When I was a boy, my father owned a book called “Columbus WAS First.” I never read it. I’m not sure he ever read it, either. But, judging by the title, I can guess what it argued, and I can guess why he kept it on the shelf.
Few, if any, modern historians dispute Christopher Columbus’s record of brutality or his pivotal role in the heinous practice of owning and selling human beings. Torture, punitive amputation, wholesale slaughter of the generally peaceful native peoples he encountered on his four voyages — none of that was rare among European explorers of his era. Columbus’s enthusiasm for it, though, while not putting him in a class by himself, certainly calls into question why we continue to celebrate a national holiday in his name.
What’s painful to me, and I’m certain would have been painful to my father were he still alive, is that the holiday named for Columbus — chosen to mark the October day on which he first saw land he believed was the Far East — has become the one day each year on which the contributions of Italian-Americans are recognized. It’s a sad marriage. There’s so much to be proud of in the courage, resilience, and achievements of Americans who trace their heritage to the Italian peninsula — and so much to be ashamed of in the nation’s continued elevation of Columbus to hero’s status.
As this summer’s events in Charlottesville, Va., underscored, America has a lot to reckon with in terms of its history. Our land is littered with tributes to slave owners and other torturers, to the architects of genocide; some of our universities and libraries are named after people who made their fortunes by poisoning others, or from the sweat and blood of others. Their victims were people of color, yes, particularly and horribly, but also wave after wave of immigrants who happened to arrive a century or three later than the First Exploiters.
While it’s clear that our moral consciousness has evolved — behavior once endorsed by queens and bishops, presidents and popes, has become obviously evil in the eyes of the vast majority of Americans — we retain a tendency toward blind hero-worship. Athletes, politicians, CEOs, and celebrities of all stripes are admired for their successes while we often ignore their gross mistreatment of others, and of the earth.
Speaking as one Italian-American, I’ll have no problem when statues to Columbus are removed from the public eye. And I won’t mind at all if the second Monday in October is no longer a holiday that bears his name. It will bother me, though, if the grit, talent, and generosity of millions of Italian-Americans is no longer recognized. I could mention Enrico Fermi and Dr. Anthony Fauci, Mercury astronaut Walter Schirra, DiMaggio, Sinatra, De Niro, Madonna, and Lady Gaga, but I’d rather honor the nameless ones who kept house and raised kids, who toiled in shoe and textile factories and carved stone and worked the mines in Appalachia. Italian-Americans endured mockery and exclusion, then watched their culture — so rich in the arts, sciences, and human warmth — reduced to mob stereotypes and Jersey Shore goons. We deserve a special day.Roland Merullo’s latest novel is “The Delight of Being Ordinary: A Road Trip with the Pope and Dalai Lama.”