When I was still a teenager, I had the unlikely honor of being a marshal for New York City’s Columbus Day Parade. Not the Grand Marshal, mind you—that title is generally reserved for prominent Italian-Americans who like parades and don’t mind lots of hand-waving. No, I was a regular marshal, whose responsibilities consisted mainly of making sure the parade participants were lined up correctly in the staging areas, passing along the “go” signal when it was show time, and lots of standing around, trying to look official.
Other than getting up at 5 a.m., it was a good experience, made possible by my father’s longtime involvement with the Columbus Citizens Foundation as a marshal.
My dad was passionate about this stuff. Along with a lifetime of other volunteer duties, my father served as National President of the Commission for Social Justice, the anti-defamation arm of the Order Sons and Daughters of Italy (OSIA), and spearheaded its Positive Image Campaign, a program designed to better publicize Italian-American historical achievements and contributions.
It never meant all that much to me. I couldn’t see what the big deal was—first, I was American, not Italian, and second, where I grew up, an Italian last name was not unusual, it was expected; prejudice was a foreign concept to me.
As I got older, I realized that there are many people whose idea of Italian, and Italian-American culture, is largely informed by movies and TV shows like The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos, with an occasional Jersey Shore thrown in. Though in a lot of ways I decry any hyphenation—to me, we’re all Americans, with slightly different backstories—I gradually came to appreciate the desire—and the need—for a celebration of the positive elements of Italian and Italian-American culture.
Corresponding with my own evolving understanding of the Italian pride issue was a national trend of increasing sensitivity toward indiginous people, specifically the people who lived in America before it got its current name. These two ideas, unfortunately, seemed to be on a collision course.
The very idea of Columbus “discovering” America depends on a rather one-sided view of history. In 1973, activist Adam Fortunate Eagle made the point humorously and succinctly when he traveled to Rome, Italy, and “claimed” it. As he wrote in his book Scalping Columbus and Other Damn Indian Stories: “If an Italian can lay claim to discovery of the Americas, with a native population estimated at eighty million in North, Central, and South America, then an American Indian should be able to discover a land called Italy.” One could make the argument that Spain would have been a more appropriate country for the activist to claim, since Columbus sailed under the Spanish flag, but you get the idea.
Christopher Columbus exists in a kind of cultural limbo—hero to some, villain to others. As with many historical figures, a careful analysis reveals a complicated man who accomplished some incredible things, and did some horrible things, too. Because he’s become such a divisive figure, some people think we should get rid of Columbus Day—and I’m one of them.
There’s significant opposition to chucking Columbus Day, however, and a big part of it has to do with our natural desire to maintain tradition. We were all taught that Columbus discovered America (1492, ocean blue, etc.)—even though he never actually stepped foot on the continent we now call North America. Change is difficult, but that’s not an excuse.
More understandable, and more sympathetic, is resistance from Italian-Americans who object to seeing what was once a day of personal pride renamed “Indiginous People’s Day” in many cities across the U.S., a move that carries with it an implication of complicity and shame. Rebranding a long-held holiday might seem a reasonable counter-attack to the longtime mistreatment of native people, but it’s important to remember that Italian-Americans are not the real target, just as Columbus Day isn’t really, to my mind, about Columbus. The most ready comparison to Columbus Day’s meaning for Italian-Americans is that of Saint Patrick’s Day for Irish-Americans. But whatever you might think of Columbus, he was definitely no saint.
Allow me to propose a solution—change the name of Columbus Day to “Italian Culture Day,” or some similar appellation. Doing so would expand the holiday’s scope to more specifically honor the multitude of Italian immigrants to America who helped build this country, as well as the big names of the Italian Renaissance—Da Vinci, Michelangelo, et al.—and their own lasting innovations and achievements, such as popularizing the single-name nomenclature, and having those names bestowed upon Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Renaming Columbus Day would also prevent, or at least mitigate, a looming pick-your-side war in which the false choice of indiginous people or Italian culture is presented. If this country’s principles (if not always its actions) stand for anything, it’s the peaceful coexistence of people of different backgrounds, who are all now American.
As for Indiginous People’s Day, keeping the concept—but moving it to another day—would allow a tribute to native people without distraction, appreciated as a genuine attempt to represent their history and culture, rather than dismissed as a simple act of rebuttal or spite against the establishment.
Pride is a powerful, easily misdirected emotion—a vice or a virtue, depending on the situation. A compromise, and a show of solidarity between supporters of Italian-American pride and indiginous people’s pride, would give both sides one more thing to be truly proud of.