"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, November 3, 2017

Does Opposing Columbus Day Mean Erasing Local History?

It’s time to return to my series on immigration, and spending Columbus Day last month in San Francisco provided an interesting prism through which to view the conflicting images of Christopher Columbus that co-exist in the U.S.  I followed the ceremonies at Norristown’s newly-refurbished Columbus Monument as well; together, these two celebrations say a great deal about contesting ideals in American society, but nothing about Columbus himself.  At the end of this post, I’m going to ask a few questions of my readers who live in the towns along the lower Schuylkill (and, of course, anyone else who wishes to comment), about my take on this subject.
I began my series on immigration by focusing on Italians, and then was moved to discuss the image of Columbus among Italian-Americans by my friend Hank Cisco, himself a long-time activist for Italians in his home, Norristown, Pa.  He sent me a group email with a link to an article in the Italian American Herald.com, that asked the question “Columbus Being Pushed out of the Picture in America?”  This opened a door—an ethnic one—through which I had not before passed.  My post of 5/5/17 was a response.  I confessed my inability to see anything through an ethnic lens, and the fact that I, along with most of my generation, was taught to view Columbus as the vanguard of Europe’s “civilizing” efforts in the Western Hemisphere, not as an Italian here, per se.  I had seriously underestimated the significance of Columbus to Italian-Americans specifically.
Norristown’s Columbus Day Celebration appears—based on local media coverage—to have focused on the Italian aspect of the legacy of Columbus, as it has from the beginning.  State Representative Kate Harper was quoted as saying, “In 1937 President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day as a national holiday and today we credit Christopher Columbus with Italians’ immigration to the New World and what is now Pennsylvania….Currently there are 17 million Americans of Italian heritage in the United States and 1.4 Americans of Italian heritage right here in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Italian Americans have become one of the commonwealth’s most influential ethnic groups, with deep roots in religion, politics, arts, science, law and economic and social institutions.”  
Given the strength of the Italian-American presence in Pennsylvania, such a focus makes perfect sense.  There are several chapters of the Knights of Columbus in the lower Schuylkill Valley, in Pottstown, Conshohocken and Phoenixville (which also serves Royersford and Spring City), not to mention those just outside the Schuylkill Valley itself.  
But now let’s jump across almost the entire country, to the west coast, on the Pacific Ocean, specifically the City of San Francisco.  There, on a beautiful site near the famous Coit Tower stands a thirty-foot tall statue of Columbus, proudly gazing out over a bay of an ocean he never sailed on.  The statue itself only dates back to 1957, but San Francisco has hosted celebrations and a parade honoring Columbus since 1869.
Considering that Columbus never even set foot on the east coast of the American continent, let alone the west coast, what is a statue of him doing overlooking the west coast?  The answer to that is simple, and revealing.  In fact, it’s the very same reason that the Columbus monument exists in Norristown, Pa.; just the specific names and dates are different.
American education has long emphasized Columbus as the symbol of Western Civilization’s spreading over the North American continent, but Italian Americans have been taking concrete (and stone and steel) action to give his persona a direct contact with city and town residents for quite some time.  The inscription on the SF Columbus Monument reads, in part, “presented to the people of San Francisco by the Columbus Monument Committee, with grateful acknowledgement to [local donors].”  Local donors in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania funded the 1992 monument (a campaign directed by Hank Cisco), and its quarter-century restoration this year.
The construction of Norristown’s original Columbus Monument, in 1926, can symbolize the others that date back to that period.  When Italians found themselves the focus of anti-foreigner hysteria during this period, such statues were symbols of the fight against this discrimination.  As historian Christopher J. Kauffman wrote, "Italian Americans grounded legitimacy in a pluralistic society by focusing on the Genoese explorer as a central figure in their sense of peoplehood."  In the process, their message also linked the Italian Christopher Columbus with the “civilizing” history of the American continent. 
They were successful; while the 1920s had seen anti-Italian immigrant legislation passed by Congress, in 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day a National Holiday.  And the process still continues, to this day.  The town of Southington, Connecticut installed a statue of Columbus (locally funded, but not by the government) on Columbus Day this past month. 
But things have also changed.  By 1994, San Francisco’s Columbus Day Parade had evolved into the Italian Heritage Parade, in an effort to “celebrate the contributions of Italian Americans and their heritage,” in the words of the city’s Human Rights Commission.  The City of San Francisco still celebrates Columbus Day, but the School District does not.  I suspect that’s because the young Italian-Americans of San Francisco are far outnumbered by the descendants of those who have little reason to revere Columbus.  Even the dedication of that Columbus statue in Southington, Connecticut was met with protests this past October. 
Here’s the nub of the argument: does being anti-Columbus mean being anti-Italian, even indirectly, because you desire to end the celebration of Columbus Day?  I quoted the Italian American Herald in my 5/5/17 post as saying,Part of preserving is protecting and slowly there is erupting a movement to abolish Columbus Day, a holiday near and dear to Italian Americans.”  I wasn’t sure about this argument back then, and observed, “The statement’s phraseology demonstrates, but does not take into account the uniquely bifurcated nature of Columbus Day...”
What I do believe is that those opposing the celebration of Columbus are doing so to protest the core message, the “civilizing” of the Western Hemisphere by Europeans.  The fact that Columbus was Italian is irrelevant; he could have been Greek for all they care.  Yet he was Italian (or, at least, from a portion of what would become "Italy" almost 400 years later), and celebrating him has been a component of Italian-American culture for many decades.  Christopher Columbus the explorer has absolutely no connection to San Francisco, California, Southington Connecticut, or Norristown, Pennsylvania, but Columbus the symbol of Italian pride has a connection wherever communities of Italians have established themselves.  Sometimes symbols are needed.
So here’s my questions to my readers, particularly those of Italian heritage.  Does opposition to Columbus monuments constitute the erasure of local ethnic history?  Can Columbus the Italian be divorced from Columbus the symbol of European Colonization?  Can he be celebrated in some communities while being reviled in others?

Everyone is invited to respond, of course, but I freely confess my desire for opinions from those with an ethnic connection, because they are more likely to diverge from my own.

And for those of you who would like to ponder a deeper question in all this, here’s one: As America slowly evolves into a multi-racial society, what is the future, not just of Columbus Day, but of the European arrival and takeover as a “civilizing mission” component of American history?