It’s time to stop scapegoating Christopher Columbus
By Aileen Riotto Sirey and Angelo Vivolo
Why are we so eager to search out scapegoats for the injustices of history? Whatever the reason, Christopher Columbus is now the fall guy for the sins of slavery, the exploitation of indigenous peoples, the rape of natural resources and most of the legal, financial and territorial abuses that followed the first European steps in the New World. His accusers want to eliminate Columbus Day and replace it with Indigenous Peoples Day.
Columbus is a 15th-century man in a 21st-century court, and the jury is stacked with self-righteous, injured parties who have 20-20 hindsight. Vilifying him won’t change the unfairness of history, but it will delegitimize the outright and undeniable contributions of Western civilization. Tearing down statues to him won’t undo the damage from two worlds colliding, but it will mask the progress and achievements that emerged from two worlds converging.
Columbus Day exists for two reasons. The first: Columbus was the explorer who completed four recorded voyages across the Atlantic, showing great courage, determination and skill. His audacity and vision revolutionized worldwide human migration. Hundreds of millions of immigrants have followed his brave example over the course of more than five centuries. Today, his legacy endures in every immigrant who seeks opportunity and a better life.
The second reason is that on March 14, 1891, Italian Americans hit a low point in the long, arduous hazing period that every immigrant group seems condemned to suffer before emerging into the status of respectable American-hood. That year, an angry New Orleans mob lynched 11 Italian immigrants after they were cleared of murder charges. Perhaps the largest lynching in US history, it was condoned by the New York Times and a future president, Teddy Roosevelt.
Italian Americans desperately needed a hero to stand for them, someone to symbolize their contributions to their adopted land. The following year, Italian Americans in New York City erected a statue to Columbus at what became Columbus Circle and inscribed it, “To the world, he gave a world.”
So, when the attack on Columbus is as virulent as it is, the Italian American community is understandably distressed. He is the icon who represents our presence here, and symbolizes our enduring love for and commitment to this haven for immigrants.
Critics assign him the most malevolent personal motives. Yet cultural anthropologist Carol Delaney notes that Columbus himself never owned a slave and adopted an indigenous child as his son.
Why must he shoulder the guilt for the entire 15th century? Slavery was already here in the New World. So were cannibalism and human sacrifice, neither tolerated in the Old World.
But the forces that shaped the New World were out of the hands of any single man: The Doctrine of Discovery, human greed, free enterprise, international competition spurred by Old World mercantilism, abuse of power — all unleashed on a playing field without rules.
These are dangerous days for our republic. We are being pitted against one another as never before, weakening the pillars of our rational but still imperfect democracy. The attacks on Columbus feed into that conflict.
“Is this an attempt to obliterate the history and contributions of Western civilization?” said one angry man at a recent meeting of Italian Americans. Another said, “It’s an attack on Catholicism”; still another, “It’s an insult to all Italian Americans.”
Let’s not take that path. Let’s not squabble over injustices of the past only to wind up creating new ones. With the knowledge and tools we have acquired, let us remedy the unfair conditions for today and tomorrow — and let’s do it together.
Indigenous Peoples Day should be a holiday … and it is: Aug. 9. And November is Indigenous Peoples Month.
Thanks to Christopher Columbus’ efforts, the floodgates of immigration were opened. We were granted the “possibility of a world” … a new and just one. Many, many others have worked hard since then, but particularly over the past 243 years, to make that possibility real. It is up to us, the immigrants, to carry on.
At bottom, we are all immigrants. Whether we walked across an iced-over Bering Strait with our Native American siblings or we came in chains or desperation or hope from Africa, Europe or Asia, we are all immigrants here.
And we are all Americans.
Aileen Riotto Sirey is founder of the National Organization of Italian Women. Angelo Vivolo is president of the Columbus Heritage Coalition.
The story originally appeared in the New York Post.