Monday, October 9, 2017

Celebrating Columbus Day

Today is Columbus Day. (Of course, the real Columbus Day is October 12. But, thanks to the 1968 Uniform Holiday Act which moved several civic holidays from their proper dates to Mondays, we are stuck with celebrating it today.)

For most of my life, New York's Columbus Circle was for me mainly a place to change trains. The fact of its existence and prominence, however, and the fact that New York's Columbus Day Parade is one of the very few such ethnic parades permitted still on a weekday (whereas most other such parades are now relegated to Sundays) is a testimony to the political power of Italian-Americans in traditional city politics.

The celebration of Christopher Columbus' foundational role in American history - an Italian Catholic in the service of Spain's Catholic monarchs - has always served as a counterweight to our country's cultish veneration of its English Protestant "Founding Fathers" and a resounding rebuttal to nativist anti-Catholic and particularly anti-Italian prejudice. The fact that some contemporary politicians may now feel free to demean or diminish Columbus Day is an obvious testimony to the decline of Italian-Americans' political influence and the perceived irrelevance of their immigrant struggles in the new narratives employed by contemporary cultural elites.

After the unification of Italy in the late 19th century, the kingdom’s northern-based government found the problems of southern Italy overwhelming and so actively encouraged emigration (primarily to the United States and Argentina) as the only practical solution. My four grandparents and seven of my aunts and uncles were all part of that massive movement through the Port of New York. After the Italian national disaster that was World War II, the new republican government would be just as overwhelmed and again encouraged emigration. (By then, however, immigration into the United States was very restricted. But Canada had lots of space and a small population and was happy to welcome immigrants. Hence the enormous influx of Italians into Montreal and Toronto in the 1940s and 1950s.)

In 1901, the infamous Edward Alsworth Ross, future President of the American Sociological Association, popularized the white-supremacist term "race suicide" and warned "That the Mediterranean people are morally below the races of Northern Europe is as certain as any historical fact." 

Likewise, after the notorious lynching of 11 Sicilians by a New Orleans mob, The New York Times wrote about "sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins."

Such elite bigotry eventually led to the 1924 law which severely restricted immigration from southern and eastern Europe.

For me as an Italian-American beneficiary of the great wave of Italian immigration to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it seems that two imperatives ought to follow from this complex historical experience. 

The first is the imperative to support a sensibly open immigration policy, which welcomes people to our country from all parts of the world, while facilitating their successful identification with U.S..society and culture, as Italian-Americans and so many others have so successfully done in the past.

The second is the imperative to celebrate Columbus Day loudly and proudly year in and year out!

(Photo: The flag of the Kingdom of Italy from 1861 through 1946, the flag under which most of the great wave of 19th and early 20th-century Italian immigrants to the U.S. were born.)

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