Thoughts on Columbus, Italian American History, and Solidarity

I envision this as part of a series of pieces I plan to write about Italian American history, memory, and heritage. I’m starting with the topic of Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Stay tuned.

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Every October, I find myself caught between two worlds: the Italian American community, for whom Christopher Columbus is a symbol of Italian and Italian American heritage, and the social justice-oriented community, which encourages us to reconsider ‘Columbus Day’ and transform the national holiday into an opportunity to critically engage with our colonial past.

Many Italian Americans still fiercely defend Columbus Day. But why should we? Why should Italian Americans uncritically accept a man with blood-stained hands as a representative of our heritage? Moreover, how can Italian Americans committed to building a world without oppression grapple with the ugly past and present and honor our Italian American roots?

Instead of glorifying Columbus as a symbol of our Italian American heritage, we can look to our twentieth-century predecessors, the Italian immigrants and their American-born children who faced discrimination and violence from the US government and citizens alike. Their radicalism and resistance against oppression has been deeply researched and well-documented in recent years. In the age of #BlackLivesMatter, the emergence of Indigenous Peoples Day, and increasingly hostile US policies toward non-white immigrants, it’s time for Italian Americans to return to our radical heritage and stand in solidarity with Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people of color.

#somethingscoming: A Reckoning for Columbus

In September 2017, a Christopher Columbus statue in Central Park was vandalized. Red paint stained its hands. Graffiti, reading “Hate will not be tolerated” and “#somethingscoming,” had been written on the pedestal in white spray paint.

After the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville protesting the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee in August 2017, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio created the Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers, to review “all symbols of hate on city property” for possible removal. One of the monuments in question is about half a mile south of the Central Park statue: the Christopher Columbus statue in Columbus Circle. In December 2017, more than 120 prominent scholars and artists signed and sent a letter to the Commission calling for the removal of the Columbus Circle monument, as well as other monuments that have long generated harm and offense as expressions of white supremacy.

Ultimately, the city decided to keep the Columbus Circle monument in place, saying it would contextualize the history of Christopher Columbus and the monument itself through new historical markers. But any perceived threat to monuments to Columbus (or even Columbus Day) sparks an outcry from some Italian Americans who resist the movement to deglorify Columbus. Some, for example, dismissed advocates for removing the Columbus Circle monument as a “group of wacky PC protesters” trying to make Italian Americans ashamed of their Italian heritage. Others have expressed concern about local and state efforts across the US to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, arguing that these efforts wrongfully examine “a man of his time” according to today’s standards.

Why are Italian Americans so committed to Columbus and Columbus Day? For many Italian Americans, Columbus’s arrival in the Bahamas, long interpreted as his ‘discovery’ of the ‘New World,’ provides an example of Italians’ contributions to the origin story of the US, a narrative which helped Italian Americans fend off anti-Italian discrimination and violence.

Anti-Italianism in US Policy and Public Opinion

Italians began migrating to the US in significant numbers after the 1820s, with the largest wave of Italian immigration between 1880 and 1914. Many Italians faced discrimination and violence. Approximately 50 extrajudicial killings of Italians were documented from 1890 to 1920. This violence was the result of a complex combination of racial, economic, and social tensions, including anti-immigrant nativism, anti-Catholic sentiments, and the US government’s anxieties about national security.

Shortly after a mob shot and killed eleven Italians in New Orleans in 1891, The New York Times published an editorial about the event, describing the victims as “desperate ruffians and murderers.” The editorial continued,

These sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins, who have transported to this country the lawless passions, the cutthroat practices, and the oath-bound societies of their native country, are to us as pest without mitigation. Our own rattlesnakes are as good citizens as they. Our own murderers are men of feeling and nobility compared to them.

The victims had been accused of murder, charged, and subsequently acquitted by a jury. They were to be freed. The editorial’s author argues that, had they been freed, “the miscarriage of justice would then have been complete and irremediable” and “[l]ynch law was the only course open to the people of New-Orleans to stay the issue of a new license to the Mafia to continue its bloody practices.” There’s a lot going on in this editorial. It offers justifications for a mass killing of Italian immigrants ranging from stereotyping them as lawless, deceitful, and cowardly; dehumanizing Italians by likening them to snakes and pests; to categorizing the victims as inherently criminal due to their Sicilian ancestry (“…the descendants of bandits and assassins…”).

