Monday, October 12, 2015 was Columbus Day, an official federal holiday since 1934. Curiously, Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the second Monday in October to be Columbus Day in the same year that Benito Mussolini also deemed it to be a national holiday in his Fascist controlled nation. This immediately led to bloody confrontations in New York City pitting Il Duce followers against anti-Fascists.
World War II ended those confrontations and Columbus Day evolved into a source of Italian- American pride. This became especially true in New York City where the annual parade up Fifth Avenue empowers our Italian-American brothers and sisters to gather, march and participate with the same spirit (albeit with less alcohol) as Irish do on St. Patrick’s Day, the Germans on Steuben Day, the Poles on Kosciusko Day, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Jews, etc, etc on their days.
This annual affair attracts every politician wanting to make a statement or show his or her face. The 2015 edition attracted both Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Comrade Mayor Bill Deblasio who marched separately, of course, because they hate each other.
Granted though, over the years with cultural changes and flex days at work Columbus’ significance has diminished. Many New Yorkers treat it as another day; you’re either off, or not off. In the Northeast, if you’re off, you may consider it as a long weekend to travel up into New England to see the fall foliage.
But still, it’s a national holiday. Growing up in 1950’s America, I remember, when Columbus was important enough that the Dominican nuns at St. Aloysius elementary school taught us to memorize (in part):
In fourteen hundred in ninety two,
Columbus sailed the ocean blue…
Have you heard though that Columbus has an infamous record? Oh dear, in South Dakota, they have replaced the explorer and have been celebrating “Native American Day” on the second Monday in October since 1990.
This year, in Alaska, Gov. Bill Walker’s executive proclamation re-named Chris’ day as “Indigenous Peoples Day.” In so doing, Alaska joined at least nine US cities celebrating this new man-made holiday. These cities include Albuquerque, NM, Anadarko, OK, Portland, OR, St. Paul MN and two cities in Washington; Olympia and Seattle.
Oklahoma City is next up ready to make the same decision. Sarah Adams-Cornell, a local OK City activist made this plea to rid her city of Columbus: “This is something that I’ve struggled with for a long time. The fact that our country, our state and our city celebrate this holiday around this man who murdered and enslaved and raped indigenous people and decimated an entire population.”
Now that’s one hell of an indictment to throw against this mythic explorer. I wonder how much bail would have been set if he was still around?
And yet, the renowned historian, Samuel Eliot Morison, thought otherwise and described Columbus in his epic biography published in 1955, Admiral of the Ocean Sea:
“He had his faults and his defects, but they were largely the defects of the qualities that made him great–indomitable will, his superb faith in God and his own mission as the Christ-bearer to lands beyond the seas, his stubborn persistence despite neglect, poverty and discouragement. But there was no flaw, no dark side to the most outstanding…of all his qualities—his seamanship.”
It would appear, this perception no longer persists. Few rise to praise Columbus much less defend him. It seems he has been marginalized and made responsible for every bad thing done to Native-Americans from the Pilgrims landing through Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee. In my opinion, wrongly so, since the record demonstrates, he never landed in mainland America.
Still, if Columbus must get the old heave-ho, should those of Italian descent be deprived of their day of rightful acclaim? I think not, but then who?
How about Gugielmo Marconi, inventor of the wireless telegraph, or Giovanni da Verazzano, the explorer whose name graces the grand suspension bridge that spans the entrance to New York Harbor, or Americus Vespucius, another renown explorer whose name the entire western World has adopted to describe themselves: North and South America.
While you think about that in your spare time, ponder this; if the person or persons who decided to name two continents after this explorer had done it correctly, the land we live in would not be America, we would live in the United States of Vespucia…frightening, but have a nice day.