On June 9 in Richmond, Va.—two weeks into the protests following the police killing of George Floyd—demonstrators gathered at a statue of Christopher Columbus in the city’s Near West End. After a march of about 1,000 people, led by Indigenous activists in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, protesters threw ropes across the statue, pulled it down, rolled it 200 yards, and threw it into a nearby lake.
The next day, demonstrators in Boston, Miami, and St. Paul toppled or defaced other Columbus statues, and over the next few weeks, several more cities followed suit. The actions were a testament to the depth of the burgeoning movement: This mass mobilization against American racism was taking it back to the beginning, denouncing the false hagiography of the hemisphere’s so-called discoverer.
The Columbus statue in Richmond, the first of its kind in the South, was built in 1927—a project of the local Italian community. Rather than celebrate racism, however, the community erected the monument to combat it: They wanted to show that Italians, who had for decades faced prejudice and derision in the United States, were an integral part of America—that one of our ancestors was even responsible for its supposed founding. It was part of a campaign among Italians in the United States to use Columbus to escape the plight of otherness—that is, to gain access to American whiteness, otherwise reserved for Protestant Anglos.
President Benjamin Harrison established the first Columbus Day in 1892 to quell Italian outrage after a mass lynching in New Orleans resulted in the deaths of 11 Sicilians—a subgroup that endured particularly brutal racism for their “swarthy” complexions and perceived Africanness. Columbus Day was supposed to be a one-time event, but Italian communities saw an opportunity to, as The New York Times’ Brent Staples put it in a review of scholarship on Italian American whiteness, “write themselves into the American origin story, in a fashion that piled myth upon myth.” Throughout the early and mid-20th century, as Italians gained greater access to the racialized top of American society, communities retained Columbus as a mainstay of Italian American identity: Columbus Day parades doubled as Italian pride festivals; Italian American civil service fraternities were founded as “Columbia Associations”; monuments to Columbus popped up in Italian neighborhoods across the country.
It is perhaps safe to assume that most of the Italian Americans who so idolized Columbus in those early decades only knew the mythologized character: the pioneer whose boldness and daring led him to discover the Americas. And if they did know anything of the Genoan explorer’s crimes, they likely justified it with their own racist ideas about the inferiority of Indigenous peoples. But today, the history is well-established. Any ignorance that Columbus massacred, tortured, enslaved, and traded Indigenous American and African people is willful.
Despite this, many Americans of Italian descent still hold up Columbus as an Italian American idol. In response to attacks on Columbus statues this summer, the National Italian American Foundation released a lengthy statement extolling Columbus’s “courageous voyage,” which “represents an opportunity to celebrate our collective contributions to the United States.” The president of the Italian Sons and Daughters of America called Columbus statues “a deeply rooted public celebration of the Italian immigrant heritage,” and “a public expression of our pride, our culture, our history, and our identity.” Even New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said that while “some of [Columbus’s] acts” should be denounced, he supports the existence of the statue at Columbus Circle in Manhattan because it “has come to represent and signify appreciation for the Italian American contributions to New York.”
What these Columbus defenders are saying, in essence, is that the idolization of a genocidaire is excusable because Italian Americans over a century ago decided to build a mythology around him. They take a play from the Confederate apologists’ book in arguing that a historical figure like Columbus shouldn’t be judged by contemporary standards—as if mass killing, slavery, pillaging, and human trafficking were acceptable during certain time periods.
These arguments are more egregious considering that reactionary Italians—like many formerly maltreated white subgroups in the United States—eagerly hearken back to the eras of their own oppression to dismiss other racism: Italians used to not be white, you know. They unsubtly present Italian Americans’ trajectory from persecuted pariah to barely recognizable subclass as a bootstraps success story of an enterprising ethnic group; in reality, Italians escaped persecution in the United States by—both passively and actively—becoming part of the ruling caste.
For Italian Americans today, the reckoning over Columbus presents an opportunity to right these wrongs—to use our history as a way to fight racist hierarchy, rather than to ascend it. The ongoing protest movement against racism and policing is perhaps the largest and most diverse the country has ever seen. Black leaders, white supporters, Indigenous activists, and other racial and ethnic groups are forming a broad coalition that, in addition to fighting for policies to make the nation more just for the marginalized, are seeking to further set the record straight on this country’s oppressive past.
There are few myths more harmful and ingrained in American folklore than that of Christopher Columbus. And if Italian Americans want to get on the right side of history, we need to be at the forefront of dismantling it.