The World of Columbus Day is Flat

For Ty Tumminia: comrade, friend, anti-fascist, Black liberationist. 

Last time we wrote, Andy Pragacz and I were exploring the spaces around Binghamton christened for Christopher Columbus, and how they came to take his name.  Today, we take that a bit further and ponder the Italian connection to Columbus, and why that narrative no longer serves the Italian community.

Since the ethnic and race rebellions of the 1960s, Columbus’ place in the pantheon of American heroes has been jeopardized. By the 1990s, scholars annually sounded his final fall. Marking the 500 year anniversary one scholar confidently concluded that, like Custer before him, “it is now Christopher Columbus’s turn at the chopping block” (Lunenfeld 1992, 137). Twenty-five years later, Columbus is still in the American Olympus, but rather than seated next to Franklin, he’s dangling from the edge.

Articles like “Should the United States Celebrate Columbus Day?” and “How Columbus Day Fell Victim to its Own Success”are commonplace around the 12th of October. Protesting Columbus Day is, in 2017, as much a part of the Columbus Day tradition as Italian flags. As the above Atlantic writer notes, the day is “marked by parades, pageantry, and buckets of fake blood.” So, Why does Columbus endure? How has the symbol survived the onslaught?

The most ardent promoters-turned-defenders of Columbus come from the Italian-American community. Italians compromised one of the largest groups of immigrants during the great Atlantic migrations of the 1880s-1920 and today over 17 million people in the United States claim Italian ancestry. When “murderer” was spray painted on a Columbus statue in Binghamton, New York, the Sons of Italy offered a $2,500 reward for information. According to the New York Post, Columbus Day parade organizer Tony Signorile disinvited New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, calling him a “fake Italian” after the Mayor commissioned a study of the appropriateness of the City’s many statues and public monuments.

Some vocal members of the Italian-American community have taken criticism of Columbus Day as a direct attack on Italian-Americans. In this view, veneration of Columbus is synonymous with Italian-American identity.  Like Zionists conflate human rights criticism of Israeli state policy with the scourge of anti-semitism and Trumpists condemn professional football protests against racism and police violence with denigrating the American flag, New York Daily News columnist Linda Stasi  countered “wacky PC protesters” as an attack on Italian heritage. “So, don’t you even begin,” she writes, “to tell me I should be ashamed of my Italian heritage and by extension of Christopher Columbus.”

The enthno-nationalist positions of Stasi and Signorile resonate with claims by some liberals that Columbus Day is, at heart, a celebration of American diversity. In this narrative, Columbus Day celebrates victory over the profound anti-Italian racism (yes, racism is the appropriate word here) endemic to the U.S. around the turn of the century.

A Daily Beast commentator referred to anti-Columbus Day activity as “cannibalism.” He writes: “There was a time when the most progressive and liberal person who wanted to celebrate diversity would be an activist for (you guessed it) Columbus Day. Before the left sought to end Columbus Day for revisionist history purposes, white nativists fought against it for fear it would popularize Catholicism (see the Knights of Columbus) in the nation.” The problem with this analysis are legion, as Bitch magazine has deftly pointed out.

Critically, however, the commentator misses that Columbus the symbol was a tool of erasure. The complexity and power imbalances actually existing in the turn of the century colonie italianes is concealed behind the unifying Columbus symbology. Transient and working class Italians are left out, as are their often radical politics.

Part of Columbus’s initial appeal was that Italian Americans felt that they could relate to Columbus because they shared the same struggle- they had each traveled across an ocean, leaving Italy to start a new life, and facing hardships in the process (Deschamps, 2001). “They empathized so completely with him that they felt the very neglect shown by American authorities [towards Columbus Day] was yet another expression of the discrimination to which Italians were subject in the United States” (Duchamps 2001,134). Indeed, around the same time as Catholics and Italians endorsed Columbus, some Protestant Americans contended that it was a white(r), Northern European Viking, Leif Erickson, that had “discovered America.”

Columbus and Columbus Day were also vehicles for paternalistic Americanization. Capitalists sponsored festivals and rituals using the symbol of Columbus to assimilate their newly immigrated workers into obedient Americans. George F. Johnson, owner of the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Factory, was always an honored guest in Columbus Day parades organized by the local Italian community.  In Endicott’s 1925 Columbus Day parade, the Mayor clearly expressed the native-born white bias against Italian-Americans, believed to be of dubious loyalty and intelligence, saying “every people looks forward to some anniversary day, the preparations for the observance of such a day gives interest in life to people who otherwise would lead a dull and colorless existence. Once again, may I express a hope that your participation in this great day of commemoration be an inspiration toward better citizenship” (Binghamton Press, 12 October 1925). The notorious pro-Americanist American Legion also participated.

In following this lead, the petty-bourgeoisie organizers of such events stressed “order and proper behavior” (Litwicki 2000, 125), reinforcing capitalists’ narratives, who wanted the same qualities in their docile workforce, without providing safe or fair working conditions. Without trade unions (Italians were often barred), workers may have found security and solidarity through ethnic connections. When the Knights of Columbus formed in 1882, it was for this reason: to provide aid to Catholic families living and working in poor conditions, and financial assistance to widows and families of men who were killed in such unsafe work.

