OPINION: Let’s abolish Columbus Day

It's time to find another way to celebrate Italian-American heritage

It’s a simple proposal: Abolish Columbus Day and find another way to honor Italian contributions to this country.

That’s what more than 50 Italian academics, artists and activists are currently proposing. I’m one of them. We’ve signed on to two letters, one to Italian American community leaders asking them “to facilitate an open discussion within their communities in order to explore more appropriate ways…to acknowledge and celebrate the legacy of sacrifice and generosity that Italian Americans have given to this nation.”

He didn’t sail for Italy, he didn’t discover America — and he committed atrocities.

The other calls on the Italian American Congressional Delegation “to open a dialogue with members of the Native American Congressional Caucus, leading to the abolition (and/or replacement) of Columbus Day as a federal holiday.”

I’m Southern Italian, but I feel no pride in a man who happened to be born in the Republic of Genoa 400 years before there was even a nation called Italy. A man who sailed for Spain. A man who committed numerous atrocities and was eventually called back to that country to answer for those crimes.

Columbus Day became important for Italians in this country for reasons that should be familiar to many other ethnic groups. When we arrived at Ellis Island, Anglos didn’t exactly roll out the red, white and green carpet. They considered us barbarians of a separate race who would topple Anglo culture. Employers openly discriminated against us, running newspaper ads that made it clear we couldn’t apply. In the south, Italians were lynched because we weren’t seen as white. The largest of those lynchings took place in 1891 in New Orleans.

In 1924, Congress severely cut back on how many Africans, Italians, Jews and Eastern Europeans could enter the country and outright banned Asian and Arab immigrants, thereby closing any open borders the country might have had.

Faced with conditions that mirrored their homeland, many Italian and Sicilian immigrants became leaders in the worker strikes of the early part of the last century. Two such labor organizers, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were executed in 1924 for a murder they didn’t commit. In the courtroom, the judge referred to them as “dagos,” a derogatory term for Italians. Worldwide protests could not stop the execution.

During WWII, thousands of Italians were relocated, deported or jailed after the government abandoned a plan to place us in internment camps. Joe di Maggio’s father was restricted from visiting the family business. Opera star Enzio Pinza was arrested by the FBI. 

Associating Italians with Columbus Day was a way to gain acceptance and whiteness. It was a whiteness won, in this instance, on the backs of native peoples who, as the recent fight against the North Dakota pipeline once again demonstrates, are still mistreated on this, their land. A whiteness that has robbed us of our language and much of our culture and history, and left us with right-wing public figures such as Frank Rizzo, Rudolph Giuliani and Joe Arpaio. 

It’s time for us to embrace the real heroes, such as Vito Marcantonio, the Harlem congressman who, in the 1940s, pushed for black civil rights and a federal anti-lynching law. Or 14-year-old Camella Teoli, whose scalp was torn by a spinning machine and who bravely testified before Congress in 1912 about the abuses in the textile mills.

Or the thousands of activists who took to the streets to win us the rights all of us workers often take for granted, including the 40-hour week, vacation and sick time, and work place conditions that don’t put our lives at risk.

Arrivederci, Cristoforo Colombo. P.S. Take the damn Blue Angels with you.

  • chris12bb

    If this letter is to be taken seriously the 50 leaders who sign it need some gravitas, and with the best will in the world if you are a signature you have to question its worth the effort

  • Don Sebastopol

    Flight from White. It seems everyone would like to escape being an evil White person. Especially one of those evil White males.

    Tommi, I get the point. When my father’s sister married an Italian, from the reaction of some in my extended family, you would think she was marrying an African American. But by the time my brother married an Italian it was no longer an issue. Italians are now White.

    In any case, no matter what you do you cannot escape being considered White. You will not be seen as a victim. But if you have your DNA tested you may find some victim DNA and tell people you are not 100% White. My DNA has a trace of Southern Asian so now I can also claim victim. I always wondered why I was so fond on Tandoori and Masala.

    Up until 1970, Southern Asians were classified a White. There is currently a proposal to remove North Africans and Middle Easterners from the White category. At that point we can eliminate more Whites and have a European-American category as White. Perhaps we can eliminate more Whites by reclassifying Southern European as not White. That would leave only Northern Europeans as White. Taking another step would be to classify Nordic Americans as the only remaining White people in America. The Whites would be back in fashion because progressives love the Scandinavian welfare states.

  • MKR

    If you look at life as an anthropologist you see how stupid people are today when they classify people by their recent geographical location . Even the word racist is a word which may contribute to ethnic discrimination. Think about it: There is one human race. There are many thousands of different ethnicities based on where your ancestors lived for approximately 10,000 years, a drop in the ocean of evolutionary history. Even as little as 50,000 years ago we were all black Africans.
    Human life originated on the Northern and Eastern part of the continents of Africa, where the oldest fossils of the common ancestor of chimpanzees, apes and gorillas have ben found. While paleo anthropologists disagree about how the one of these common ancestors developed into humans and the other branched into our primate cousins one fact is sure: for most of history we were all Africans.
    There have been many different waves out of Africa since the Neanderthals and early homo sapiens came to populate the rest of the world, and people's skin color and ethnicity depends on where the most recent wave out of Africa approximately 50,000 years ago ended up living. In the area of Northern Europe there was natural selection for whiter skin because agriculture and lack of sunlight led to vitamin D deficiency severe enough to cause early death. People with white skin are actually a tiny minority in the global population. There are over 1 billion Africans, over 1 billion Indians, and over 2 billion Asian people if you include Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese and Mongolians. There are over 1 billion self identifying Muslim Arabic people, most of whom were Semitic by original origin.
    The people who limited the number of Jews, Italians and Africans (as well as others) from entering the country are similar to the people now who want to ban immigrants from entering: they want to have the WASP control the government and the society, its as much about religion than anything else.
    And yes, Columbus really didn't "discover" the Americas because fossil records show that there were people living in North and South America for approximately 10,000 years before he even showed up.