By Donald A. Alessi
Recently, some quarters have fostered a condemnation of Christopher Columbus for the treatment of indigenous people upon coming to the New World, and demanded the removal of Columbus Day from our calendars. Almost as if to promote controversy, he has been called a mass murderer, or worse.
For many years, Italian-Americans have adopted Columbus Day as a time to celebrate the rich traditions of their Italian heritage and the enormous accomplishments of Italian people. Virtually every elementary school has the painting of Columbus landing in America and teaches the poem about the heroics of the fearless navigator, the year of his voyage and the names of his ships. Now we are being told that Columbus was a savage killer, not the first European to land in North America and unworthy of a holiday named after him.
The Vikings no doubt came before Columbus. But they were not likely searching for trade routes to the East in the belief that the world was round. They were most likely not merchant emissaries seeking to deliver goods to and from the Orient in an efficient expansion of commerce.
Even the most casual student of history is aware that exploration to any region regrettably brings disease and death to inhabitants, as with the Spanish, English, French and other explorers years later.
It is not suggested that we should forgive, condone or even excuse any inhumane treatment of indigenous people, because inhumane treatment is shameful no matter where, or how, or under whose flag it occurs.
But should Italian-Americans be less proud of Columbus despite his uncertain shame, yet remain proud of our country in spite of our own shameful past episodes? Do we not celebrate the Fourth of July even though our horse soldiers massacred thousands of Native Americans while taking their lands; or despite our shameful treatment of black Americans by denying basic human rights in their treatment as items of personal property? Do we not celebrate church holy days even with the torture and death of so many during the Inquisition?
We must be willing to acknowledge that there are, sadly, even to this day, many examples of man’s inhumanity to man. Perhaps we should look upon such events as reasons for a commitment to become more tolerant of others unlike us. Rather than condemn a man and his sailors, we should promote a class action against all episodes of intolerance.
But we should not, and will not, abandon the celebration of Columbus Day and our Italian heritage and traditions. We have come too far as an ethnic group to retreat to an outpost of guilt.
Donald A. Alessi is immediate past president of the Federation of Italian-American Societies of Western New York.