politics

Italian Americans Deserve a Better-Named Holiday

Canceling Columbus shouldn’t come at their expense.

Photo: Howard Simmons/NY Daily News via Getty Images
Photo: Howard Simmons/NY Daily News via Getty Images

Columbus Day, like so many other staples of American civic life, has in recent years become a political flash point as well as a litmus test: The correct opinion in left-liberal circles is that the holiday celebrating one of history’s greatest monsters should be replaced with Indigenous People’s Day, as it has been in 14 states plus Washington, D.C., and some 130 American cities and counting. Meanwhile, to the right, this push for change is further evidence that the woke left seeks to erase history and upend everything “real” or “regular” Americans hold dear. It’s just one more division in a deeply divided nation, bitterly contested in spite of — or perhaps because of — the stakes being much more symbolic than material.

Replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day feels eminently just in the same sense as replacing Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill: Not only do we strip a violent, racist historical figure deeply complicit in slavery and genocide of a unique honor, we bestow it on the people he harmed. In either case, millions of Americans would no longer be forced to participate passively in the canonization of someone who killed and enslaved their ancestors every time they withdrew money from an ATM or enjoyed a Monday off in October.

Furthermore, both changes appear to offer those symbolic benefits without any real symbolic costs. Christopher Columbus has been dead for half a millennium; Jackson, for some 180 years. Jackson has little popular constituency today beyond Donald Trump and other fans of authoritarianism and racism. Opposition to his banishment from our currency stems if not from outright racism then from adherence to a warped, reactionary view of “tradition” and a pathological fear of change.

The difference with Columbus Day, however, is that there is also a community that would be harmed by this change: Italian Americans, the people the day is actually meant to celebrate. Much of the pushback against Indigenous People’s Day has come from the Italian American community, and while some of the loudest voices against the change carry an off-note of racial resentment, they also reflect a legitimate underlying grievance. To many Italian Americans, canceling Columbus Day feels like canceling them and their history — and whether or not that’s true, it would mean abandoning a celebration of their role in the American story.

Manhattan’s Mulberry Street circa 1900. Photo: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

On the one hand, one might say that Italian Americans have not experienced anything close to the historical and present-day suffering of Native Americans and that revising our hagiography of Columbus and honoring the sacrifices and contributions of Indigenous peoples is more important than sparing the feelings of one subset of white people. On the other hand, that thought process reflects a kind of zero-sum vindictiveness and is historically shortsighted in its own way: Italians, like Jews, were not fully accepted into the white people’s club until fairly recently in American history. In the not-too-distant past, Italian Americans faced the same kind of discrimination and violence experienced by other ethnic minorities.

Indeed, the story of how Columbus Day came to be reflects a history of suspicion and persecution. In New Orleans in 1891, 11 Sicilian immigrants were lynched in retaliation for the killing of the city’s police commissioner, which was blamed on the Italian community. It was among the largest mass lynchings in American history, and it caused a diplomatic rift with Italy, whose government broke off relations and demanded reparations for the atrocity. President Benjamin Harrison’s proclamation of the first Columbus Day celebration in 1892, 400 years after Columbus’s landing in the Americas, was part of a political effort to repair relations with Italy and placate the Italian American community in the aftermath.

Harrison’s proclamation made no mention of Columbus’s heritage, but for Italian Americans, honoring Columbus was a way to make inroads into mainstream, “respectable” white America by showcasing the central role of the Genoese explorer in our historical narrative: a precursor to the country’s founding, to Manifest Destiny, and so forth. When Congress established Columbus Day as an annual national observance in 1934 (its current status as a federal holiday dates to 1971), Italian Americans were still struggling for acceptance and equality. As historians Laura E. Ruberto and Joseph Sciorra have explained, in the 1930s, erecting statues of Columbus was “a means to gain entrance into a racist society under the cover of whiteness.” But even that didn’t prevent Italian Americans from being interned as “enemy aliens” during World War II.

Throughout these decades of discrimination, Italian Americans persevered in contributing massively to our national cultural identity. Today, every American speaks a few words of Italian, even if these are only pizza and spaghetti. Many great American writers, artists, entertainers, athletes, and entrepreneurs have been of Italian descent. Yet even now, Italian Americans are too often portrayed in popular culture as mobsters and morons.

