(Not So) Happy Columbus Day ©
Today is Columbus Day, which always makes me think of my father. When I was a kid, he took me to the Columbus Day parade in Bensonhurst, and then we’d get the zeppole and the cannoli and stuff our faces after the parade. Father taught me that Columbus discovered America, and is an important part of our Italian history.
The parochial school in our mostly Italian Catholic neighborhood reinforced what father taught me about Columbus, that he discovered America, but my university professors presented Columbus as, well, an idiot who “discovered” America so well that he thought he was in India, and as a thug who raped the land and the people he “discovered”.
At nineteen years old, I took a study abroad in Italy, and I found out they don’t celebrate Columbus Day in Italy. You’d think Columbus “discovering” America would be a big deal to the Italian people, right? I learned many things on that study abroad, but not why we as Americans celebrate Columbus, but his home country of Italy does not. So when I returned from my travels, I made it my mission to find out WHY America celebrates a murdering, raping thug of a man like Columbus as a “great Italian”.
And I found out that on March 14, 1891, the city of New Orleans scapegoated and lynched eleven Italian immigrants, for their alleged roles in the murder of somebody named Hennessy. It was the biggest single mass lynching in American history, with the eleven victims rounded up more for their ethnicity than for having committed any crime. Of course, this incident strained relations between the US & Italy, and rightfully so. And to appease Italy, and more so the Italian-American community, the government gave us Columbus Day. Why they chose a murdering, raping thug to honor as a “great Italian” when Amerigo Vespucci and Giovanni da Verrazzano (who sailed up the Narrows River & got a bridge named for him in my hometown) also exist is beyond me, but they gave us a holiday celebrating a murdering rapist as an “apology” for lynching eleven men whose only crime was that their names ended in a vowel.
In recent years, there’s been some controversy surrounding Columbus and Columbus Day. Specifically, the matter of Columbus having raped and enslaved the people he “discovered” on the island of Hispaniola is...well, problematic. All across this country, statues of Columbus were toppled.
The toppling of the statues, the smearing of Columbus’ “good” name, and the backlash against white colonialism in general, angered my father. During the early months of the pandemic, I was unemployed, locked down in the house with my parents, and to keep from going crazy, I read. Anything and everything.
One of the things I read in the summer of 2020 was an English language translation of the writings of Michele di Cuneo. Di Cuneo traveled WITH Columbus to “discover” America. Well, I WAS reading that until it got to the part about how di Cuneo “captured a very beautiful woman”, and whipped her when she declined to pleasure him. I got to to that part and I closed the book, put it on a shelf, and almost forgot about it. Until Columbus Day 2020 rolled around, at which time I gifted it to father, and suggested he read di Cuneo’s account and learn the truth about his beloved Columbus.
Only it didn’t work the way I thought it would. Father read di Cuneo’s account like I asked him to...and then waved it in my face as “the definitive proof” that Columbus never actually raped anyone, it was just some of his “underlings” (like di Cuneo) who engaged in that behavior. I insisted Columbus’ having been OK with his “underlings” engaging in acts of capture, torture, and rape was just as bad as if he’d engaged in such acts himself. Father said I was allowing what happened to me in grandfather’s bedroom to make me unduly prejudiced against Columbus (the same way he often said I was allowing what happened in grandfather’s bedroom to make me unduly prejudiced against Trump).
I never asked my father how or why he could side with Columbus over his own daughter. I didn’t have to ask, because on some level I’ve always known. The answer is that, in his own way, my father is kind of like Columbus. The same way Columbus was OK with his “underlings” like di Cuneo committing acts of capture, torture, and rape, my father was just fine letting his father in law be the de facto man of the house...grandfather carved the turkey at Thanksgiving, grandfather opened the clams at Christmas Eve, grandfather sat at the head of the table, grandfather paid my parochial school tuition and drove me to and from school, and father sat back and let it happen. Grandfather threw me a beating when I didn’t practice the piano to his goddamned standards, and yes, he took me, in the same bed where grandmother died, every day for an entire summer, and still father sat back and let it happen.
I’m a modern day Paisana, coming to terms with the fact that in my country of origin and within my own family, the men are divided into two groups...those who, like di Cuneo and my grandfather, actively engage in acts of capture, torture, and rape...and those like Columbus and my father, who don’t have the balls to commit such acts themselves, but vigorously support those who do.
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