Columbus Day is a chance to acknowledge a nuanced history in a polarized world

Statue of Christopher Columbus in Columbus Circle, New York City.

I arrived in Rome on Oct. 15 after a late-night flight from New York. By coincidence, I was crossing the Atlantic Ocean on Columbus Day and, appropriately enough, in a craft piloted by an Italian. The eight-hour flight gave me time to do some reading, including a half dozen op-eds from the previous 48 hours that all addressed the question of whether we should even have a Columbus Day, or whether the federal holiday should be called Indigenous Peoples Day instead.

I do not object to having an Indigenous Peoples Day, but I wonder whether it’s necessary for it to take the place of Columbus Day. The underlying question is what exactly are we celebrating on Columbus Day? No doubt we are recognizing the date when Christopher Columbus first set foot in the Western Hemisphere. And no doubt this is not an event that we can all look back on, indigenous peoples especially, with undiluted pride or pleasure.

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The underlying question is what exactly are we celebrating on Columbus Day?

But it is just as true that we recognize on Columbus Day that which Columbus Day has meant at other times in the history of the United States; and there are aspects of that story that we all should be able to recognize as having some universal, contemporary importance.

For one thing, Columbus Day was instituted as a way of celebrating the contributions of Italian-Americans to the life of the United States. Italian-Americans, like their Irish-American counterparts, were viewed by the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant establishment during most of the 19th century and early 20th century, as positively unwelcome, un-American and even subhuman.

In response to that pervasive ethnic prejudice, which also involved a virulent strain of anti-Catholicism, Columbus Day was born. Thus the principle that ethnic and religious prejudice should have no place in American life is a part of the legacy of Columbus Day too. Surely that is something we can all celebrate, while also allowing for the fact that not everything associated with the holiday and its history is worth celebrating.

But reaching consensus on a matter such as this is especially difficult in a polarized world. Polarization does not respect nuance. But without nuance, without some appreciation for the complexities of our history and the reality of the fallen world we live in, our otherwise good intentions can become a blunt instrument, more appropriate for brute confrontation than genuine encounter with each other.

The principle that ethnic and religious prejudice should have no place in American life is a part of the legacy of Columbus Day.

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To wit: A story in a recent edition of The New York Post looked at the “She Built NYC” project, an initiative led by the First Lady of New York City that “sets out to balance the male-female mix of statues of prominent New Yorkers.” This is a good idea. Our statues should better represent the great diversity and complexity of our history. The trick is to achieve that without some other unwarranted exclusion. That has proven difficult.

As The Post reported, “the initiative asked for the public’s input—and more than 1,800 suggestions poured in, with some 320 women nominated.” Who received the greatest number of votes? None other than St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, the Catholic sister popularly known as Mother Cabrini, who was “America’s first saint” and founded “67 organizations for the needy in the late 1880s.”

But despite receiving the most votes, Mother Cabrini didn’t make the final cut. I have no real objections to the people who did, which include the jazz legend Billie Holiday and Shirley Chisholm, the nation’s first black congresswoman. They clearly deserve such an honor. But why not Mother Cabrini?

Fr. Malone: I hope we can find a way to move past the polemics of both sides, so we can come to a richer and deeper understanding of our history.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who asked that. New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, was so troubled by the exclusion of Mother Cabrini, in fact, that on Columbus Day, he announced that New York State would pay for the statue. That’s where things stand on Oct. 15.

Michele Bogart, an art history professor at Stony Brook University, closely observed the work of the city commission and told The Post that its approach was ahistorical: “One hundred years from now,” she said, “who is to say our attitudes in the present day won’t be taken to task?”

Who’s to say indeed? In the meantime, I hope we can find a way to move past the polemics of both sides, so we can come to a richer and deeper understanding of our history, one that doesn’t require us to cast aside someone or a group of someones in order to make room for someone else. There’s plenty of room. It’s not a zero-sum game.

So can we keep Columbus Day and have an Indigenous Peoples Day as well? Why not both? And if Columbus still proves too controversial, why not at least hold on to the spirit of the day by replacing him with another prominent Italian-American?

I’d nominate Mother Cabrini.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
JR Cosgrove
1 month ago

The discovery of a fruitful land. Columbus had an incredible will to set out on a journey no one ever did before. Some Vikings made it briefly to Newfoundland a few hundred year prior but not a permanent settlement. He did somethings by current standards that are reprehensible but he also made a whole new world possible.

Mother Cabrini should be honored and the fact she wasn’t says more about the ones who did the selection.

JR Cosgrove
1 month ago

Trump must have read Fr Malone’s article. He praised both Columbus and Mother Cabrini this week.