The proverbial ship has sailed — and rightly so — on converting Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day. But if we are to cancel a national holiday honoring Italian Americans, we should replace it with another and name it after a more fitting, less problematic representative. This is not a new idea; the feminist Beat poet Diane di Prima proposed a whole roster of better candidates in her poem “Whose Day Is it Anyway?” In 2020, Colorado’s legislature chose to rename Columbus Day after Mother Frances Cabrini, a passionate and resourceful advocate for Italian immigrants, orphans, and the poor who was the first U.S. citizen canonized as a saint. That same year, Akron, Ohio, went with a more generic title: Italian American Heritage and Culture Day.

With so many great Italians and Italian Americans to choose from, who would be the best figure to take Columbus’s place? Other Italian explorers such as Amerigo Vespucci, John Cabot, and Giovanni da Verrazzano are less monstrous than Columbus but suffer from the same association with colonialism. Enrico Fermi, perhaps the most famous Italian American scientist, is problematic for his work on the Manhattan Project. Sacco and Vanzetti would likely be too controversial given their anarchist politics. We could always go with a great Italian historical figure like Galileo Galilei or Leonardo da Vinci, but they lack the American connection.

Colorado’s choice of Cabrini Day is a fine one; other good candidates include the Civil War soldier (and first director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) Luigi Palma di Cesnola and the legendary U.S. Marine and WWII war hero John Basilone, though neither has especially widespread name recognition today. (Personally, I would love to celebrate Marisa Tomei Day, but alas, national holidays are named after national heroes, not mere national treasures.)

Another standout possibility is Giuseppe Garibaldi, the 19th-century Italian general and patriot. Garibaldi is one of Italy’s founding fathers, a national hero who played an essential role in the unification of Italy, fought for its independence, and supported several republican and liberation movements in Europe and South America throughout his storied military career. Famously described by the historian A.J.P. Taylor as “the only wholly admirable figure in modern history,” Garibaldi was hardly a literal saint like Mother Cabrini, but he was admired in his own time and remains so today as a champion of liberty in his home country and beyond.

A monument to Giuseppe Garibaldi in Verona. Photo: C. Balossini/De Agostini Picture Library via Getty Images

What about Garibaldi’s connection to American history? For one thing, he actually lived in this country for a short while in the early 1850s, whereas Columbus never set foot in the present-day continental U.S. Furthermore, in stark contrast to Columbus, he pressed for the emancipation of enslaved Black Americans, and he might have fought in the American Civil War to that end if only Abraham Lincoln had been more progressive.

At the time of the Civil War, Garibaldi was world famous for his exploits in Italy, where in 1860 he had invaded and conquered Sicily with an army of about a thousand volunteers. A volunteer infantry regiment in New York was even named after him. Garibaldi himself was interested in assisting the Union, and Lincoln sought to enlist the Italian general and put him in command of U.S. forces, but Garibaldi said he would do so only on the condition that Lincoln declare the abolition of slavery as the objective of the war. Lincoln was not yet ready to do so, and the talks fell through.

Nonetheless, when Lincoln finally issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Garibaldi wrote to him in praise: “Posterity will call you the great emancipator, a more enviable title than any crown could be … If an entire race of human beings, subjugated into slavery by human egoism, has been restored to human dignity, to civilization and human love, this is by your doing and at the price of the most noble lives in America.”

Garibaldi’s fame as a champion of liberty in both Italy and America makes him among those well suited to replace Columbus. Who better to take the place of a man whose legacy mainly consisted of slavery and genocide than one who stands for American (and Italian) ideals of freedom and equality?

Columbus was always a poor stand-in for Italian Americans, anyway. With a Garibaldi Day, Italian Americans would not just get their day back but also trade up from a rightly reviled historical representative to a heroic figure who had a direct, positive impact on modern Italy and the United States.

For the time being, Columbus / Indigenous People’s Day will remain a holiday divided. Last year, President Joe Biden split the baby, proclaiming the day both Indigenous People’s Day and Columbus Day and using his Columbus Day proclamation to acknowledge the contributions of Italian Americans as well as “the painful history of wrongs and atrocities that many European explorers inflicted on Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities.”

Of course, actually canceling Columbus Day at the federal level would require a great deal of political capital as well as congressional support, which Biden may never have. But as more states and cities make the morally right call of replacing it with Indigenous People’s Day, they should make sure their Italian American community still has a holiday to celebrate, whether on the second Monday in October or on a less contested date. Garibaldi Day would make an excellent substitute — though it couldn’t be celebrated on his birthday, because it’s the Fourth of July.

Italian Americans Deserve a Better-Named Holiday