When Someone Asks Your Thoughts on Columbus Day, You Give Them

My friend and fellow American Studies scholar, Ben Railton, prompted this post when he asked me for a response to the excellent blog posts around alternative visions of Columbus Day for his popular blog, AmericanStudier. Ben asked a complicated question and here is my response, posted on the AmericanStudier blog and here on my blog. Views are my own.

Colleagues in Italian American and Italian Diaspora Studies have been working both privately and publicly to ask for the dismissal of Columbus Day and replace it with any number of options, including Italian Heritage Day, Indigenous Heritage Day, and even Ethnic Heritage Day. See this letter and feel free to add your name to this petition. What is interesting to me about the letter is whose signatures are missing. I don’t know the reasons for this absence and I cannot conjecture, but the complications arise around Columbus Day, for me, in that any of the days mentioned above asks us to dismiss one group for another—as though there is not enough room at the table for all of us. Each of us holds an important piece of the intertwining, collaborative and colonial fabric of the project known as the United States.

Many Italian Americans, whether they remember directly or heard the stories, have bought into an assimilation story that suggests they have overcome great strife and deserve to have a day dedicated to their heritage, forgetting or refusing to acknowledge that Columbus is not the symbol of that heritage. In many ways, the strife was not simply overcome with hard work and perseverance, but is a process of suppression that we call assimilation that demands an adherence to homogenization of white nativist traditions, which bury radicalism, union solidarity, or a generalized contentious relationship with white nativism. In other words, assimilation is about embracing the abusers.

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Denise Giardina meeting with First Year English majors and colleagues WVU Professor Sarah Morris and University of Pittsburgh Professor Lina Insana at the West Virginia and Regional History Center.

I heard the Italian American West Virginia writer Denise Giardina speak last night about West Virginia’s socialist roots and she made one statement that I think speaks to Italian American suppression: “There was never a war on coal. Coal has been warring with West Virginia. The coal industry has destroyed what it has built.” She went on to say that she thought West Virginians suffered from a kind of Stockholm syndrome where they identify with their abusers and that is how an organization like Friends of Coal proliferates in West Virginia. I would suggest that is also how Italian Americans continue to fight for a holiday that has nothing to do with them. (If you have not yet read any of Giardina’s work, might I suggest you begin with Storming Heaven or The Unquiet Earth?)

Indeed, many prominent Italian American politicians are today spouting rhetoric that can be associated with the most conservative and right wing parts of our government. The irony for me is that while they attempt to gain traction with someone like 45, they have been used and dismissed fairly quickly (think of Chris Christie, Rudolf Giuliani, and Anthony Scaramucci). Other Italian Americans simply suggest that what occurred during Columbus’s Voyage of Discovery was a long time ago and we should live in the here and now while pontificating about tradition and cultural history. This last fallacy is predicated upon the idea that somehow Italian Americans above any other ethnic group in the US deserve to have a federal holiday named for them. They forget this holiday was not for them, but a way to reinforce colonial culture in the US while tangentially acknowledging that Italian Americans were more than gangsters or miscreants. From the beginning, Columbus Day has been about separating Italian Americans from the concerns of indigenous populations and African American people even though the concerns of each of these groups is not singular or separate.

Here are a few articles that might be of use: Laura Ruberto and Joseph Sciorra’s essay on recontextualization of not only Italian American history, but also the history of migration and colonization that happened in the Americas (if you haven’t yet picked up Ruberto and Sciorra’s co-edited two-volume set New Italian Migrations to the United States, Vol. 1: Politics and History since 1945 (2017) and Vol 2: Art and Culture since 1945 (2017), do it!), Elizabeth Mariani’s piece on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Kelly Castania’s piece on Italian Americans viewing themselves as allies to indigenous people, Bobby Dorigo’s piece on the false construct that Italian Americans have historically even viewed Columbus Day as their holiday, Jim McDermott’s piece on “Why Italian-Americans Deserve a Better Holiday,” Stefano Vaccara’s “Long Live Verdi” piece, and Robyn Pennacchia’s “I am an Italian-American and I Think Columbus Day is Garbage.” There are many more, and I hope my colleagues in Italian American Studies might add to this list.

Lastly, Riggio, the CEO of Barnes & Noble was the Grand Marshall for this year’s Columbus Day Parade. He chose to invite (for the first time mind you), Italian American writers to sit on a B&N-themed float. Internationally-celebrated authors like Gay Talese shared the float with deeply-respected writers like Maria Mazziotti Gillan (her ground-breaking multi-ethnic anthologies are true artistic and communal collaborations and her work at The Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College, where I first heard Jimmy Santiago Baca, Amiri Baraka, and Allen Ginzberg all read live, is a fundamental and important place for those who are marginalized as students and writers), and lesser-known, but talented writers like Olivia Cerrone (The Hunger Saint) and Annie Lanzillotto (L is for Lion). Lanzillotto hung a circle banner that read: Honor Indigenous, but I could not help but feel that Riggio and the Italian American committee who run the parade were using my writer friends and peers to justify the parade and the holiday. These writers were never asked to march before and to put them on a float with large cut-outs of book covers with canonical Italian male authors (Dante! What an Italian American!) is both problematic and insulting. Lastly, days before New York’s Columbus Day parade, Our Lady of Loreto Church in Brooklyn, NY was destroyed. This church, built by Italian immigrants in 1906, was a true marker of Italian immigration and determination, but it seems we dismiss actual history of immigration in favor of empty symbols that align with genocide, colonization, and the precursor of Manifest Destiny.

At a time when white supremacists are once again rearing the most heinous aspects of white nativism’s construction, it is more important than ever to challenge the discourse that dictates we have to accept what is offered and not expect anything more or to think we cannot change the course of an increasingly dangerous present. I want to be an ally to the indigenous. LGBTQ, immigrant, and all POC communities because the way I see it, my life is not mine own. For better or worse, it belongs to this project known as the United States and each of these individuals and communities help to make me, a child of first and second generation Sicilian and Irish immigrants, what I am and want to be—someone who grows in compassion, but stands in the righteousness of social justice for all. We must resist the easy road or the quick fix. We must engage with the hard dialogue and learn to keep silent and listen. I not only heard Denise Giardina speak this week, but also attended West Virginia University’s 25th Anniversary of the Peace Tree Celebration.

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Onondagan Chief Oren Lyons at the WVU 25th Anniversary of thePeace Tree Celebration

Onondagan Chief Oren Lyons spoke, and like Giardina’s talk, I was inspired by his wisdom. Both Lyons and Giardina have dared to stand in their truth no matter the consequences to their careers or lives. Lyons talked about how lacrosse is a hard game and that during his career and the careers of the young men he watches play today how much loss is involved. He said, “They lose. They lose a lot. BUT, they are never defeated.” I want us to recognize that it is not only and always about winning, but about as Giardina said during her talk and Lyons alluded to, the spiritual journey. This journey brings us together in solidarity and allows us to fight injustice wherever we see it or experience it. We must be willing to see each other’s humanity and stand up for anyone who has their basic human rights withheld. Letting go of Columbus Day would be a step forward for Italian Americans that might mean we lose a holiday, but we would gain an expanding consciousness and community. #RESIST

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