Jeffrey More
1 month ago

I do not often agree with Fr. Malone. However, this is a beautifully written and reasoned piece with which I agree wholeheartedly.

Helen McCaffrey
1 month ago

Calumny is a terrible sin and mostly condemned in the breach. Christopher Columbus has been the victim of lies and villification with narry a defender among Catholic so called intellectual and scholars who should know better.It should be noted that the first organized group to vilify and oppose honoring Columbus was none other than the KU KLUX KLAN . Yes the KKK. Nice company you are keeping.

Enthusiastically Dawn
1 month ago

Thank you for this perspective. I find myself at odds with so much of the perspective growing in our country...in our world? I appreciated this piece and it resonated with me. Why do we have to look back and judge from our now, the things that can only be judged rightly by the One Righteous Judge...I appreciated especially the quote about , how will WE be looked upon, for our choices...holding those dead accountable for theirs...UGH. “One hundred years from now,” she said, “who is to say our attitudes in the present day won’t be taken to task?” I shudder to think. Perspective is needful.

felix cepeda
1 month ago

Celebrating Columbus day is celebrating GENOCIDE.

Christopher Scott
1 month ago

Columbus was a fearless adventure who dared to do in his life what people like Felix, who don’t have the necessary male parts, would even contemplate doing with their life on this earth what Columbus did. To quote our present day potus, people like Felix couldn’t even hold his blank strap... :-)

Johnny Nasheo
1 month ago

Columbus was a capitalist opportunist who dared to gamble for the profits which were in it for him. https://rapidcityjournal.com/lifestyles/people/top-atrocities-committed-by-christopher-columbus/collection_76ebb2b8-f63d-11e3-a137-001a4bcf887a.html#1

Christopher Scott
1 month ago

LaBron James and the NBA are not hypocrites, it just what type of behavior leftists do to make themselves feel better about themselves. If you have nothing at risk your virtue signaling is just an ignorant rant, but as soon as its about to actually costs them something they show their true colors. Thanks for the 20/20 hindsight history lesson though.

Let me shorten the story for you... throughout all of history people fought for land and defended their land, that’s what people did, even indigenous people engaged in this behavior. It’s still happening today... what do you think is happening in the Middle East and with Syria today with the Kurds? So who’s right? Which land belongs to which people?

Christopher Scott
1 month ago

Duplicate

Mary Therese LEMANEK
1 month ago

Like with those who are canonized by the Church, they are named at a particular time, for a particular reason. As the times change, it is possible to highlight a different aspect of the individual for recognition. Maria Goretti was originally held up as a model of virtue and purity...today she is a model of forgiveness. It seems that we can acknowledge the accomplishments of Columbus while putting them into a context that allows us to also acknowledge the injustices.

Johnny Nasheo
1 month ago

Turning this into a "both sides" argument is perhaps as un-nuanced as one can be. There is often the possibility for 2+O sides (right/wrong/numerous Opinions) in discussing subjects like this. Without a doubt Columbus is on the WRONG side of history, and committed many more wrongs than rights. That is inarguable. One can discuss then the few right things he did, whatever those may be. Then there are these opinions. In this case, opinions about subtle and in many ways entirely different topics. No amount of nuanced discussion is ever going to turn a holiday named one thing into a holiday about some subtle other thing. Columbus day will never be immigrant celebration day. If that is what we are after, then the holiday should be renamed to that. And if it is, then it's clear that the wrongs of Columbus outweight the rights...or at the very least the right to have a holiday named after him. But for the love of god, let's not throw all the people harmed by Columbus under the bus so we can celebrate something mostly unrelated to him.

Joseph Billotti
1 month ago

In reconstructing the past, let the one without sin, cast the first stone! Life is not black and white, but all shades of gray! This article is wonderfully textured like a woolen achromatic plaid.

Michael Bindner
1 month ago

Columbia was popular in the Federal period as a way to minimize the association with Britain. The holiday was celebrated locally for this reason. There are some in DC that would change the name because of its relation to indigenous genocide, but as an important issue is statehood for the District. It is Catholicism first and gold second that led to unwitting biological warfare against the occupants.

Columbus discovered nothing. He thought he was in India. Ancient Sanskrit writings show that they knew the continent was here. So did the Danes, who have had an outpost in Greenland for a millennium. All respected the right of Indigenous people to be left alone.

Todd Witherell
4 weeks 1 day ago

Cristobal Colon-izer was a tyrant and a sadist, literally cutting out the tongues of indigenous people. See my friend Alex Nava's book Exile and Wonder in the New World which renames him and consigns him to the dustbin of history. His legacy is genocidal. And needs to be undone. The Knights of Columbus need a new patron and a new name.

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