How history is taught in our public schools is a serious matter. As a child develops into an adult, the ability to hold rational public discourse using factual references as supporting data becomes an important skill. The ability to sort out truth from disinformation is a powerful asset, but children cannot develop that ability when their public school history curriculum is riddled with inaccuracy and outright omission. The result is that many children do not learn how to properly find and assess what is fact.
In the case of Columbus, we see the inability of people to fully interpret the history of the famous 15th century explorer, or understand the meaning of the Federal holiday that honors his seafaring skills. Some of the oversimplified claims that are generally accepted as fact actually contradict the known evidence.
Columbus never set foot on the North American continent. That point is critical, and has been presented to the New Haven City Council in June of 2019 by a tribal attorney named Patrick Mason. Mr. Mason is a member of the Osage Nation and a lawyer who specializes in tribal law, and he attended the public meeting to present his viewpoint. Mr. Mason began by asking “What interaction did Columbus have with us?” and followed with “The reality is that Columbus never set foot in America”.
It was Mr. Mason’s next statement that drove the point home. He stated: “Heaping blame on Columbus simply scapegoats an individual and does nothing to reverse massacres perpetrated by English settlers and the continued pain imposed by the reservation system”. His concern echoes the warning that history forgotten is often repeated.
Not mentioned in the June 2019 article above, but also important to consider, is that Columbus died in 1506. His demise was almost a decade before Spanish Cleric Bartolome de Las Casas suggested the idea of race-based slavery to the Spanish Crown. It was after this that Spain then switched from exploiting war-captured slaves of any race, to the enslavement of Africans in the new World. Columbus died well before this historical inflection point, so he couldn’t have played a part in the transatlantic African slave trade.
There are many other questions and inconsistencies which we will not address in this article, because that debate obscures two much more important issues that Italian-Americans face today: Cultural Self-Determination, and the Omission of Critical History.
Self-Determination is being lost
Columbus Day is a holiday that occurs during Italian Heritage Month. It is widely known to be of importance to many Italian-Americans. It is steadily being replaced with Indigenous Peoples Day. Absent from consideration is the fact that there already is a World Indigenous Peoples Day, internationally recognized as August 9th of every year. Additionally, Native American Indian Heritage Month is celebrated every November here in the United States. They certainly deserve their own time to be recognized – there is absolutely no doubt of that. But why the superfluous day? Giving a redundant holiday to one culture, while taking it away from another culture during their own celebratory month serves no constructive purpose. It becomes a vehicle of alienation between communities.
Italian-American communities watch in dismay as state & local civic leaders abolish the holiday. This is usually done without their input, and with no consideration for adding in other great figures of Italian descent to the date instead. That is a knee-jerk reaction by civic leadership to being bullied in public meetings and on social media. At this time, the Italian-American community has no seat at the discussion table.
This usually leads to the loss of the Italian-American community’s ability to take part in self-determination. That is discrimination. All fair-minded individuals need to come to grips with this growing prejudice, and hold civic leaders accountable for decisions that minimize the Italian-American community.
The loss of voice regarding a holiday that is traditionally central to Italian Heritage month is segue into our second important issue.
The Enemy-Alien Internments of WW2 is not taught truthfully in our Public Schools
The second and more troubling issue is that history of Italian-American and German-American Enemy-Alien internments in world war two is is not being taught in US public school history curriculums. While the Japanese Internment in WW2 is taught at nearly every grade level, they do not teach that Italian & German Americans were interned too. They also ignore the fact that 600,000 Italians in America lost many constitutional rights, real estate, jobs, and forfeited personal property under Executive Order 9066, signed into law by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) in early 1942. And while 600,000 lost their rights, 1.5 Million Italian-American men served the United States in the war.
The massive scale of civil rights abuses and economic loss were declassified and detailed in 2001 by the US Department of Justice in their report to congress titled “Report to the Congress of the United States: A Review of the Restrictions on Persons of Italian Ancestry During World War II“.