In 1911, the reports of the Immigration Commission led by William P. Dillingham echoed these sentiments. One such report devoted an entire chapter to what it called “Emigration of the Criminal Classes,” declaring: “An alarming feature of the Italian immigration movement to the United States is the fact that it admittedly include[d] many individuals belonging to the criminal classes, particularly of southern Italy and Sicily.”

The commission alleged that “crimes of personal violence, robbery, blackmail, and extortion [were] peculiar to the people of Italy.” It continued, “the prevalence of the above enumerated crimes among Italians of the southern compartimenti and Sicily is due to conditions under which these people lived for centuries,” citing a history of “despotic rule” in southern Italy and Sicily that delayed “progress and even civilization.” Moreover, the commission claimed, “It is certain that many Italian criminals, both those who had served sentences and others who had escaped punishment, have come to the United States during the past 30 years.” (Does any of this sound familiar?)

The commission concluded that immigration from southern and eastern Europe posed a significant threat to American society and culture. The commission recommended restricting immigration as a whole, through various means, including imposing quotas on the number of immigrants “of each race” permitted to enter the country; excluding so-called ‘unskilled’ laborers unaccompanied by spouses or families; excluding individuals who did not pass a literacy test; and increasing the amount of money an immigrant was required to have on arrival.

The Dillingham Commission’s recommendations, combined with widespread xenophobia in the US, led Congress to pass the Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924, which imposed quotas on the number of immigrants from any particular nation. These limits were based on data from the 1890 census, which was recorded before the largest wave of immigration from southern and eastern Europe. As a result, fewer immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, including Italy, were permitted entry into the US than immigrants from western Europe.

In order to combat anti-Italianism of this period, Italian Americans started to align themselves more closely with Columbus as a way to claim an American heritage and identity in a time when the US government and its citizens often alienated them. In 1892, on the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Caribbean, President Benjamin Harrison urged Americans to celebrate the occasion. Prominent Italian Americans, including the Knights of Columbus, an organization with a largely Italian, Roman Catholic membership, lobbied to make ‘Columbus Day’ a federal holiday in 1934, under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration, thus reinforcing the legitimacy of Italians’ claims to American heritage at the national level.

But anti-Italian sentiments persisted and were reinvigorated during wartime. Following the 1940 Alien Registration Act, all non-citizens above the age of 14 had to register as ‘aliens.’ On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which is best known for the compulsory relocation and incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans. The order also applied to Italian and German Americans, but to a lesser extent. Approximately 1,600 Italian Americans were arrested, 250 Italian citizens were incarcerated in detainment centers for up to two years, 250 more Italians were ordered to move out of “designated military zones,” and the movements of 600,000 Italian Americans were restricted by curfews. As a result, EO 9066 disrupted entire communities, targeting US citizens as well as non-citizens.

Later that year, restrictions on Italian Americans were lifted on October 12—Columbus Day—after President Roosevelt’s radio speech recognizing Italian Americans as full and patriotic citizens. (However, it is important to note that Japanese Americans were not afforded this recognition, and the FBI and other agencies continued to covertly violate the rights of Italian Americans.)

On Collective Memory and Useful Pasts

Celebrating Italian heritage via celebrating Columbus’s ‘contributions’ to the origins of the US enabled Italians and Italian Americans to symbolically become Americans and gain acceptance into the mainstream. This is also why we have statues and other monuments commemorating Columbus’s ‘arrival.’

I have heard Italian Americans use the history of anti-Italianism to dismiss anti-racist efforts to address systemic inequality in the US. It usually takes the form of a statement like, “Italians were oppressed once, and look at us now, we’ve made it—you can make it, too.”

I think this approach is just as harmful as it is dismissive. It actively ignores the distinct experiences of Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people of color in what is currently the United States of America. It ignores how Italian Americans gained acceptance in mainstream white America by accepting capitalism, anti-radicalism, patriarchal authority, and white racial supremacy. It shows that our proximity to Americanness—of the distinctly white variety—has overshadowed the memory of our shared histories of state and extrajudicial violence.

Others have asserted that efforts to rethink our commitment to Columbus actually incite racism, rather than eradicate it. In an op ed last year, John M. Viola, then the president and COO of the National Italian American Foundation, said:

The “tearing down of history” does not change that history. In the wake of the cultural conflict that has ripped us apart over these months, I wonder if we as a country can’t find better ways to utilize our history to eradicate racism instead of inciting it. Can’t the monuments and holidays born of our past be reimagined to represent new values for our future?

