I live in Columbus, Ohio and my wife’s father came from Italy. According to family lore and genealogical work, we also both have Native American ancestry, but are not on any tribal rolls. My understanding is that some of my indigenous ancestors were Lenape, and my wife’s were probably Cherokee.
So the challenge of holding all of these strands of the American story together on Columbus Day is especially poignant and painful for us. The plain truth is that Columbus personally perpetrated a staggering array of crimes against humanity, and he and others knew that these deeds were utterly evil at the time. One important voice from the time is the Friar Bartolomé de las Casas, whose account should be routinely read on this day of mourning and remembrance. While his own story is complicated and he was far from perfect, las Casas stands as a powerful witness to the horrors unleashed by Columbus. We should remember that he owned indigenous slaves, freed them and criticized the horrors he had seen, and yet became an advocate of enslaving Africans instead.
Sometimes people try to excuse the behavior of Columbus by appealing to “the times”. But people knew that wanton evil was wrong then, too. Insofar as those times were particularly evil, Columbus played no small role in forming them into the twisted shape they took.
In light of that, it is already painful to read President Obama’s Columbus Day declaration from 2016:
More than 500 years ago, Christopher Columbus’s intrepid voyage to the New World ushered in a new era of exploration and discovery. His travels led to European contact with the Americas and, a century later, the first settlements on the shores of the modern day United States. Today, we celebrate Columbus Day to commemorate the great Italian who opened a new chapter in world history and to appreciate his enduring significance to the Western Hemisphere.
When Christopher Columbus and his crew sailed across the Atlantic Ocean on the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María it marked the beginning of a new era in human history. For Italian Americans, Christopher Columbus represents one of the first of many immeasurable contributions of Italy to American history. As a native of Genoa, Columbus inspired early immigrants to carry forth their rich Italian heritage to the New World. Today, the United States benefits from the warmth and generosity of nearly 17 million Italian Americans, whose love of family and country strengthen the fabric of our Nation. For our beautiful Italian American communities — and Americans of every background –Columbus remains a legendary figure.
For the record, Italian Americans are just as capable of plainly recognizing evil and working toward reconciliation as anyone else. There is nothing in Italian blood that condemns our families to eternally rally around a figure of enormous horror, any more than we need to rally around Benito Mussolini or the Borgias as symbols of Italian pride.
So what is going on here? In part Columbus Day declarations are an opportunity to pander to voters with Italian heritage shortly before elections. This traditional sort of electioneering is largely a relic of a previous era of American history when “white ethnics” formed strong and united constituencies that needed to be courted. The process of pandering around Columbus Day tied them up in a bundle and delivered them into a new story of American identity.
(Of course there was no Arawak constituency to speak of, or to. Genocide and white supremacy will do that to you.)
Still, there is something of a grace note in what follows from Obama:
As we mark this rich history, we must also acknowledge the pain and suffering reflected in the stories of Native Americans who had long resided on this land prior to the arrival of European newcomers. The past we share is marked by too many broken promises, as well as violence, deprivation, and disease. It is a history that we must recognize as we seek to build a brighter future — side by side and with cooperation and mutual respect. We have made great progress together in recent years, and we will keep striving to maintain strong nation-to-nation relationships, strengthen tribal sovereignty, and help all our communities thrive.
More than five centuries ago, one journey changed the trajectory of our world — and today we recognize the spirit that Christopher Columbus’s legacy inspired. As we reflect on the adventurers throughout history who charted new courses and sought new heights, let us remember the communities who suffered, and let us pay tribute to our heritage and embrace the multiculturalism that defines the American experience.
At least this is something, and it is significant that it mentions a number of current obligations and needs. There’s nothing as bold as a call for reconciliation. There’s no mention or numbering of the 5 million Native Americans in the United States today, or of their own essential and remarkable contributions to this country. Still, at least there is a call to remember our history, and to act in ways that accord with understanding it. There’s an acknowledgment that, at the very least, Columbus Day can never be a simple day of celebration for Americans with open eyes and open hearts.
Still, Obama’s call to celebration already stops me cold.
