Monday, October 12, 2009

I poop on your holiday!

So today is Columbus Day, a.k.a. Columbus Cold Murdered All the Indigenous Peoples Day. The Ithaca paper had a front-page story about how schools are shockingly teaching all about the Dark Side of Columbus, which is not so shocking to me since my progressive schools were teaching me all about the Dark Side of Columbus and Other Europeans 25 years ago.

What did shock me was when I moved to Wooster Square and found out there were still people who considered Columbus Day a holiday, not just a day off but a festive holiday i.e. Italians, i.e. my people, or a quarter of my people. In 1892, before Columbus became un-PC, the Italian immigrants of New Haven erected a statue of Columbus in Wooster Square which stands to this day, and on this very day I can tell you (though I am not there) that it is festooned with all sorts of flowers and banners donated by the continually present Italian community of New Haven. Also the Knights of Columbus is headquartered in New Haven. So Columbus is kind of a big deelio.

Why? Well, because Columbus was, very broadly speaking, the first Italian-American, and while it might be more appropriate for our people to celebrate Mother Cabrini, this was before her canonization or even her death, so...there you go. And there is something to celebrate, after all, about being Italian in America, which is pretty cool, especially for southern Italians (such as my great-grandparents) who, like many immigrants, came here to escape poverty and provide their descendants with opportunities they didn't have in their native land. Italians are one of the American success stories, maintaining their identity, their traditions, and sometimes (to my surprise as I wander around Wooster) their language, while becoming at the same time fully acculturated Americans. Columbus Day is the day when Italian-Americans celebrate being Italian and American--which, not having grown up in a place with a critical mass of Italians, I never realized they had a day for until I moved to Wooster Square.

Which is not to negate the very real historical consequences of Columbus, the murder and often annihilation of entire native cultures by war, massacre, smallpox, and the like, and the herding of remaining peoples onto tiny reservations on land nobody else wanted. Italians have had it pretty good; we don't really need a holiday. But I wonder if this is a zero-sum game, if on this day our collective conscience must so outweigh any other consideration that there is not a sliver of space for us to celebrate what was good in what came after, which considering how good pizza is, you'd think maybe there would be, just a little. So I can pass on to my one-eighth Italian daughter with the Italian surname for a first name and the birthday that will often fall on Columbus Day weekend, or what is left of it after all the significance has been wrung out of it and we're left with guilt and no mail--sorry, that was a long sentence, but so I can pass on to her a little tiny bit of pride in being Italian-American, which whatever our ancestral sins is still a neat thing to be.


Deanna said...

Before the Seattle School District went entirely politically correct, I can remember drawing pictures of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. By contrast, I don't think Alexandra even heard about Columbus Day at school yesterday.

Celebrate the holiday - there always seems to be time for self-flagellation for those who truly feel the need to do so. I'm just tired of kids being forced to feel guilty - GUILTY! - for things hundreds of years past that they couldn't have had any direct influence on.

Juliet said...

Yes, I'm not sure what the point is in instilling guilt in children that young. There is all of adulthood for that.

Here's the thing. I don't really mind the P.C. business so much. The anti-Columbus people have a valid point. What I do mind is that it sets up this dualist narrative in which there are only two sides to every story, the triumphalist nationalists vs. the victimized natives, when there's a third side that's pretty interesting too: Italian-Americans who began celebrating this holiday in protest of nineteenth-century anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic sentiment. And it's one of the many ironies of history (you really can't teach history without a capacity for irony) that a holiday that began at least in part as an assertion of non-Protestant, non-northern European immigrants of equal enfranchisement as Americans (keeping in mind that whatever the nationality of Columbus and his patrons, it was largely northern European Protestants who colonized what is now the United States) has become a symbol of European oppression of another (more severely) disenfranchised group of non-Protestant non-Europeans. And it's ironic, but I guess ultimately good, that Italians have become so acculturated that it is now acceptable to overlook the origins of the holiday we celebrate and go straight to pooping on it.

clyde said...

even in my school days back in the age of dinosaurs no one denied that europeans, particularly spaniards, destroyed civilizations in america.

But the genocide tht resulted from european contact was largely due to disease. unless contact between america and europe could have been delayed until penecillin was invented, something like this was inevitable.

societies trade being victors and vanquised as time goes by. in the balkans they manage to trade between being oppressor and oppressee on a 50 year cycle. so if everyone gets to claim victimhood, how is it special?

what to admire in columbus? a questioning mind, skilled seamanship and a stout heart - but he got to be a victim too.

Margaret said...

Personally I think the PC thing is kind of silly. Yes, we should all be aware that Columbus was a terrible person. Granted. But I believe that genius is worth celebrating. Just about every genius is a terrible person, to some extent.

I guess my point is that there's ALWAYS going to be a dark side, so as long as we're aware that no one is perfect, no one should be worshiped, it's a GOOD thing to celebrate genius, beauty, and truth where we find it. If Shakespeare was a womanizer, does that mean we burn all his plays and tell our children never to read them? Of course not.