Let’s talk about Christopher Columbus
Let’s talk about Christopher Columbus, after all he’s a paisan, and I can say that as an Italian American.
I first learned about Christopher Columbus’s involvement in the slave trade while in high school. Later I learned that he captured and enslaved Native Americans on his first voyage, and then enslaved hundreds more on other trips. Then I learned that he was also a sex slave trader and a pedophile. It just kept getting worse for Chris the more you looked into him. At one point he was brought back to Spain in chains under arrest for being too brutal to the colony he headed in what is now Haiti. Just think what you would have to do to make the King of Spain feel like he better reel you in some. Chris was a brutal guy by every account, including his own diaries.
What I didn’t know was how weird the history of celebrating him really is. The celebration of Columbus goes hand in glove with the evolution of whiteness in America, and the struggle many immigrants had to become “white” to avoid discrimination.
Before the late 1700s, the colonies didn’t think about Chris much, after all, he never set foot on what would become the American mainland. But when the revolution happened a non-British oriented origin story started developing in popular culture. It culminated in Washington Irving’s historical fictionalized account in 1828, “A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus”. The work created a sanitized glorified version of Columbus as an adventurer who discovered America and proved the world wasn’t flat. Of course, no one with an education in 1492 thought the world was flat and “discovered” is a pretty loaded word. But Irving was a fiction writer and he set out to create an American hero, and it basically worked and took hold to a degree.
But it takes off even more as Italian immigrants seized on his story in an attempt to evade the massive amount of violent racism they were experiencing. Recognizing that the white population was embracing him as a hero led them to attach their Italian heritage to this fictionalized character. Italians weren’t considered “white” in the 1800’s and were being discriminated against and killed in startling numbers. So they pushed the Columbus origin story as a way to pull themselves into accepted society in America. As their entry into whiteness. The story of Columbus is the story of how Italians became white in America.
With every twist and turn Columbus became a nicer, whiter, representation of civilization vs. savagery. The Knights of Columbus, a catholic institution working to gain equality for Italian Catholics pushed and evolved the mythology to the point where it became a national holiday in 1934. And throughout this effort, of course, it was the KKK that was working feverishly to stop their integration and opposing the Columbus Day initiative. Groups like the Klan drove the definition of “white” and were one of the gatekeepers of acceptance. If the Klan accepted your whiteness then most likely “polite” society as a whole already had.
And that is the twisted tale of immigration and perpetual racism in America, if you didn’t become white in the eyes of the white establishment well then you didn’t exist in the same way.
Of course, over time Columbus, once vilified, became embraced by the modern white supremacist groups with racist thought leaders like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingrahm openly ranting the narrative that Columbus paved the way for bringing civilization to Native American’s and Africans. Effectively saying he tamed the savage beast.
So yes now’s the time, the time is now, to get rid of all of these racist statues, and Columbus might just be the most symbolic of them all.
And some modern-day Italian American’s, especially catholic, look to him as heritage much in the way people look to the confederate flag, overlooking the reality of what happened and just celebrating the status it gave them.