A Complicated Reflection On Columbus Day
I have no intention of telling other people how to think about Columbus Day. But my own thoughts are rather complicated.
Growing up, I barely noticed Columbus Day. Going to a Jewish Day School, I didn't have the day off (neither did my parents). My chief recollection is a story my father used to tell about when he was on the Columbia Spectator
and Columbus Day fell out on the day the Spectator
needed to be published. As editor-in-chief, he objected, but the University (which was still very WASP) overruled him. But it wasn't printed that day any because: 'The Jews wouldn't work because it was Yom Kippur, the Italians and the Irish wouldn't work because it was Columbus Day, and the African Americans wouldn't work because it was a union holiday."
Which brings up the rather complicated thing about Columbus Day. Back in the early 20th Century, Italians (and to some degree still the Irish) were the "Mexicans" of their day -- immigrants regarded with deep suspicion and accused of all manner of illegal and immoral things. As the racist Willie Conklin sings in the musical Rag Time
: "Does he think only niggers get shit/we Irish had to get used it." It was the time when the Sacco and Venzetti trial and the Lindberg Baby trial threw national spotlights on the fact that many Americans of Anglo-German stock regarded the swarthy-skinned southern Mediterranean Europeans as Foreigners Ruining Our Way of Life.
Columbus Day was an effort to provide for what was then thought o as diversity. It was pushed by Italians and Irish Catholics to show that they were as 'American' as the Protestant Anglo-German descended Americans. In fact, said proponents, without Italians there wouldn't even be an America, so there!
Which brings us to the question of: what do we do now with Columbus Day? It's origin contains the essential paradox of the American ideal. A drive to the laudable goal of diversity and inclusion, combined with an utter lack of awareness of who is excluded. It's not that Columbus was any less a greedy pig who -- on discovering that the inhabitants were unable to resist military force -- set about empire building. But it is equally true that America became the place my ancestors fled to from the oppressions of the Old World.
On the whole, I am rather glad my ancestors survived. We were never the intended beneficiaries of Columbus' voyage and subsequent exploitation, but we were and I make no apology for that. Refugees take refuge where they can. Which does not mean denying any of the genocidal horrors inflicted by the Conquistadors
and the Inquisition when it arrived in the New World (chasing my ancestors, among other things).
So for me, it is all rather complicated. It's not that any of the awful things aren't true. It's just that for me there is rather more to the story. How to honor and acknowledge the entire story is a live debate that depends a great deal on perspective. But the origin of Columbus Day as an attempt to recognize and honor diversity in the American experience suggests to me that perhaps we may find a way to broaden our perspective.