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