Italian-American men answered the call of duty en masse, even though they were thought of as a suspect ethnicity by the US Government. These men included my Father, 5 Uncles and two Cousins. One of our cousins never made it back home – his resting place is with his crew in a missing B-17 that lays somewhere off the Belgian/Dutch coast in the North Sea.
That is a commitment to America that defines the Italian-American people. Columbus statues have been a ubiquitous public representation of our ethnicity for the bulk of the 20th Century, but I believe that this is related to the fact that the truly defining moments of Italian-American history had been deliberately kept from the American public. The aforementioned landmark congressional document has now been publicly available for 19 years.
As of today, a search of the National Educators Association (NEA) website reveals that there is no mention of the Italian internments in their lesson plans. It is also absent from the National Council for the Social Studies website at socialstudies.org. Search for the Internments of World War 2 on socialstudies.org, and you’ll find that the Japanese internment has a number of prominent entries1. Also available on the NCSS website is an Elementary Education level lesson regarding Executive Order 9066. The Japanese-Americans are the only group mentioned. There is no corresponding material for the Italian or German American internees. These two sizable groups are excluded.
And while Columbus statues come down, Italians in America refuse to demand the removal of FDR’s likeness from our US Dime, or from the many bridges and monuments across our landscape, on the twin principles of historical accuracy and that he had redeeming values. FDR’s world is well understood. He was human, so he was by nature imperfect. He made grave errors, but he led our nation to victory in World War 2. Like Columbus, his history is indelible, so he needs to remain in the public eye and part of our collective story. FDR’s story is well documented, but we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of Christopher Columbus. FDR was a product of his time, and so was Columbus.
Self-determination over celebrated holidays is the right of the Italian-American People.
We Can Decide for Ourselves
Some Italian-Americans have debated the continued importance of celebrating Christopher Columbus. He is actually one of the most important people in human history, and his life deserves continued study and visibility. He is the individual that rejoined the two separated groups of humanity that had been separated from each other for 10,000 years due to the end of the ice age and the resulting rising sea levels.
Personally, I do not feel he represents the story of my particular family. Columbus was from the merchant class of Genoa, was self-taught to a standard well above his peers, married a Spanish noblewoman, and he was well funded by the King and Queen of Spain. I’ve always felt that he had connections that the typical Italian Immigrant to America could only have dreamt about. My four Italian grandparents all arrived in steerage with nothing but some clothes and a dream. My Grandparents are best represented by this monument to the toilers and success stories who helped build this country. One of my biggest inspirations is my Grandfather, Fortunato Lanni. He arrived at Ellis Island on Sept 7th 1903, his 20th birthday, with $12 in his pocket. That’s it. He came on a ship called the Ravenna. He would wind up raising 8 kids on a railroad switchman’s salary, mostly by himself as my Grandmother died when my Father was 9.
I have studied the life of Columbus from an evidence-based perspective. It is easy to debunk many of the major myths and opinions that have grossly misrepresented him, as the current bad press leveled against Columbus has been constructed by pseudo-historians. These individuals have cherry-picked portions of the available historical documents and manipulated them to push disinformation. Readers who do not then fact-check these claims repeat that fiction as fact, remaining unaware that they are being used to spread disinformation.
Luckily, the disinformation pushed into the 24-hour news cycle about Columbus can be easily corrected. This is because those same documents can be used to correct misleading claims. These original source documents are well known, and the historians who value truth over politics have researched the unedited and unabridged evidence and written about them with proper references and documented provenance. The historical and archival research methodologies used allows other historians, and the general public, to follow the researchers’ steps to verify facts. This makes the research easy to follow to its conclusion, and the results to be reproducible.
With uninformed opinion and disinformation going viral on social media every day, it has become everyone’s responsibility to fact-check before sharing content of unknown accuracy. The stakes are too high to ignore journalistic standards of the highest quality.
