I’m spending my Columbus holiday this year in New York, participating in the parade sponsored by Italian-Americans who proudly celebrate the courage and skill of the Genoese explorer who transformed the world.
The fact that it was an Italian who introduced the Americas to the rest of the world (and vice versa) meant a lot to Italian immigrants who made their own treacherous journeys here some four centuries later, and that included my family. I think about my mother’s grandparents making their way down the hills of Sicily, to a port they’d never seen, through strange waters, to arrive days later in a foreign country for which no technology could prepare them. Columbus Day for me recalls my childhood with my dad and his family, from the region of Campania, Italy, who struggled so that we might all achieve the American Dream.
That dream would not have been possible without the man born Cristoforo Columbo, who while worthy of celebration by all Americans, is uniquely so for Italian-Americans because he represents our ancestry. Celebrating Columbus Day was, and continues to be, a way of saying “We’re proud to be Americans, and equally proud of our Italian heritage and ancestry.”
Like many other immigrant groups, we Italians weren’t always welcomed with open arms at first. We fought stereotypes then and now. But the potential for equality for all, in a nation that fights hard to achieve it every day, drives us forward. That, and the principle of freedom, beckoned to my dad when he first encountered the Statue of Liberty. It was thrilling, but his family knew its promise was conditional: It was up to us to become a part of American society and show that we were prepared to make our own unique contributions to its vitality.
Today, Columbus Day is unjustly under assault in some quarters. City councils in some cities have voted to replace it with “Indigenous Peoples Day,” or something similar, and many students are taught nothing of his contributions. Thankfully, it remains a federal holiday and a state holiday as well in much of the country.
A recent Marist Poll shows why: Those campaigning against Columbus Day are in the minority. Marist shows that even with all of the attacks on Columbus, 57 percent of Americans believe it’s a good idea to have a holiday named for him. Only 29 percent believe it’s a bad idea. The reason is clear: three-quarters (76 percent) believe that Columbus and other historical figures should be judged by the standards of conduct during the time they lived in rather than by the standards of today. It’s important to understand why we must fight back on attempts to erase his just place in history.
Even by today’s standards, and despite what you might hear, Columbus was a man whose approach to the native people he met during his first voyage was exemplary, taking delight in their friendliness and happy demeanor. He was firm in his orders to his men not to abuse them in any way, and severely disciplined those who disobeyed. He was less pleased with those from other tribes he encountered later, such as the warlike Caribs, who practiced canabalism. Had he lived long enough to witness the large scale human sacrifice practiced by the Aztecs, he would doubtless have been even less pleased.
It turned out that while millions of people had developed distinct civilizations before Columbus dared to cross the Atlantic Ocean barrier that separated them, human nature was much the same in each place. Slavery was a well-established practice in the Americas long before Columbus arrived. The Spanish monarchs, on the other hand, forbade slavery of the indigenous people of the Americas, granting them same rights of citizenship enjoyed by the people of Spain.
Today’s largely secular society often has trouble understanding that among the most important motivations of both Columbus and the Spanish monarchs was a desire to evangelize those they encountered elsewhere in the world to Christianity. Deeply-felt religious beliefs and aspirations appear again and again in Columbus’s diaries and other journals and documents. Columbus had lived for a time in a Dominican monastery, and his Catholic faith was deep and heartfelt. The author of Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem, Stanford emerita professor of anthropology Carol Delaney, cites abundant evidence that Columbus hoped and believed that his voyages of discovery would produce wealth that could finance a follow-up of the Spanish Reconquista (the fall of Grenada had occurred early in 1492) in the Holy Land.
Extremists on both the left and right have been attacking Columbus since the mid-19th Century, when Friedrich Engels (coauthor with Karl Marx of The Communist Manifesto) condemned him as an early capitalist. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan attacked Columbus because they had broadened their hatreds to include Catholics, and were in the forefront of immigration laws passed in 1921 and 1924 that effectively cut off immigration entirely. Italians, of course, were both Catholic and made up a large portion of recent immigrants. But Columbus remained popular in middle America, and celebrating his explorations became common ground where Italians came into their own in American society.
Presidents have lauded Columbus for well over a century. President William Howard Taft personally reviewed a huge parade at the unveiling the Columbus Memorial in front of Washington’s Union Station in 1912. President Ronald Reagan declared him: “a brilliant navigator, a fearless man of action, a visionary who opened the eyes of an older world to an entirely new one. Above all, he personifies a view of the world that many see as quintessentially American: not merely optimistic, but scornful of the very notion of despair.”
And on Columbus Day last year, President Barack Obama said, “More than five centuries ago, one journey changed the trajectory of our world — and today we recognize the spirit that Christopher Columbus’s legacy inspired.”
That’s the real Columbus, the man we celebrate today. And this man who practically defines our understanding of the spirit of discovery is himself worth rediscovering, and worth teaching, with both truth and objectivity.
Jeanne Allen (@JeanneAllen) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. She is CEO and founder of the Center for Education Reform.
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