In proposing to retire Columbus statues and rethink Columbus Day, no one is trying to change history, tear down history, or rewrite history. I think a more constructive way to approach the issue is to recognize that these holidays and these monuments were created in a certain time and purpose, and that time and purpose has long passed.

Monuments—and holidays—represent a particular interpretation of the past and maintain that narrative’s influence in the present and future. Columbus Day and Columbus monuments were created to enable Italian Americans to secure their place in American history and heritage in an era of anti-Italian sentiments. But we are no longer living in that time, and we don’t need holidays and statues to secure our place in the US. While anti-Italian discrimination and violence are indeed in recent memory, Italian Americans no longer face such hate and abuse because of our ancestry.

Monuments to Columbus celebrate his so-called ‘discovery’ and long history of Italians’ presence in the US while simultaneously masking the historical and contemporary realities of genocide and oppression of Indigenous peoples in the Americas.

#somethingscoming: From Complicity to Solidarity

Something is coming.

It’s solidarity, and that begins with understanding our history.

It’s Italian Americans who remember what our Italian predecessors faced upon arrival in the US in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

It’s Italian Americans who see post-9/11 Islamophobia and the Trump administration’s ban on travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries and remember what Catholic immigrants encountered in the US a century ago.

It’s Italian Americans who see restrictions on travelers and immigrants from specific countries and remember that Italians were among those targeted by the the Quota Act of 1921, the Immigration Act of 1924, and the Alien Registration Act of 1940.

It’s Italian Americans who see the ongoing human rights crisis at the US-Mexico border, where suspected undocumented immigrants and their families are being separated and detained, sometimes indefinitely, and remember that Italians were among the detained during World War II.

It’s Italian Americans who see contemporary incarceration of immigrants and remember that Japanese, German, and Italian Americans were forcibly removed from their homes and incarcerated, because of their ancestry or suspected undocumented status, under Executive Order 9066.

It’s Italian Americans who see the hypercriminalization and violence against Black communities in the US and remember that US citizens and government officials have enacted violence against Italians and Italian Americans in the past.

It’s Italian Americans who see the historical and continued violence against Indigenous people living in what is currently the US and ongoing violations of Indigenous sovereignty and remember what horrors our ‘hero,’ Christopher Columbus, wrought on the Taino population in the Caribbean.

It’s Italian Americans who see the negative stereotyping and constant dehumanization of people of color in the US and remember that Italians were once among those stereotyped, racialized, and dehumanized.

This is not to say that Italian Americans have had the same experiences as Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian people of color in the US. Each population has had distinct experiences—and varied experiences within each community—and that cannot be said enough. As white Americans, Italian Americans can’t possibly claim to know their experiences. This is why we can’t ethically dismiss the grievances of people of color in the US; the Italian American experience is not universal.

And this is also not to say we should be ashamed of our Italian American heritage, as some may claim.

As we reflect on our history, we can ask: so what? What do we do with it?

We can begin with empathy. To empathize is to understand from someone else’s frame of reference. But we should strive to move beyond empathy, from understanding through feeling to mutual recognition, action, and compassion. We can practice an ethic of care. We can recognize and affirm the humanity and dignity of those around us, those like us, and those different from us.

We can practice solidarity. We can acknowledge that we live in a complex system of white supremacy, patriarchy, and global capitalism that thrives on and perpetuates violence. We can acknowledge that white folks—Italian Americans included—tend to benefit in these structures and we have a collective responsibility to challenge them.

We can use our (somewhat recently bestowed) white privilege to support and, most importantly, amplify ongoing efforts to influence policy and culture change, such as the Movement for Black Lives.

We can embrace Indigenous Peoples’ Day. As far as I know, there isn’t a concerted movement to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ day where I live in upstate New York, but cities and states across the country are making the change, including Columbus, OH. There’s also a petition circulating that calls on New York City’s Mayor DeBlasio to change the holiday.

When Italian Americans see injustice in the world, we can identify it and fight against it, because we have known it, in some form. Trauma and violence, and resistance to it, remain in our collective memory—we are, after all, only a couple of generations removed from the hate our predecessors endured.

From Columbus to emancipazione

We can embrace Italian American history and heritage without a holiday or monuments dedicated to Christopher Columbus. Columbus is not the hero we deserve.

