Why Columbus Day, Anyway?

If your facebook feed is anything like mine, you are seeing a number of memes about Columbus Day.  This is one of the more popular:

o-COLUMBUS6-facebook

And also:

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Both of which make me laugh and make good points about the age of European exploration.  There are a host of other memes about the holiday from the funny to the politically pointed. I will note here though that A LOT of memes and videos floating around about Columbus include wrong facts or are presenting a really slanted view of Columbus.  He was a pretty awful dude, but he didn’t intentionally bring disease to indigenous people.

Many of the memes argue for dropping Columbus Day as a holiday and replacing it with Indigenous Peoples Day.  This is something that several states, many municipalities, and a variety of colleges, universities, and other entities have already done.  In fact, South Dakota has celebrated Native American Day/Indigenous Peoples Day since 1993 in response to Native American protests against the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ travels in 1992.

This year, many of the memes have pointed out that Columbus didn’t land anywhere near what becomes the United States and argue that celebrating him then makes no sense.  Which begs the question–why do we have Columbus Day at all? The answer is that Columbus Day was one part in the complicated process of assimilating immigrants who had little in common with the typical turn of the century American.

Italian immigrants were Catholic and were often accused of being too dark-skinned to live as white people in America.  Because they were seen as outsiders, they struggled to find ways of expressing American patriotism and of demonstrating their American identity.  Christopher Columbus became their founding father; an Italian to honor in American history.  Columbus often appeared in 4th of July and Memorial Day parades and the Italian-American community legitimized themselves as Americans by celebrating him.

We no longer need Columbus to act as a patriotic godfather for marginalized people.  Italian Americans are accepted as white and there are many Italian Americans to celebrate in American history.  Columbus Day is probably a holiday we no longer need.

Indigenous Peoples Day makes sense and, I think, reflects current American attitudes and concerns.  The holiday isn’t a direct replacement of Columbus Day though–Native Americans have a long and proud history in this land and they don’t need a holiday to understand that history.  Non-indigenous Americans, however, could use this holiday to learn about native history and to widen our public discussions of what it means to be an American.

Links and Stuff:

This Atlantic article is really good for laying out the history of the holiday although I will note that calling America “Columbia” isn’t really about Christopher Columbus.  It is about the personification of the nation as a Roman goddess.

This Vox synopsis of a recent Blackish episode about the holiday Juneteenth is an interesting example of a holiday created by and for a minority group that Americans could celebrate instead of Columbus Day.

 

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