Portrait of a Man, Said to be Christopher Columbus,
by Sebastiano del Piombo (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The nation was run by white Anglo-Saxon men, and naturally they cast themselves in all the hero roles.
Eventually, the forgotten supporting cast grew tired of being in the shadows—women got the vote, blacks demanded civil rights, immigrant groups inserted themselves into the American story. That's why Monday is Columbus Day, one of just 10 federal holidays.
"I'll tell you how it happened," said Dominic Di Frisco, president emeritus of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans. "The Italian immigrants arrived after the German immigrants, after the Irish immigrants. They saw events like the Von Steuben parade and decided they needed a political hero. Christopher Columbus is not much of a figure in Italy. They said, my God, this country is named after him—the District of Columbia, Columbus in Ohio, in Georgia. He was the hero, a symbol of Italian pride, the first immigrant."
Columbus was on coins and stamps. Chicago held its World's Columbian Exposition.
So what changed? Why is Columbus now frequently a villain? Well, the same process that put Columbus Day on our calendar—heretofore marginalized people insisting their part in the story be told—kept going, to include Native Americans. They don't feel Columbus discovered anything—the Indians knew they were here all along—and given how quickly the Europeans began murdering, enslaving and pushing aside indigenous peoples here, to them there isn't much to celebrate, which is why there's a card widely posted on Facebook: "Let's celebrate Columbus Day by walking into someone's house and telling them we live there now." A fair synopsis of what happened, minus the genocide.
And yet perhaps because I learned the 1970s history catechism, where national unity trumps the complaints of each individual group, I feel for the Italians, who just want to be part of the story and celebrate themselves without having to wipe the blood of the slaughtered off their hands every October.
What bothers me most about the "Let's celebrate . . . " card is the casual declaration of free-floating guilt that we liberals seem to have mastered. What are you saying? You're sorry the nation was founded? At least Native Americans have a reason to say that, though, like everybody else, their narrative is also self-serving—heavy on "Dances with Wolves," light on the hearts-torn-out-atop-pyramids-to-honor-Quetzalcoatl.
The Aztecs were the most violent state in recorded human history, so it isn't as if, had Columbus never arrived, the American Eden would remain to this day. To post that card is hypocrisy. Europe's still there. Go back if you feel so guilty about living here. I sure don't. My ancestors never killed an Indian or owned a slave. They were selling rags in Poland when all this was going on, and America was the golden door a handful fled through before the most cultured and sophisticated society in Europe put the rest in ovens. That still doesn't prompt me to show up at German Unity Day and wave pictures of Auschwitz. The past is a lousy place to live.
So I have sympathy for Italians on Columbus Day; though really—Columbus, Balbo, Berlusconi—there is a pattern of clinging to bad choices here.
"He was one of the great navigators of history, and we've taken that away from him," said DiFrisco, "and reduced him to some kind of bloodthirsty, syphilis-spreading marauder, and that is not the case."
Not the entire case. We live in a time when heroes are ritualistically tarnished and, frankly, everybody is better off with the more accurate, though less flattering, narrative than with the pretty story. It's easier for me to grasp the current inability of the government to confront our problems when I consider that it was formed on a lie—"All men are created equal"—that skirted the issue of slavery, kicking it down the pike to explode 75 years later. Ignoring our biggest problems is an American tradition since 1776.
"Columbus Day is an Italian pride holiday," said Di Frisco. "We decry that fewer and fewer schools have it off. Here's a man who planted the flag of Christianity on the shores of the new world and teachers are systemically taking the image of Columbus we all knew and they've turned him into a villain."
Speaking of the flag of Christianity . . . but space grows short. Happy Columbus Day.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 10, 2011