Italian-Americans Deserve a Better Named Vacation – New York Magazine | Directory Mayhem

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Columbus Day, like so many other pillars of American civic life, has become a political flashpoint and litmus test in recent years: the correct view in left-wing circles is that this holiday celebrating one of history’s greatest monsters should be replaced should coincide with Indigenous Peoples Day as it exists in 14 states plus Washington, DC and about 130 American cities and counting. For the right, this urge for change is further evidence that the awakened left is seeking to erase history and upend everything that “real” or “normal” Americans care about. It is just another division in a deeply divided nation that is bitterly contested, although – or perhaps because – the stakes are much more symbolic than material.

Replacing Columbus Day with Native American Day feels utterly righteous, in the same vein as replacing Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the twenty-dollar bill: We’re not just depriving a violent, racist historical figure of the deeply involved in slavery and genocide is a unique honor, we bestow it instead on the people he harmed. Either way, millions of Americans would no longer be forced to passively participate in the sanctification of someone who killed and enslaved their ancestors every time they withdrew money from an ATM or enjoyed a free Monday in October.

Additionally, both changes seem to offer these token benefits without a real token cost. Christopher Columbus has been dead for half a millennium, Jackson for about 180 years. Jackson has little popular following today alongside Donald Trump and other fans of authoritarianism and racism. Opposition to his banishment from our currency stems, if not from blatant racism, then from an adherence to a distorted, reactionary view of “tradition” and a pathological fear of change.

The difference from Columbus Day, however, is that there is also one community that would be harmed by this change: Italian-Americans – the people the day is supposed to be celebrating. Much of the opposition to Indigenous Day has come from the Italian-American community, and while some of the loudest voices against the change carry an undertone of racial resentment, they also reflect a legitimate underlying grievance. For many Italian Americans, canceling Columbus Day feels like canceling them and their history — and whether that’s true or not, it would mean abandoning the celebration of their role in American history.

Now, it could be said that Italian-Americans were nowhere near the historical and current suffering of Native Americans, and that it is more important to revise our hagiography of Columbus and honor the sacrifices and contributions of indigenous peoples than to honor one’s feelings gentle subgroup of whites. On the other hand, this thought process reflects a kind of zero-sum vindictiveness and is historically short-sighted in its own way: Italians, like Jews, were only fully assimilated into the white man’s club relatively recently in American history. In the not too distant past, Italian-Americans faced the same types of discrimination and violence as other ethnic minorities.

In fact, the origin story of Columbus Day reflects a story of suspicion and persecution. In New Orleans in 1891, eleven Sicilian immigrants were lynched in retaliation for the assassination of the city’s police commissioner, which was blamed on the Italian community. It was one of the largest mass lynchings in American history and sparked a diplomatic row with Italy, whose government severed ties and demanded redress for the atrocities. The proclamation of Columbus Day by President Benjamin Harrison in 1892, 400 years after Columbus landed in America, was part of a political effort to restore ties with Italy and appease the Italian-American community in the aftermath.

Harrison’s proclamation made no mention of Columbus’ legacy, but for Italian Americans, honoring Columbus was a way to advance into established, “respectable,” white America by emphasizing the central role of the Genoese explorer in our historical narrative: a precursor to the the foundation of the country, the manifest destiny and so on. When Congress established Columbus Day as an annual national celebration in 1934 (its current status as a federal holiday dates back to 1971), Italian Americans were still fighting for acceptance and equality. As historians Laura E. Ruberto and Joseph Sciorra have explained, the erection of Columbus statues in the 1930s was “a means of gaining entry into a racist society under the guise of whiteness.” But even that didn’t stop Italian-Americans from being interned as “enemy aliens” during World War II.

Throughout these decades of discrimination, Italian-Americans have persistently contributed massively to our national cultural identity. Today, every American speaks a few words of Italian, even if it’s just “pizza” and “spaghetti.” Many great American writers, artists, entertainers, athletes, and entrepreneurs are of Italian descent. But even now, Italian-Americans are too often portrayed as gangsters and jerks in popular culture.

