Columbus Plaza was a block away from my childhood home in Atlantic City, New Jersey. In it was a large statue of Columbus. Given that I grew up in an Italian-American immigrant community, finding the statue so nearby is not really a stretch. He was an Italian hero; the man who discovered America. He stood on the only patch of green for miles around my neighborhood. In fact, his statue stood in the nearest I could get to nature back then – an approximately two block square of grass with pigeons, a few trees and the statue of Columbus. Along with sea gulls, those pigeons represented the closest I would get to wildlife until I moved to Alaska.
Columbus Day was a big deal back then. We had parades. Speeches were held around the statue. Politicians hoping for election or re-election made the obligatory appearance praising the contributions of Italian-Americans while doing their best to ignore the Mafia igniting headlines in the paper. As a proper descendent of Italian immigrants, I bought into the myth hook, line and sinker.
Yes, myth. Turns out Columbus never actually set foot on the North American continent. He didn’t find North America or India (his purported destination) as much as he “discovered” the Bahamas. On subsequent trips, he explored the coast of central and south America but never quite got around to North America. Perhaps even more discouraging for Italian-Americans trying to use Columbus to enhance their heritage, the Spanish paid for the trip, not Italians. So actually, the closest connection Italians can make to North America is its name – America.
Turns out the continents were named after an Italian, Amerigo Vespucci, who gave up his Italian citizenship to become Spanish before making his three confirmed journeys to the new world. He also never set foot on North America. He mostly explored the islands and Central and South America. Early mapmakers used a female version of his name to designate a section of the new world on their maps. This got picked up later by a gentleman named Mercator who then used the name to designate the whole of the new world – both north and south.
So why is this history of any relevance today? Well, apparently some in the Italian-American community are upset that places like San Francisco have changed the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day or some similar title. They feel it somehow undercuts their heritage and pride. To which I can only say… have you not head of Michelangelo? Da Vinci? Garibaldi? Iacocca? For goodness sake… Robert DiNiro?
It’s not as though our heritage is at risk of being wiped away because the truth about Columbus is being told. He was an explorer who set out to find a western route to India and didn’t even come close. In fact, despite multiple journeys to the new world, there is little to no proof that he ever actually found North America. Mostly he found islands to which he brought death, disease and destruction. So maybe, just maybe, his aren’t the statues that we should be protecting.
The same holds true for so many statues seen across the American south today. No one would remember Robert E. Lee’s or Jefferson Davis’ name except for the fact that they were traitors to their country. They did nothing else for which they are remembered as opposed to Washington, Jefferson and so many others who, while participating in the horror that was slavery, also managed to found a country and set it on a course of greatness. Columbus did nothing else for which he is remembered except not finding a route to India despite his promises to the Spanish king and queen.
Was he a good salesman? Well, he sold Spain on funding three trips to a place he never reached. That has to count for something. But not enough to make him a hero in today’s world. Heck, he had no reason to be a hero in yesterday’s world. The Norse beat him to North America by hundreds of years and he missed an entire continent that was directly ahead of him.
Sometimes yesterday’s heroes need to be left in yesterday because they are not really heroes as much as their heroics are myths. Yes, Columbus did cross the Atlantic and was one of the first to do so. But beyond that, there is little to recommend him. Surely as Italian-Americans we can come up with a better role model in which to pour our pride. Just as surely, the American south can come up with better heroes than men who betrayed their country and fought to divide it.