For me, the thought of celebrating Columbus Day is kind of like the thought of celebrating the birthday of Mussolini. Who would celebrate that? Why? What would you think of Italy today if they had massive parades to glorify the memory of Il Duce? If someone came to me and said that my family must celebrate Mussolini’s birthday because we’re an Italian family, I would immediately see what they were trying to do: they would be trying to co-opt our heritage into their obscene political project. I would have to decline, kindly but not too politely. But in declining, I would have to be extremely clear that this is not at all because I am anti-Italian. I would have to call out the ridiculous presumption of their schtick. The issue is just the opposite, in fact: there is so much in Italian history that is truly worthy of celebrating. Why celebrate Mussolini or Columbus or some other criminal?
I would absolutely love it if we declared the second Sunday in October to be St. Francis Day, a day for celebrating the life and works of a saint who has deeply inspired people around the world, including me. Especially in light of the Pope’s recent ecumenical letter dedicated to Francis, Fratelli Tutti, it seems like an opportune time to start celebrating his life and other aspects of Italian heritage that are truly worthy of celebration.
Francis Day could then be followed by Columbus Day, which falls on the second Monday in October. And Columbus Day could then be treated as a national day of mourning and remembrance. While Francis Day could celebrate the positive national and global impact of Italians, the mourning of Columbus Day could not be solely aimed at Italians. Instead, it would address our national inheritance of criminal wrong-doing towards the indigenous people here, a history of criminal cruelty and broken treaties that whispers to us from behind our property deeds.
So Obama’s declaration from 2016 gave me a certain kind of qualified hope. Trump’s declaration gives me a different kind.
Here’s the Trump administration today:
Sadly, in recent years, radical activists have sought to undermine Christopher Columbus’s legacy. These extremists seek to replace discussion of his vast contributions with talk of failings, his discoveries with atrocities, and his achievements with transgressions. Rather than learn from our history, this radical ideology and its adherents seek to revise it, deprive it of any splendor, and mark it as inherently sinister. They seek to squash any dissent from their orthodoxy. We must not give in to these tactics or consent to such a bleak view of our history. We must teach future generations about our storied heritage, starting with the protection of monuments to our intrepid heroes like Columbus. This June, I signed an Executive Order to ensure that any person or group destroying or vandalizing a Federal monument, memorial, or statue is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
I have also taken steps to ensure that we preserve our Nation’s history and promote patriotic education. In July, I signed another Executive Order to build and rebuild monuments to iconic American figures in a National Garden of American Heroes. In September, I announced the creation of the 1776 Commission, which will encourage our educators to teach our children about the miracle of American history and honor our founding. In addition, last month I signed an Executive Order to root out the teaching of racially divisive concepts from the Federal workplace, many of which are grounded in the same type of revisionist history that is trying to erase Christopher Columbus from our national heritage. Together, we must safeguard our history and stop this new wave of iconoclasm by standing against those who spread hate and division.
To be clear, I think this is an obscene distortion of history, and of contemporary discussions around Columbus Day. But I have hope that the obscenity of this declaration will help drive our nation to go a lot farther in the direction of reconciliation and deep historical work.
If Obama’s gesture, gentle and incomplete as it was, was already enough to trigger undying hatred and rage, we might as well go all in.
Contrary to the accusations in this declaration, which are both false and hypocritical, no one is trying to erase Columbus from history. It is absolutely essential that we remember, and mourn.
The issue, instead, is precisely the transparent attempt to cover up a record of reeking corpses and mutilated men with the perfume of pride.
It is painful to reckon with the past, even all these centuries later, because to truly reckon with it means that we must change. Reflecting on the bloody basis of so much of our wealth and power today must, I think, lead us to question the decency of our common understandings of success today. If the economic and political system in which we live has deep injustices at its roots, maybe success within that system is a kind of failure. And maybe success involves learning to live in gentle simplicity, frank honesty and self-correction, and a solidarity with the marginalized that honors the memory of Friar Bartolome de las Casas over the memory of Columbus.
The horror of Columbus’s crimes shows us that we must change along the lines that Pope Francis, the leader of the most Italian and most global of institutions, reminds us we must. We have to learn to treat each other, all of us, as beloved siblings. We need to learn to joyfully share with each other, instead of pitilessly exploiting each other. Through lives of grace, simplicity, generosity, and reconciliation, we must grapple with our past, repent and make amends. That is the only way that we can move into the future together as whole people, and as a whole people.
So it is Columbus day. I’ll remember our nation’s heritage by mourning Columbus and his crimes. And since this has become a day for celebrating Italians, I will celebrate St. Francis. And I will re-dedicate myself to the hard work of reconciliation, which must always include the work of recognizing our sins, repenting and making amends.
This goes for individuals, and nations too.