Columbus as a Master Navigator
Often ignored was Columbus’ incredible skill as a Blue-Water Mariner. His abilities at open-ocean navigation is legendary. Public detractors of Columbus argue that he must not have been a skilled sailor because he wound up in the America’s purely by stumbling upon it. What they ignore is that his skill at dead-reckoning was proven by his ability to return to Europe and make the trip 3 more times using this mathematical navigation method. He accomplished his first voyage with three small scouting ships, two of which were under 90 feet in length. At that era, sailing well beyond the horizon meant that you were out of touch with the rest of the world, and therefore, completely on your own. If any emergency came up, there was no hope of rescue, no radio to use to call for help, and no life rafts. This made a transatlantic round-trip crossing an amazing accomplishment in that era.
It makes no sense that 21st century people downplay his skills, and it becomes ludicrous when his proven talent is criticized by the average 21st century American. These are generally the same people who aren’t comfortable driving on the highway without airbags, air-conditioning, GPS navigation, and a having a cellphone handy in case their vehicle became disabled. In Columbus’ time, these same people would not have fared well.
Like any human being, Columbus was imperfect and flawed. But the violations that he is being accused of are not quite supported by the original source documentation. Furthermore, many of the negative outcomes that derived from the Columbian Exchange can be directly attributable to other key individuals who were Columbus’ contemporary rivals and competitors. This is why an evidence-based examination of his life must continue.
Some Italian-American community groups celebrate Italian History Month with festivals and parades. The San Gennaro festival in New York City’s Little Italy is a legendary one, as is the Columbus Day parade farther uptown. Another great example is the relatively new That’s Amore Festival in Stamford Connecticut. It is 2 days of music, food, wine and all things Italian. I love this idea for many reasons – it celebrates all of the accomplishments of Italians past and present, and it is a 2 day party to invite everyone else to. Sharing food creates a social bond, and that is the kind of inclusion I value. No matter how an Italian Heritage Festival is celebrated, there is always room for people to acknowledge the skills and determination of Christopher Columbus if they want to. This is self-determination, and it is an inalienable right.
Final Food for Thought
The Native American people rightfully have November as well as August 9th to be recognized. Italian-Americans should be able to dictate their October accordingly. Self-determination is a right of all peoples. With that said, the date should not be taken away from Italian Heritage month. What goes in its place should be a decision of the Italian-American community.
The arguments over Columbus statues are a symptom of a failing educational system. The lack of Italian-American inclusion in US history classes is also a symptom. My suggestion is for us to take stock in the failures of America’s public schools, and focus on fixing that.
1 The NCSS website contains a number of lessons addressing the Japanese Internment and Executive Order 9066. Example URLs include the following:
December 16, 2020:
Article streamlined to focus more concisely on public discussion and the introduction of the World War 2 internment project. Broken links to archive.org have been removed.
September 9, 2020:
Structural or URL changes have occured at both the NEA.org and SocialStudies.org (the NCSS), resulting in broken reference links. This issue has been updated with updated search results and archival linking.
August 10, 2020:
The New Haven Connecticut Alders have Advanced “Italian Heritage Day” as a replacement for Columbus Day.
If people thoroughly researched Columbus through original source documents, or read the works of scholars like Carol Delaney PhD (Stanford & Brown University Professor/Columbus researcher), or the work of William F. Keegan PhD (Caribbean Archaeology Professor at the University of Florida), then this wouldn’t be an issue. Professionals like Dr. Delaney & Dr. Keegan value established research methodology, and the results it produces. People need to realize that Columbus’ character has been libeled over the last few decades. This libel has been exacerbated by the failures of the dumbed-down US public school system, and it will be a long battle to correct. It is worth the fight.
What is important about this advancement is that it speaks directly to what I discuss in this article; the self-determination of the Italian-American people, and our having a say in civic discussions regarding our community and holidays. Many Italian-Americans spoke at the New Haven city meeting that brought about this change, and their voices were heard. With that said, Italian Heritage Day is a great alternative and we welcome it.