northern New Jersey where there were a lot of Italian immigrants, including my own grandparents. Columbus Day was not only a day off from school or a celebration of Italian heritage, but it also had the kind of anti-racist flavor to it that Case writes about.  As I listened to the stories of my Italian-American elders, and reconsidered those stories later in life, it became clear to me that Italians were not white. (And now as I read a lot of good scholarly literature on the Italian-American experience and “whiteness” my thoughts along these lines are confirmed). 

A few years ago when I interviewed my now-deceased Italian grandfather who emigrated to the United States through Ellis Island in 1913, he told horrific stories about how he was treated by German-Americans and Irish-Americans while employed as a chauffeur and later as a truck driver for several breweries in Newark, NY.  He faced a lot of racial discrimination.

Here is Case:

Columbus, of course, was also Italian. Immigration from Italy increased noticeably from the 1880s to the 1920s and this, too, provoked a backlash from many native-born Americans. Italians were perceived as dirty, prone to crime, (Mafia stereotypes abounded), and a people who did not mix well with surrounding communities. These characteristics would undermine democracy, it was thought, so a bunch of Harvard grads formed the Immigration Restriction League in 1894 to try to keep these “criminals” and other undesirable immigrants out. If Donald Trump had been around then, he would have been a founding member.
And then there was anti-Italian racism. Yes, Italians were actually thought to come from a separate race. In the scientific thinking of the day, there were three separate races under the rubric of the white race: Teutonic (which included Anglo-Saxons), Alpine and Mediterranean. Take a big guess who the genetically superior and the genetically inferior groups were in this scheme.
The founder of the Immigration Restriction League put it this way: Americans must decide whether they wanted their country “to be peopled by British, German and Scandinavian stock, historically free, energetic, progressive, or by Slav, Latin and Asiatic” (meaning Jewish) “races historically down-trodden, atavistic and stagnant.”
This form of racism had consequences. Organizations like the Immigration Restriction League campaigned for immigration restrictions based on race. They succeeded. The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 put quotas on immigration from different countries, with the biggest limitations placed on nations with “Latin” and “Slavic” races. Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe faced greater restrictions than immigrants from the more favored “Teutonic” races of Scandinavia, Germany, and Great Britain. In the late 1930s, those immigrant restrictions, the racially-based thinking behind them, and the economic anxieties of the Depression led Americans to refuse to accept any sizable number of Jewish immigrants from Germany and Austria, despite Hitler’s willingness to ship them out of his nation. Ouch.  Racially-based immigrant restrictions lasted until 1965.
So Italian-Americans had anti-racist reasons to campaign for Columbus Day.  So did Irish, German, Italian, and Polish Catholics.  After all, if Anglo-Saxons could celebrate an Italian Catholic like Christopher Columbus as a hero for the American nation, wouldn’t they be more likely to accept Italian-Americans on an equal plane? Wouldn’t this prove that one could be fully Catholic, fully Italian-American and fully American at the same time?
In 1892, on the 400-year anniversary of Columbus’ famous voyage, an Italian-American named Carlo Barsotti pushed for national recognition of Columbus. Building on existing affection for Columbus in the nation, Italian-Americans held massive rallies every year on October 12 (the date Columbus hit land in the Caribbean).  They had deeply personal reasons to convince fellow Americans to recognize Columbus as a true American and a hero.  By World War I, New Jersey, New York, California, and Colorado (all states with significant Italian-American populations) had made Columbus Day a state holiday. By 1921, thirty states had followed.  FDR proclaimed it a national holiday in 1937.
Oddly, despite the growing embrace of Columbus Day, Congress still passed racially-based restrictions on Italian and Eastern European immigration. Most Americans see what they want to see in their historical figures, and many Americans wanted to see a bold adventurer who discovered new lands, not an Italian Catholic who represented the immigrant dimensions of American society.
Nevertheless, the creation of Columbus Day was driven primarily by those who faced racism and wanted full and equal acceptance into American society.
Of course later in the twentieth century Native American groups protested the holiday because it commemorated a man who exploited and killed Indians.  Here is Case again:
Fast forward to the 1990s. While I was a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame, the Native American student organization on campus organized a protest against Columbus. They were particularly disturbed by a series of massive paintings depicting the life of Columbus that lined the hallway of the Administration Building (the one with the “Golden Dome,” which we alumni hold with such affection.) The Administration Building, with its paintings of Columbus, had been built in 1879, just when anti-Italian and anti-Catholic sentiment was beginning to rise again. For the Native American students in the 1990s, however, Columbus symbolized European destruction of their people.
The anti-Columbus cause, then, was driven primarily by those who faced racism and wanted full and equal acceptance into American society.
I’ll let you savor that irony for a moment.
OK, that’s enough of that.
Because I think the Native Americans have a point. Italian-Americans faced discrimination and prejudice, but not nearly on the scale or with as profoundly difficult consequences as Native Americans have faced. (I trust you are knowledgeable enough on this point that I don’t have to list or describe the historical injustices that Native Americans have endured).
I’m perfectly fine with changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day.  We Americans already celebrate progress, the discovery of new knowledge, and a liberating break from old restrictions every time we upgrade our iPhones.  Furthermore, Italian-Americans today are thriving in America. They enjoy full acceptance, and do not face any structural racism that confounds their daily lives. The same cannot be said of Native Americans.
Read the entire post here, including Case’s final theological point.  
As an Italian-American, I would hate to abandon a festival that celebrates the success and achievements of Italians in the United States.  I thought about this a few years ago as I was walking with my family through the Columbus Day weekend street festival in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. It was a wonderful opportunity to tell my daughters, who have not been raised in the kind of Italian-American culture I was (we live in central Pennsylvania for goodness sake!), about the various foods and traditions of Italian-American life.  As we walked past the merchandise stands and food vendors I was able to relay some of the stories my grandparents told me about growing-up Italian in the United States.
On the other hand, perhaps Case is correct.  Maybe it is time that Italian-Americans come up with another historical figure that they can use to celebrate their rich heritage in the United States.