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Columbus Day is under attack in the United States for celebrating violent colonisation

Columbus Day, held on the 9th of October in the United States this year, is under attack. Not everyone agrees that this is a date to celebrate as it marks the atrocities committed by Europeans on Natives and Black people.

Congress and then-president of the United States Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Columbus Day as a federal holiday to be celebrated in October into law in 1937, although it was commemorated beforehand too. Since then, the observance of this date has varied a lot in different parts of the country, ranging from large-scale parades to complete non-observance. From being a point of reference for Catholics the celebration soon began to represent Italian-American communities. This means that while New York and San Francisco have the strongest traditions of commemorating this day, states like Alaska, Vermont, Oregon, Hawaii and South Dakota have established a counter-celebration: Indigenous Peoples’ Day or Native American Day.

A history of violence and usurpation

Christopher Columbus, the Italian native whose exact name was Cristoforo Colombo, is the man who set sail under the auspices of the Spanish crown and arrived on a Bahamian Island he named San Salvador on the 12th of October 1492, reaching an entire expanse of land, the Americas, not yet known to Europeans (in fact, he had set off to reach Asia). His reputation is torn between the honour of having been a brave sailor and discoverer and the shame of his voyage sparking a wave of violent colonisation in what became known as the “New World”.

The day of his arrival in San Salvador is celebrated in Spain, Italy, Colombia (whose name comes from his) and several other Latin American nations, as well as the United States. The enterprises of the Italian conqueror, however, began to take on another light at the beginning of the 19th century: those of an inhumane man who started mass colonisation via the appropriation of the “new lands”, the slave trade with Africa, and the massacre of the native peoples of the Americas, who were overpowered by violent conquest and the infectious diseases brought by Europeans.

In 1980 famous historian and playwright Howard Zinn, wrote a book which was once considered radical but today is mainstream: A people’s history of the United States. With more than two million copies in print, the book profusely outlines the usurpation, violence and genocidal wave Columbus’ actions brought to the continent, sparking off what the author sees as the rule of white supremacy worldwide.

Columbus day, the pride of Italian-Americans

When Italians arrived as immigrants in the United States starting from the beginning of the 20th century they were victims of prejudice and looked upon as a community unable to integrate, racially inferior and violent. Columbus Day was a venue to contrast this discrimination, becoming a way to proudly celebrate an Italian historical figure, a symbol for all immigrants who arrived in the New World and contributed with their talents to the success of the countries they had emigrated to.

The Statue of Christopher Columbus at Columbus Circle, New York © Luisa Gattone
The statue of Christopher Columbus in Columbus Circle, New York © Luisa Gattone

What is happening and what will be next

In New York the debate started earlier than usual this year, at the end of August, when a statue dedicated to Christopher Columbus was beheaded in Yonkers, a city 25 kilometres (15 miles) north of New York City. This action followed a public discussion over what figures deserve to be memorialised after the city of Charlottesville, in the US state of Virginia, covered two of the major statues of Confederate military generals, Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson – who fought during the American Civil War for the preservation of slavery – with black tarps.

Bill De Blasio, the Italian-American mayor of New York who marches every year in the Columbus Day Parade stated that he is establishing a panel to analyse the most controversial monuments in the city. This panel will decide whether to remove them or install explanatory plaques that give the historical context and insights into the reasons why the monuments are there. One of the most famous statues in New York, of Christopher Columbus at Columbus Circle, near Central Park, will be no exception.

Representatives of the Italian-American community in New York accused those who want to judge the past with today’s moral values and fail to see the importance of Columbus’ figure in the history of the United States of historical revisionism. Their proposals today aim at reconciling the past with what is seen as a white and Catholic supremacy oppressing native and black people, to let other Americans join the Columbus Day parade and integrate all communities into the festivity by showing respect for other peoples’ culture and history.

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