Columbus Day comes to America again, but for how much longer?
Every year in October, New York City’s Fifth Avenue becomes the
“world’s largest celebration of Italian-American culture,”
a phrase trumpeted by the Columbus Citizens Foundation, the organization behind the annual perambulatory orgy of Italo-ethnic pride, cheering on
“the spirit of exploration and courage that inspired Christopher Columbus’s 1492 expedition.”
However, like the city of Seattle, I won’t be celebrating Columbus Day this year. Even though my own DNA springs from the loins of Italy, I cannot see what there is to be proud about when I think of Columbus. I know now that much of what I learned in American classrooms is laughably false.
Christopher Columbus did not discover anything, least of all any land that we now call “America.” Not only did he never set his Genoese boot on the lower 48, he believed that his four excursions to the Caribbean proved the Earth was pear-shaped, because what else could explain how he had missed his intended destination (India) by so much?* When Columbus landed in the Bahamas, he thought was in eastern Asia. Way eastern.
But he wasn’t just a bad yachtsman, he was a terrible human, even when judged by the grotesque standards of his time. He was a slave-trader who destroyed families. He was a gold-greedy chiseler and a cheat who reneged on payment to his crew. Even his Spanish patrons came to realize he was bad news: after his disastrous and shameful stint as governor of Santo Domingo, they dragged his sorry ass back to Spain in chains.
Thus, I feel no Italian pride, even if taking into account Christopher’s more admirable qualities, of which there had to be a few. Surely he was a courageous, if mostly clueless, explorer, and there’s no denying his determination and grit. But even if Columbus had been as glorious as the Columbus Citizens Foundation wants us to believe, I would not feel anything like pride.
What is pride anyway?
According to Dante Alighieri (the world’s greatest poet), pride is not only the worst of the Seven Deadly Sins, it is the father of all the others. Similarly, Columbus’ “discovery” was father to the sad history of conquest and genocide in the New World by European powers. Aside from the intentional atrocities, which were bad enough, consider: long before the United States even existed, up to 95% of the Native American population (North and South) had been wiped out by smallpox imported by Europeans.
There are Italian-American groups all over the country who say that when they celebrate Columbus Day they are celebrating their Italian heritage generally, not Columbus’ atrocious behavior and legacy specifically. Okay, that’s fine. Far be it from me to judge others’ pride, least of all that of my own paisan. But you know what would make me truly proud of my fellow Italian-Americans? If they examined history honestly. If they remembered Columbus for what he was, and not for what they wished him to be.
Last week when Seattle zotzed Columbus Day, replacing it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, local Italian-American Ralph Fascitelli told the Associated Press fatuously, since he presumed to be speaking for me and anyone else of Italian heritage that we felt insulted and disrespected (to which I hashtag, #NotAllItalians). Fascitelli said,
“America wouldn’t be America without Christopher Columbus.”
Well. On that I would agree. If anyone set the tone for what America would become, it was the European interloper who brought subjugation and disease to the New (sic) World. American exceptionalism and its Manifest Destiny to conquer a continent surely was set in motion when Columbus made his four predatory forays into the Caribbean.
So, while some 40,000 strong are parading down Fifth Avenue, gawped at by about another million onlookers, I plan to make a quiet visit downtown to the Museum of the American Indian. Because the museum is built within the old U.S. Custom House a stately and beautiful Beaux-Arts pile designed by Cass Gilbert there are remnants of the paeans to global commerce in the building’s rotunda. One will not miss the Reginald Marsh painting of Christopher Columbus, for example, because the Italian explorer stands glowering over the entrance to the Native American museum’s main gallery.