Growing up in Atlantic City in the 50s, the closest I came to greenery was Columbus Plaza. This was a one block square of grass, the occasional tree, and a very large statue of Christopher Columbus. Living in an all-Italian neighborhood, this was as close as we got to a national hero. Granted he didn’t sail under an Italian flag. And granted he didn’t claim lands for Italy, which didn’t really exist then. And sure, he never actually stood on North American soil. But as far as our parents were concerned, he was Italian, and he was a hero. So as far as I was taught in grade school, he discovered America and made all our lives possible. As for the people who were living here when we discovered the place – well, growing up I either saw them as the enemy in cowboy movies or the people whose lives were immensely improved once we brought them Christianity and civilization. No mention was ever made of smallpox ladened blankets or the Trail of Tears.
As you can well imagine, that’s not quite how it is being taught today. At least, I sincerely hope not. The grand parades of my youth with the men wearing funny hats while driving little cars in honor of Columbus are gone. Instead, we now acknowledge and celebrate the cultures and cultural achievements of the indigenous peoples of America. Turns out, no matter how hard your foot comes down on the neck of the downtrodden, they can find a way up. And when they do, boy howdy, are they something.
The art, stories, beliefs, traditions of our American Indians and Alaska Natives are amazing when given a chance to flourish. These traditions never went away despite Western attempts to do so. They may have had to go underground for a while with their cultures in order to survive. But survive they did. Our indigenous peoples have taught us that survival of the fittest doesn’t just mean survival of the rulers.
I realize this is hard for many Italians to accept. Given how far back we have to go to find more Italian heroes, it’s hard to give this one up, though I would argue that Lee Iacocca would fit the bill. To Italian Americans in my neighborhood, he’s the man who put us on the map who wasn’t a mob boss.
There are apparently places where celebrating Columbus Day still follows the old traditions. Which makes me nervous to think of what the children of people who still seem to insist that Columbus “discovered” America are learning about American history. We already know that in Florida they are being taught that some slaves came over voluntarily to learn those skills that would become so critical to them if they, you know, actually survived slavery. Is there a grade school somewhere taught by the Salesian Sisters of my youth in which Columbus is still hailed as the man who made America possible?
All these thoughts flowed through my mind not because of Columbus/Indigenous Peoples Day. They flowed because of the war between Hamas and Israel. In all the years of division of Israelis and Palestinians, neither culture has lost its beliefs and traditions. Like the indigenous peoples of the Americas, those beliefs and traditions remained strong despite all that was done to stifle them. Israel may destroy Hamas but it will never stifle Palestinian life. Palestinians will never stifle Jewish life. Had colonial powers over 100 years ago not done a willy-nilly creation of states in the mid-East with little to no sensitivity towards the people being displaced, we might not be in this position today. But we are. And Palestinians deserve a peaceful place to call their own just as Jews do. The Jewish people received their state – again a decision made by the victorious powers of World War II with little regard for the people to be displaced. Almost 80 years later, that decision is still causing war.
I hope we find a way to give back a peaceful life to all the people in the mid-East. And that means accepting the need to make room for the Palestinian people.
As for Italians and Columbus – we’ll always have Sinatra. That should be enough for anyone.