I think we can all agree that Italians and Italian-Americans rule. I come from Rhode Island, which is the closest thing America has to an Italiocracy. I grew up thinking beauty looked like Pinky Tuscadero (and, when I got older, Sophia Loren). For this and a thousand other reasons, I am very much in favor of the idea of having a holiday to celebrate Italian Americans, which is what Columbus Day has sort of become. The difficulty is that Columbus Day comes with…Columbus.
I am glad that his voyages occurred. You can discount his “discovery” all you like in favor of 101 other expeditions that may or may not have preceded him to America’s shores, but the fact remains that it was only in the wake of HIS expedition that millions of other people followed. That’s important. I like where I live. I am glad I live there. The sticky part is the precedent Columbus set in his relations with the native inhabitants when he got here: a lot of subjugation, slavery, mutilation, and murder. I think civilization needs to turn a corner where we just BLANKET stop condoning these things.
I used to be an apologist, “You weren’t alive then, you weren’t in his shoes, how do you know what it was like to form an opinion and make decisions in another moral universe?” But there were contemporaries of Columbus (some in the clergy and others) who criticized this behavior right off the bat. What this does for me is DISPROVES the previous thesis that it wouldn’t have occurred to Columbus to treat the natives of America as human beings. Because there were people then who knew better, which means that the perpetrators did too but they did it anyway.
Also effectively countered is the other old apology (though it’s quite true): historically, nearly all societies in all places, in all times, east, west, north or south, have been savagely violent both in relation to their own citizens and to their perceived enemies. In other words, the atrocities of 1492 and afterward were not unique occurrences, but business as usual for the human race, so why single out these events? There’s no point in arguing the truth or falsity of it: my ultimate position is that whether it’s true or not (it’s true), far from singling out 1492, as a society we should have a moratorium on EVER celebrating, condoning or encouraging the subjugation of one people by another. It doesn’t matter WHO, it’s the behavior that needs to go bye-bye. That is what humanity is supposed to be working toward, right? Peace? Is that just a word?
Like a great many historical figures, Columbus should be studied, but the time for parades and holidays named for him should maybe be past. BUT, I hasten to add my initial point — Italian Americans must be celebrated! And I have a proposed alternative: Pietro Cesare Alberti (1608-1655), “the first Italian American”. I have seen this amended to “the first Italian American in New York State”, because really, who knows? But it’s symbolic. He was from a family of Venetian bankers and merchants and moved to New York City at a time when it was still New Amsterdam. I learned about him because I am related to him. He is my (10th) great grandfather. His grand-daughter Elizabeth married Dr. John Stewart, progenitor of thousands of contemporary Stewarts, including me. (Pietro Cesare Alberti and his wife were both killed by Indians in 1655 — how’s that for irony?)
At any rate, Pietro arrived here on June 2, 1635. June 2 is annually commemorated in NYC as “Alberti Day”. There’s my modest proposal for a substitute.