Showing posts with label Baltimore. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Baltimore. Show all posts

Monday, October 12, 2020

Ciao and shalom, it's Columbus Day

It was painful and offensive to me to see the Columbus statue in Baltimore ripped down and thrown into the harbor on the Fourth of July.

I appreciated Trevor Noah's Daily Show commentary on Columbus Day, aired last week, because he recognized the meaning of the holiday to the Italian-American community.

Noah excerpted a Vox video (story), from 2018, which gave a good concise summary of how the Columbus holiday came to be.

The video describes "the legend of Columbus," and it is a legend.  Italian-American immigrants, such as my grandparents, came to embrace a legendary Columbus who bore little resemblance to the real historical figure.  Which is not to say that the legend lacked real meaning for real people.  There was a time when Italian-Americans were a "non-white" minority in America, Noah acknowledged.  The community reached out to adopt, and partly to create, a galvanizing icon.  

I studied Columbus quite a bit as an undergrad majoring in Spanish-language literature during the quincentenary of "the Discovery."  As best as we can know Columbus, which is not much, given a paucity of surviving and conflicting accounts, the truth must be that he was complicated.  People are.  He had a multiplicity of motives, some more morally laudable than others.  And probably he wasn't the sweetest sort of guy.  Crossing the Atlantic Ocean with a potentially mutinous crew of adventurers in 1492 was a rugged business, if not recklessly suicidal.  But Columbus did not invent Euro-centrism, Caucasian supremacy, or slavery.  The cultural arrogances and inhumane institutions of the 15th century were certain to encircle the globe aboard every ship that departed the continent.

Columbus statue (Brent Moore CC BY 2.0)
So my family, arriving in America in the 20th century, embraced a legend.  It wasn't a terrible choice of legend.  The first Italians to populate Baltimore sailed from Genoa, which is where Columbus probably was from.  My grandparents, who also came to America by boat, from Tuscany, revered Columbus well before the dedication of his Little Italy statue in 1984.  Through their Italian-American organizations, they contributed to the creation of the statue, which was made of marble and crafted by an Italian sculptor.  President Reagan and the mayor of Baltimore dedicated the statue in Baltimore's Little Italy, where my family first lived after immigrating.  When I was a kid, I was taken to Little Italy when my family volunteered and participated in religious rites and Italian-American festivals.  Later, and for many years, my uncle played the character of Columbus in Baltimore's Columbus Day parade, which started and ended at the Columbus statue.  I remember him decked out in cartoonish royal robes, standing atop a float mock-up of the Santa Maria, waving to smiling people, of all colors, who lined the streets.  

He stopped when it became dangerous to be Columbus.  Dangerous to celebrate our history in America, however reimagined and romanticized.

I'm not opposed to taking down statues of Columbus.  I've advocated for "fallen monument" parks, as abound in former Soviet states, Hungary's being the most well known.  They're immeasurably valuable to teach history.  They proffer powerful evidence that, try as we might to be good and to do right, morality has proven a stubbornly mutable ambition in the human experience.  

But taking down Columbus in Little Italy should have been a decision made by a cross-section of community stakeholders, not by a mob.  An effort had been under way in the Italian-American community already to raise money to move Columbus elsewhere.  The mayor of Baltimore promised prosecution of the vandals on July 9, but I've found no report of any arrest or charge to date.  The Italian-Americans who contribute still, vitally, to Baltimore's identity deserve better.  They deserve respect, right alongside every other community that has built Baltimore as a vibrant and diverse city.

As Noah observed, American history is now populated by many Italian-Americans who don't need aggrandizing legends to demonstrate greatness.  It's not too late to create the commission that should have been and to start talking about how to honor immigrant history and the City of Baltimore at the intersection of Eastern Avenue and President Street.  I don't know who, or what, might, or should, stand in "Columbus" square.  I do believe that if we work at it, we can find, or make, an icon that my grandparents would have appreciated, and at the same time raise a testament to a new story.