The proverbial ship set sail – and rightly so – to make Columbus Day Indigenous Day. But if we eliminate a national holiday honoring Italian Americans, we should replace it with another, naming it after a more appropriate, less troublesome representative. This isn’t a new idea; Feminist Beat poet Diane Di Prima once suggested a whole host of better candidates in her poem Whose Day Is It Anyway? In 2020, Colorado lawmakers voted to rename Columbus Day after Mother Frances Cabrini, a passionate and resourceful advocate for Italian immigrants, orphans and the poor, who became the first US citizen to be canonized a saint. That same year, Akron, Ohio had a more generic title: Italian American Heritage and Culture Day.

With so many great Italians and Italian-Americans to choose from, who would be the best character to fill Columbus’ place? Other Italian explorers like Amerigo Vespucci, John Cabot and Giovanni da Verrazzano are less monstrous than Columbus but suffer from the same association with colonialism. Enrico Fermi, perhaps the most famous Italian-American scientist, is problematic for his work on the Manhattan Project. Sacco and Vanzetti would probably be too controversial given their anarchist politics. We could always go with a great Italian historical figure like Galileo Galilei or Leonardo da Vinci, but they lack the American connection.

Colorado’s choice of Cabrini Day is a good choice; Other good candidates might include Civil War soldier (and first director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) Luigi Palma di Cesnola or legendary US Marines and WWII war hero John Basilone, although neither of these men has a particularly common name today. (Personally, I would love to celebrate Marisa Tomei Day, but unfortunately, national holidays are named after national heroes, not just national treasures.)

Another prominent possibility is Giuseppe Garibaldi, the 19th-century Italian general and patriot. Garibaldi is one of Italy’s Founding Fathers, a national hero who played an essential role in unifying Italy, fighting for its independence and supporting several republican and liberation movements in Europe and South America during his turbulent military career. Famously described by historian AJP Taylor as “the only admirable figure in modern history,” Garibaldi was hardly a literal saint like Mother Cabrini, but he was admired in his day and remains so today as a champion of liberty in his home country and beyond.

What about Garibaldi’s connection to American history? For one, he actually lived in that country for a short time in the early 1850s, while Columbus never set foot in what is now the continental United States. Also, in stark contrast to Columbus, he pushed for the emancipation of enslaved black Americans that he might have fought in the American Civil War if only Abraham Lincoln had been more progressive.

At the time of the Civil War, Garibaldi was world famous for his exploits in Italy, where he invaded and conquered Sicily in 1860 with an army of about a thousand volunteers. A volunteer infantry regiment in New York was even named after him. Garibaldi himself was interested in helping the Union, and President Lincoln attempted to enlist the Italian general and put him in command of US forces, but Garibaldi said he would do so only on condition that Lincoln agree to the abolition of the Slavery target Union declares war. Lincoln wasn’t ready for that, and talks broke down.

When Lincoln finally issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Garibaldi wrote of his praise: Posterity will call you the great emancipator, a title more enviable than any crown could ever be. … If a whole race of men, enslaved by human selfishness, has been restored to human dignity, civilization, and human love, that is to your credit and at the price of the noblest lives in America.”

Garibaldi’s fame as a champion of liberty in both Italy and America makes him one of those well suited to replace Columbus. Who better to take the place of a man whose legacy was chiefly one of slavery and genocide than one who embodied American (and Italian) ideals of liberty and equality?

Columbus was always a poor substitute for Italian Americans anyway. With a Garibaldi tag, Italian-Americans would not only get their day back, but rise from a justly vilified historical representative to a heroic figure who had a direct, positive impact on modern Italy and the United States.

For now, Columbus/Indigenous Day remains a shared holiday. Last year, President Joe Biden shared the baby, proclaimed both Indigenous Peoples Day and Columbus Day, and used his Columbus Day proclamation to recognize the contributions of Italian Americans as well as “the painful history of injustice and atrocities that… many European explorers have inflicted tribal nations and indigenous communities.”

Of course, actually canceling Columbus Day at the federal level would require a lot of political capital as well as congressional support that Biden may never have. But as more states and cities raise the moral call to replace it with Indigenous Peoples Day, they should make sure their Italian American community also has a holiday to celebrate, whether it’s the second Monday in October or on another, less contested date. Garibaldi Day would be an excellent substitute — although it couldn’t be celebrated on his birthday because it’s the Fourth of July.

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