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As I watched the disturbing events unfold in Charlottesville, Va., several weeks ago, I knew our Italian-American community would soon be called to once again address questions about statues celebrating Christopher Columbus and the day named in his honor. We would once again be called on to “defend Columbus” against efforts to remake his day into Indigenous People’s Day.
Indeed, within days, Baltimore’s Christopher Columbus monument, believed to be the first erected to the Italian explorer in America, was vandalized. Calls multiplied to remove the iconic statue from New York’s Columbus Circle. We watched Columbus unceremoniously decapitated in Yonkers. Then, as reports of similar actions began to flood in from around the nation, Los Angeles officially replaced its celebrations of Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day.
I appreciate that for many people, including some Italian-Americans, the celebration of Columbus is viewed as 9belittling the suffering of indigenous peoples at the hands of Europeans. But for countless people in my community, Columbus, and Columbus Day, represent an opportunity to celebrate our contributions to this country.
Even before the arrival of large numbers of Italian immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Columbus was a figure to rally around against the prevailing anti-Italianism of the time. He was a popular and useful focus of national celebrations, a rare figure in early American history free from association with the recently-vanquished British Empire.
The earliest celebrations made little mention of his Italian origins, focusing instead on his exploration and the patchwork of ethnicities that made up these United States. In fact, Columbus’s earliest critics were the same white supremacists preying on our nation today, who loathed the idea that a non-Anglo-Saxon Catholic could be an American icon.
I have never been one to blindly uphold any single figure as the representative of all things Italian-American, since all individuals are flawed, and all monuments represent just a snapshot of our history, now measured against 21st-century sensibilities. Some undoubtedly require re-evaluation, but that process should not include violence, vandalism and destruction of property. The “tearing down of history” does not change that history. In the wake of the cultural conflict that has ripped us apart over these months, I wonder if we as a country can’t find better ways to utilize our history to eradicate racism instead of inciting it. Can’t the monuments and holidays born of our past be reimagined to represent new values for our future?
There are many monuments to Franklin Roosevelt, and although he allowed Japanese-Americans and Italian-Americans to be interned during World War II, we as an ethnic group are not demanding that his statues be destroyed. Nor are we tearing down tributes to Theodore Roosevelt, who, in 1891, after 11 falsely accused Sicilian-Americans were murdered in the largest mass lynching in American history, wrote that he thought the event “a rather good thing.”
It was in reaction to these tragic killings that the early Italian-American community in New York scraped together private donations to give the monument at Columbus Circle to their new city. So this statue now denigrated as a symbol of European conquest was from the beginning a testament to love of country from a community of immigrants struggling to find acceptance in their new, and sometimes hostile, home.
Respect for historical monuments should not signify blind acceptance of the values and judgments of past societies; rather, they should be instructive tools in our quest to understand our history and use it to better meet the challenges of the present. If we allow uncontrolled tearing down of memorials or unilateral reinterpretation of American history, then we will be damaging our democracy by limiting vigorous debate on our history, with all its beauty and blemishes. In his first inaugural address at the onset of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called on Americans to allow a national dialogue led by the “better angels of our nature.” I think his counsel remains as wise and essential today as it was then.
We at the National Italian American Foundation strongly condemn the defacing of historical monuments and expect elected officials and law enforcement to protect our public memorials from further damage so that a true conversation on their place in modern society can be organized. We believe Christopher Columbus represents the values of discovery and risk that are at the heart of the American dream, and that it is our job as the community most closely associated with his legacy to be at the forefront of a sensitive and engaging path forward, toward a solution that considers all sides.
American ingenuity is built on the continuous re-examination of technology, and today, we have the technology to build interactive monuments out of thoughts and not just of stones. We believe our foundation, and the Italian Americans community, can lead the effort to reimagine America’s monuments and memorials in a new light, and tell our story, the American story, in innovative and thoughtful ways. If we can do that, perhaps the legacy we leave will be one that doesn’t face any controversy among future generations.