TRENTON, NJ October 17, 2013 – In 1992, for the quincentenary of Christopher Columbus “sailing the ocean blue,” eight Native Americans stepped off a plane in Italy. They planted eagle feathers on the runway and declared they had “discovered” Italy.
So steeped in banality has Columbus Day as lightning-rod for debate become, that the actual origins of the holiday are little known.
That the terms “white man,” “Native American,” “First People,” and “indigenous people,” feature so prominently in the debate over Columbus Day is a marvel given that both the man and the holiday predate our current usage of those terms.
Columbus Day was first celebrated in 1907 in Colorado, not a celebration of whiteness but precisely the opposite: non-whiteness, as historian Matthew Frye Jacobson recounts in his must-read book Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post-Civil Rights America.
The nascent holiday was a pride festival for immigrants who’d come West to work the mines and railroads in the 1880s. Columbus Day buttressed beleaguered immigrants from then-rampant popular media portrayals of Italians as primates, persistent discrimination in jobs, housing, and lending, and lynching.
In San Francisco celebrants crowned a “Queen Isabella.” In St. Louis an annual “Miss Italaina” pageant was held. In Houston, it was a Noche de las Americas gala, billed as an “Hispanic gala.” In New York, parades canonized Joe DiMaggio.
Although pilloried today as a painful reminder of white crimes, the originators of Columbus Day did not see themselves, nor did Americans see them, as white. Asked at a Congressional hearing around the turn of the last century if an Italian was a white man, the witness replied, “No, sir, an Italian is a Dago”—using the then-popular epithet for Italians.
When Congress passed the Naturalization Act of 1791 restricting immigration to America to “white” people, many groups today considered white were excluded: the Irish, Germans, Greeks, Poles, and Italians. Historian David Roediger reports that the one black family aboard the Titanic was, until recently, lost to history because all dark-skinned passengers were designated “Italian” in the ship log.
Leading American sociologist Henry Pratt Fairchild summed up the sentiment of his day, allowing that Italians were “at present…far beneath us,” but if he “cleans himself up, very well…we might receive him in a generation or two.”
Italian-Americans were accepted as white in about “a generation or two,” but in 1907 when Columbus Day was first celebrated, the “generation or two” it took for the definition of whiteness to be expanded had not yet passed. It was the powder keg of the 1960s that saw “Negro” dumped for black, “Oriental” for Asian, and “Indian” for Native American, that also saw “dago” and “paddy” jettisoned as anachronisms.
Thus, while Italians may be white today, the holiday’s intent was to commemorate suffering from a time when they were not. “We remembered,” explains Italian-American poet Robert Viscusi, “the bitterness of the Italian revolution of Risorgimento…25 million Italians were to leave Italy to live elsewhere in the world. When Italians parade in New York, they are remembering these dispossessed ancestors of theirs.”
This challenges all Americans to render moral judgments about historical people, events, and groups with greater care.
On the Left, categorizing whole groups as “oppressors” and “oppressed” and historical figures as “evil” or “greedy” are moral finger-wagging committed with reckless abandon.
Power and privilege are situational, not static. The group doing the oppressing in one instance suffers it another.
This is what the writer Richard Rodriquez means when he called himself “an enemy of the history that has otherwise created me.”
“Part European, half colonialist aggressor, half colonized oppressed, we [Latinos] have never had an uncomplicated relationship to the question of culture, identity, race, ethnicity,” explains Panamanian-American philosopher Linda Martin-Alcoff.
Yet an all-too-common tendency on the Right must be rejected, too, which says “never forget” about 9/11 and “never forget” about the Holocaust, but “get over it” about slavery and the Trail of Tears. Pernicious, too, is the twin movement afoot to remove Tejanos from Texas school books, Toni Morrison from Ohio ones, and renaming the slave trade the “Atlantic triangular trade.”
History worship on the Right and uncritical criticizing on the Left must both be avoided. A more befitting analysis would ask questions like:
How do we make sense of a man like George Washington who owned slaves but said he held them “very repugnantly to my own feelings” and emancipated them in his will?
How do we make sense of a man like Jefferson who owned slaves but, little known, included a provision in the Declaration of Independence denouncing slavery as a “miserable,” “execrable,” “assemblage of horrors,” only to have it removed by the convention?
The early suffragists, like Susan B. Anthony, were right on women’s rights but wrong on race; as abolitionists, like Frederick Douglas, were right on race but wrong on sex. Ditto Dr. King and Malcolm X, the likes of whom women in the Civil Rights Movement, like Dorothy Cotton and Dorothy Height, chastised for their misogyny.
Moral enlightenment on all subjects rarely coheres in the same person.
Whether MLK, George Washington, or Columbus — there are no Gods, no saints in history. Only humans. But, also no devils. Sociopaths excepted, everyone lies somewhere in between.
Virtually everyone on Earth lives on land that used to belong to someone else. Expelling people from their lands was practiced by Native Americans against each other before Europeans arrived, as all peoples around the world have fought over land from time immemorial.
“First Peoples” suffers the infinite regress problem that in most cases, including the United States, it’s impossible to determine who was first.
We abide the boundaries established by ancient wars because no other boundaries exist. Those who upbraid citizenship on “stolen” land must ask themselves how many new wars, and untold loss of life, a do-over would require.
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