Our heroes should be the working-class Italian women striving for emancipazione, who taught revolutionary values to their daughters, ensuring that their commitment to freedom from oppression would be passed down to the next generation.

Our heroes should be the sovversivi, a transnational generation of leftists ranging from anarchists, socialists, and syndicalists to anti-fascist and communist refugees after World War I, who opposed state violence, fascist regimes, and capitalist exploitation.

Our heroes should be our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents (or great-great-grandparents, for those of us who are younger) who made the journey from Italy to the US. Without them, we wouldn’t be here.

As I finish writing, I offer a passage from Chani Nicholas’s latest horoscope, from which I hope to draw inspiration in the days to come:

May this be the time when we answer the call to win the battles our [forebears] fought with us as their greatest hope. May these be the times where the ghosts of unfulfilled promises be laid to rest through our collective, creative efforts and expertise. May these be the times we put an end to rights un-won and justice undone.

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Recommended Reading

This is not an exhaustive list of resources, but it’s a starting point for anyone interested in reading more about anything I’ve discussed.

Rethinking the Columbus Myth, Monuments, and Holiday

Calfas, Jennifer. “Here Are the Cities that Celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day Instead of Columbus Day.” TIME, October 8, 2017. http://time.com/4968067/indigenous-peoples-day-columbus-day-cities.

Caron, Christina. “Why Some Italian-Americans Still Fiercely Defend Columbus Day.” The New York Times, October 5, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/05/us/columbus-day-italians-indigenous-peoples-day.html.

Castania, Kathy. “Rethinking Columbus Day, yet again.” Democrat & Chronicle, October 6, 2017. https://www.democratandchronicle.com/story/opinion/guest-column/2017/10/06/essay-italian-american-rethinking-columbus-day/737194001.

Corbett, Erin. “Here’s Why People Are Celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day Instead of Columbus Day.” Fortune, October 7, 2018. http://fortune.com/2018/10/07/what-is-indigenous-peoples-day.

Feeney, Nolan. “How Indigenous Peoples’ Day Came to Be.” TIME, October 13, 2014. http://time.com/3495071/indigenous-peoples-day.

Flanagin, Jake. “Columbus Day, or ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Day’?” The New York Times, October 13, 2014. https://op-talk.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/10/13/columbus-day-or-indigenous-peoples-day.

Gandhi, Lakshmi. “How Columbus Sailed into U.S. History, Thanks to Italians.” NPR, October 14, 2013. https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/10/14/232120128/how-columbus-sailed-into-u-s-history-thanks-to-italians.

Hajela, Deepti and Dake Kang. “Indigenous Peoples Day? Italians say stick with Columbus.” Associated Press News, October 9, 2017. https://www.apnews.com/2b9810abe83746f7b3fd14a801d90922.

Jones, Bobby Dorigo. “An Open Letter to Italian Americans on Columbus Day.” Case in Pointe!, October 10, 2016. https://medium.com/case-in-pointe/an-open-letter-to-italian-americans-on-columbus-day-af565b510c16.

Sparkes Guglielmo, Shane. “A Letter to Italian Americans.” Huffington Post, January 26, 2017. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/a-letter-to-italian-americans_us_588a295fe4b01ea6978989a5.

Strawn III, Raymond. “It’s Time to Replace Columbus Day.” Albany Student Press, October 20, 2017. http://www.albanystudentpress.net/opinion-its-time-to-replace-columbus-day.

Vanasco, Jennifer. “The Complicated History of the Christopher Columbus Statue.” WNYC News, December 5, 2017. https://www.wnyc.org/story/complicated-history-christopher-columbus-statue.

Centering Marginalized Voices in US History

Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press, 2015.

Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne and Dina Gilio-Whitaker. “All the Real Indians Died Off”: And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans. Boston: Beacon Press, 2016.

Gabaccia, Donna. From the Other Side: Women, Gender, and Immigrant Life in the U.S., 1820-1990. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995.

Kendi, Ibram X. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. New York: Nation Books, 2016.

Ngai, Mae. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton University Press, 2014.

Ortiz, Paul. An African American and Latinx History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press, 2018.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States, reissue edition. New York: Harper Perennial, 2015.

Monuments and Public Memory

Anderson, Benedict. “Cartoons and Monuments The Evolution of Political Communication under the New Order.” In Political Power and Communications in Indonesia, ed. K. D. Jackson and L. W. Pye. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

Barnes, John. “The Struggle to Control the Past: Commemoration, Memory, and the Bear River Massacre of 1863.” The Public Historian 30, no. 1 (February 2008): 81-104. http://tph.ucpress.edu/content/30/1/81.