Italians were often forced into the dirtiest and most dangerous work. In the areas around Binghamton, that meant anthracite coal mining in Northern Pennsylvania or the tanneries, with their toxic pools and fumes, in Endicott, New York. Most Italians emigrating to the US intended to return home, especially before the de facto halt of immigration during WWI, and then de jure racist immigration restrictions passed in 1921 and 1924. Many “birds of passage” returned disappointed and defeated. Instead of finding decent paying work to purchase land or tools in Italy, they found hardship in the US. An Italian immigrant wrote to his wife from Buffalo, New York: “What disillusionment…we who believed we could improve our condition by coming to America. Everywhere I see injustice and inequality. I am sorry to say that this country is worse than Europe for any man with a heart who wishes to live honestly” (quoted in Bencivenni 2011, 14).

In Bencivenni, Marcella. 2011. Italian Immigrant Radical Culture: The Idealism of the Sovversivi in the United States, 1890-1940. New York: New York University Press.

In Bencivenni, Marcella. 2011. Italian Immigrant Radical Culture: The Idealism of the Sovversivi in the United States, 1890-1940. New York: New York University Press.

This anti-Italian and anti-Catholic sentiment of native-born Americans (labor leaders included), along with the turbulent politics of late 19th century Italy, cultivated radical politics within Italian communities in America.  According to Bencivenni, it wasn’t priests and shop owners that were the most important community leaders, but rather, the sovversivi, or subversives (made up of anarchists and communists) who“functioned as the real strategists and spokesmen” of the Italian communities by organizing their fellow workers, culturally and on the shop floor (Bencivenni 2011, 38).

Carlo Tresca, International Worker of the World (IWW) organizer and revolutionary anarchist, and Arturo Giovannitti, anarchist poet and anti-fascist, are two of the most prominent examples of leading radical personalities. Millions of Italians supported the self-proclaimed anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti during their kangaroo trial and thousands struck when they were executed. These leaders celebrated the internationalist proletarian day of action, May Day, not Columbus Day.

In 1912, Arturo Gianvonetti, gave his “Sermon on the Common” to rally the multi-ethnic Lawrence Textile strike workers. In it, he implored the workers to overcome the myths of the past, the “mists of ignorance” as he called them, that demand workers’ subservience to feudal lords and capitalists alike. Putting their struggle in perspective he said: “Ages have come and gone, kingdoms and powers/and dynasties have risen and fallen, old glories/ and ancient wisdoms have been turned/into dust, heroes and sages have been forgotten and many a mighty and fearsome god has/been hurled into the lightless chasms of oblivion/But ye, Plebs, Populace, People, Rabble, Mob/Proletariat, live and abide forever.”

The history of Italians immigrants and their world and place in American history in this country is flatted when Columbus is used as an all encompassing symbol of Italianness. Columbus was adopted as a means to incorporate Italian workers into American society as docile and cheap labor. Columbus symbolizes oppressions of Italians and the American working class, as well as white supremacy and genocide. Time to push Columbus off the stage of American “heroes and sages.”


Works Cited

Barrett, James R. 1992 “Americanization from the Bottom Up: Immigration and the Remaking of the Working Class in the United States, 1880-1930.” The Journal of American History 79 (3): 996-1020.

Bencivenni, Marcella. 2011. Italian Immigrant Radical Culture: The Idealism of the Sovversivi in the United States, 1890-1940. New York: New York University Press.

Binghamton Press (BP) [Binghamton, New York]
1925 3,000 Italian-Americans in Endicott Columbus Day Rites. 12 October. Binghamton, New York.

Deschamps, Bénédicte. 2001. “Italian-Americans and Columbus Day.” In Celebrating Ethnicity and Nation: American Festive Culture from the Revolution to the Early Twentieth Century, edited by Geneviềve Fabre, Jürgen Heideking and Kai Dreisbach, 124-139. New York: Berghan Books.

Litwicki, Ellen M. 2000. America’s Public Holidays 1865-1920. Washington, D.C.; Smithsonian Institution Press.

Lunenfeld, Marvin. 1992. “What Shall We Tell the Children? The Press Encounters Columbus.” The History Teacher, 25 (2), 137-144.

Schlereth, Thomas J. 1992. “Columbia, Columbus, and Columbianism.” The Journal of American History 79 (3): 937- 968.

 


Maura Bainbridge is a PhD canidate at Binghamton University whose research focuses on sites of labor struggle in the United States, particularly comparing Homestead, Pennsylvania, Ludlow, Colorado, and the Pullman district of Chicago. She is interested in contemporary archaeology, community archaeologies, and post industrial landscapes.

 


IMG_6181 Andy Pragacz is a Binghamton area activist, instructor, and scholar. He is currently a PhD student at Binghamton University in the Sociology department. His activist work centers on anti-mass incarceration, anti-racism, expanding worker’s power, and exposing the cruelties and insanity of the capitalist world-system. He edited a local leftist newspaper, The People’s Press, for three years and contributed original research and articles on corporate welfarism, fracking, and the Broome County jail.

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