By Cara Lisa Berg Powers
I was 9 years-old when Woodland Street Community School planned our 500th anniversary celebration of Columbus’ 1492 sailing of the ocean blue. My music teacher asked me to write a poem for the occasion. So I did. It recounted, in my limited 4th grade vocabulary, the lies that we had been told about Columbus and closed with me refusing to celebrate the holiday. Those that know me, or that read the Letter to the Editor I wrote that same year to Paul Della Valle in the Worcester Magazine about his dismissal of Take Your Daughters to Work Day would not be surprised. My music teacher was, and asked me if I could “just change the ending.” She suggested that I say “maybe I’ll just celebrate, just this year.” She didn’t disagree with the facts, just maybe I could still put on a happy face and join the party.
That’s what a lot of my fellow Italian-Americans in Worcester sound like right now. Sure, a few dead-enders are debating the merits of a murderous slave trader. Most of you though, don’t disagree with the facts. You just think we should put them aside for some misguided attachment to a shared national origin (which, by the way, is debatable). There’s a mythos that Columbus’ popularity is directly tied to the rise of acceptance and even, in some cases, prominence of Italian-Americans in the US, and seem to think that to banish him from our hero wall would also mean banishing us as well.
Bill Shaner does a good job today in explaining why this mythos is wrong. That in fact, our national obsession with Columbus far predates the large waves of Italian immigrants that brought my grandmother, and probably some of yours as well through Ellis Island or other ports of entry. In fact, our national obsession with Columbus predates even Italy as a nation state (1861). It’s where we get the Columbia, as in District of, when colonial settlers in the midst of a conscious uncoupling with Britain were looking for some kind of new world avatar that wasn’t tied to Britain. This amazing Tik-Tik video is a quick primer on why that was hard (historians estimate that only 22 countries in the whole world weren’t invaded by Britain!). So what are settler colonizers that want to distinguish that they are definitely not THOSE settler colonizers to do? Enter Christopher Columbus.
Shaner covers this history to make another important point- the later history of these statues, and yes even our beloved “Knights of Columbus” halls are part of staking out our claim to social acceptance, but also our whiteness. As National Art Critic Ben Davis recently explained, the later connection between Italian-Americans and Columbus was a series of intentional constructions and cynical power plays by both powerful politicians and Italian-Americans seeking national acceptance. And like Columbus himself, the Italian-American cause to uplift him was built on the backs of more marginalized communities, here and abroad. The push to recognize Columbus Day was led by wealthy Italian-American newspaper publisher Generoso Pope in the 1934, in tacit exchange for political support of Roosevelt. But, as Davis explains:
As it happens, Pope’s Italian nationalism also led him to be an ardent supporter of Mussolini, which then complicated Roosevelt’s turn against the Axis in WWII. Pope helped bankroll Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia and used his power to lobby Roosevelt to remain neutral on the matter. Pro-fascist Italians in the US hailed Mussolini as a “modern Columbus,” even as street demonstrations of Italian jingoism inflamed racial tensions, with Black communities rightly viewing the invasion as fresh evidence of Europe’s history of domination of African peoples. Columbus Day in New York through the ’30s was very much a pro-Mussolini event.
Columbus Day as a federal holiday, though, is even more recent, under Nixon, in 1972, who was similarly looking for Italian-American support at the behest of Pat Buchanan. Buchanan suggested that Italian-Americans, and other “ethnic” white populations would be faithful Republican voters, with the right motivation. So, like in the 1930s, the 1970s saw the construction of more statues to this now mythical figure.
And here is where our own comes in. Because despite the claims of some online commenters, this statue is not over a century old. It was dedicated in 1978, after being donated by an Italian-American widower. Some would have us ignore all of the atrocities committed by Columbus, or his true lack of historical significance and focus instead on what he has meant to Italian-Americans, reckoning with their place in this new country. Italian-Americans like my great grandfather Quintiliano and my great grandmother Filomena, who spent dozens of years of their marriage across the ocean from one another, sacrificing to bring their daughters to this country. Like my grandmother, Jeanette Vinceguerra, whose last name I didn’t learn until 20 years after she’d died because our family had always been the Vincents.
Or my grandmother Maddalena, who was put into a Boston kindergarten at age 9 because she didn’t speak any English, and went on to have her first child, my mother, at only 19. Who despite all of those odds, worked her way up to retire a Vice President at her insurance company, and more importantly, raised 4 kids, cared for 11 grandkids, 5 great grandkids, and buried a loving husband of 50 years this past December. Columbus does not represent my Italian-American heritage. Maddalena does. Maddalena, who is still here with us. Who has been here longer than the statue in front of Union Station (which is only 5 years older than me). My grandmother, who looks at her Black, Italian, Jewish, Irish, great granddaughter and reflects on how she has been complicit in a society that says she is wrong. And she is growing. That is an Italian-American legacy worth defending. It’s one we can build on, right now.
Davis, in his article, discusses the way that Andrew Cuomo has used his power to crush dissent in New York over Columbus, and more importantly, what it means:
Cuomo tells us we should turn our eyes from the actual, historical figures being memorialized to what the heroic image has meant to people. In this he unintentionally lays out exactly how whiteness works as an active ideology: a sense of cultural identity constructed at the price of willful blindness to the reality of others’ oppression.
I am proud to be in community with incredible, diverse people who come from the very same islands Columbus ravaged. Why do I get to claim a heritage at their expense? Watching my grandmother these last few months, at 81, reckon with the ways she has witnessed and participated in the construction of whiteness at the expense of others, has been a powerful experience. Powerful most, because it shows me that it is never to late to do more and better. I truly believe that when we know better, we can do better. We’ve known better about Columbus for a long time. It’s time for us to do better. Our City will be richer when none of us has power or status because of the pain and grief of someone else.