Glassberg, David. “Public History and the Study of Memory.” The Public Historian 18, no. 2 (Spring 1996): 7-23. http://tph.ucpress.edu/content/18/2/7.

Mitchell, Katharyne. “Monuments, Memorials, and the Politics of Memory.” Urban Geography 24, no. 5 (2003): 442-459. https://doi.org/10.2747/0272-3638.24.5.442.

Sutton, Benjamin. “Over 120 Prominent Artists and Scholars Call on NYC to Take Down Racist Monuments.” Hyperallergic, December 1, 2017. https://hyperallergic.com/414315/over-120-prominent-artists-and-scholars-call-on-nyc-to-take-down-racist-monuments.

Walkowitz, Daniel J. and Lisa Maya Knauer. Memory and the Impact of Political Transformation in Public Space. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.

Italian American History and Culture

Bencivenni, Marcella. Italian Immigrant Radical Culture: The Idealism of the Sovversivi in the United States, 1890-1940. New York: New York University Press, 2014.

Bona, Mary Jo. By the Breath of Their Mouths: Narratives of Resistance in Italian America. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009.

Branca-Santos, Paula. “Injustice Ignored: The Internment of Italian-Americans during World War II.” Pace International Law Review 13, no. 1 (2001): 151-182. https://digitalcommons.pace.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1207&context=pilr.

Cannistraro, Philip V., ed. The Italians of New York: Five Centuries of Struggle and Achievement. New York: John D. Calandra Italian-American Institute, 2000.

Cannistraro, Philip V. and Gerald Meyer, eds. The Lost World of Italian-American Radicalism: Politics, Labor, and Culture. Westport: Praeger, 2003.

Connell, William J. and Stanislao G. Pugliese, eds. The Routledge History of Italian Americans. London: Routledge, 2017.

Cosco, Joseph P. Imagining Italians: The Clash of Romance and Race in American Perceptions, 1880-1910. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003.

Guglielmo, Jennifer and Salvatore Salerno, eds. Are Italians White?: How Race is Made in America. London: Routledge, 2003.

Guglielmo, Jennifer. Living the Revolution: Italian Women’s Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880-1945. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

Guglielmo, Thomas A. White on Arrival: Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 1890-1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Herman, Joanna Clapps. The Anarchist Bastard: Growing Up Italian in America. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011.

Ialongo, Ernest and William Adams, eds. New Directions in Italian and Italian-American History: Selected Essays from the Conference in Honor of Philip V. Cannistraro. New York: John D. Calandra Italian-American Institute, 2013.

Lopez, German. “100 years ago, Americans talked about Catholics the way they talk about Muslims today.” Vox, January 30, 2017. https://www.vox.com/2017/1/18/14312104/islamophobia-catholics?ncid=fcbklnkushpmg00000090.

Luconi, Stefano. From Paesani to White Ethnics: The Italian Experience in Philadelphia. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Pardini, Samuele F. S. In the Name of the Mother: Italian Americans, African Americans, and Modernity from Booker T. Washington to Bruce Springsteen. Dartmouth: Dartmouth College Press, 2017.

Richards, David A. J. Italian American: The Racializing of an Ethnic Identity. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

Roediger, David R. Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White: The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs. New York: Basic Books: 2006.

Stapinski, Helene. “When America Barred Italians.” The New York Times, June 2, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/02/opinion/illegal-immigration-italian-americans.html.

Tamburri, Anthony Julian and Fred Gardaphé. Transcending Borders, Bridging Gaps: Italian Americana, Diaspora Studies, and the University Curriculum. New York: John D. Calandra Italian-American Institute, 2015.

Taylor, David A. “During World War II, the U.S. Saw Italian-Americans as a Threat to Homeland Security.” Smithsonian, February 2, 2017. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/italian-americans-were-considered-enemy-aliens-world-war-ii-180962021.

Woolf, Christopher. “A Brief History of America’s Hostility to a Previous Generation of Mediterranean Migrants—Italians.” Public Radio International, November 26, 2015. https://www.pri.org/stories/2015-11-26/brief-history-america-s-hostility-previous-generation-mediterranean-migrants.

Zimmer, Kenyon. Immigrants against the State: Yiddish and Italian Anarchism in America. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2015.

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