It’s that time of year again. A few blocks from where I live, people are gearing up for the annual “Columbus Day Parade” which will disrupt traffic along 5th Avenue from 44th Street up to 72nd Street. I won’t be joining in the celebration.
Like most school children in the U.S., I was taught the lie that Christopher Columbus was “an explorer” who “discovered America.” It’s a lie that conveniently leaves out much of the truth about Columbus’ crimes against humanity. And, this lie continues to be used by advertisers to sell products. The spam from one retailer in my inbox this week featured the subject line, “Columbus Discovered America, and You Can Discover Savings at Barnes & Noble.” Uhm, thanks but no thanks B&N.
While the local news stations here relentlessly refer to the parade as a “celebration of Italian heritage,” I think it’s long past time we said “nevermind” to the myth of Columbus “discovering America.” By celebrating Columbus, we replay the legacy of colonialism. Yet, despite the genocide that followed in his wake, some see the embrace of Columbus as a national hero as a response to racism and discrimination experienced here in the U.S. Tommi Avicolli-Mecca writes:
I understand why Italian-Americans embraced Columbus. When we arrived in this country, we weren’t exactly greeted with open arms, any more than any other immigrants. There were NINA (No Italian Need Apply) notices in store windows, as well as lynchings in the South, where we were considered nonwhite.
And, like so many other holidays, this one is a bit misguided. In point of fact, Columbus is a man with a tenuous link to contemporary Italy. As you’ll recall from the grade school rhyme, Columbus “sailed the ocean blue” in 1492; contemporary Italy wasn’t a country until 1861.
Still, I don’t think that means we shouldn’t be celebrating Italian Americans’ heritage and contributions to the U.S. I just think we should be focusing on the radical tradition of some Italian Americans, such as Mario Savio, Vito Marcantonio, and Sacco and Vanzetti.
There is a strong, radical history among Italian Americans that has been largely forgotten. In their book, The Lost World of Italian American Radicalism (Praeger 2003), Philip Cannistraro and Gerald Meyer, help uncover some of this history. Their edited volume shows that in contrast to their present conservative image (cf. Carl Paladino’s recent anti-gay remarks), Italian Americans played a central role in the working-class struggle of the early twentieth century. Italian Americans were leaders in major strikes across the country—notably the Lawrence textile strikes of 1912 and 1919, the Paterson silk strike of 1913, the Mesabi Iron Range strikes of 1907 and 1916, and the New York City Harbor strikes of 1907 and 1919, as well as coal mining strikes. They also made important contributions to American labor unions, especially the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. At the same time, they built vibrant radical Italian immigrant communities that replicated the traditions, cultures, and politics of the old country. For example, Italian immigrants formed their own political and social clubs, mutual aid societies, alternative libraries and press, as well as their own orchestras and theaters, designed to promote and sustain a radical subculture. This radical subculture was oppositional to both the hegemonic culture sustained by prominenti (the powerful men of the Little Italies) and the individualistic culture of capitalist America. Yet, for the most part, this radical tradition has been set aside in favor of the hagiography of Columbus.
This holiday, I’m saying “nevermind” to Columbus and cheering the radical history of Italian Americans.