It’s Friday, June 12, 2020.
Today is the 57th anniversary of the murder of Medgar Evers outside his Jackson, Mississippi, home.
Evers fought at Normandy before coming home to the same old Jim Crow crap when he tried to exercise his right to vote. So he spent the rest of his life trying to get it and other basic rights for African Americans.
Just before he died, he heard President John F. Kennedy give his strongest speech on the need to pass national civil rights legislation. Then he pulled into his driveway, emerged from his car and got shot in the back by a racist coward.
He died 50 minutes later, but not before his frantic family convinced a Jackson hospital to make Evers its first-ever black patient. It was about to turn him away because it was whites only, but somebody in the place remembered the Hippocratic Oath thing.
To see Evers’ gravesite. don’t go to Mississippi. He’s buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Because he’s an American hero.
Andrew Cuomo, my state’s governor, tackled the question of whether New York City should join the movement to topple the statue of Christopher Columbus in Columbus Circle.
And by “tackled,” I mean he knocked it down hard – much like what those bothered by the statue would do to it given the chance.
“I understand the feelings about Christopher Columbus and some of his acts, which nobody would support, but the statue has come to represent and signify appreciation for the Italian-American contribution to New York,” Cuomo said.
“So, for that reason, I support it.”
This is tricky ground for me.
I’m not only Italian American, but my paternal grandfather is from Savona, where Columbus spent his boyhood. He’s practically a homie.
So, over the years, I’ve tried to find ways of defending Columbus. I’ve wrestled with this the past few days as Native Americans state their case for demonizing him.
Now that might bother you. Like the governor, I get it – and that’s why you’re now in the midst of my rumination of how to reconcile two things:
- Columbus symbolizes Italian American pride.
- Columbus enslaved, murdered, sickened and colonized the people he supposedly “discovered.” That, understandably, bothers Native Americans and other indigenous people of this hemisphere.
There are seething injustices for which the craven murder of George Floyd is merely the tipping point.
African Americans, in particular, have reason to be aggrieved.
Add all the unpunished police or wannabe police killing with less-than-human treatment by society, substandard service by government, economic inequality and a disproportionate amount of death from COVID-19 – and I’m still not sure that sums it all up.
So I get this idea of righting wrongs – those from last month and those from the last four centuries. And not just African Americans – everyone else in my household is wholly or partly Asian, and watching videos of jerks blaming Chinese people in America for the pandemic gets all of their blood boiling.
What complicates this is why there’s a Columbus Day and Columbus statues in the first place.
Brent Staples, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial board member of the Times, wrote an amazing piece last fall.
You should read it. But here’s a summary:
In 1891, 11 Italian immigrants were lynched in New Orleans because a jury didn’t convict some of them for the shooting death of the city’s police chief. The city’s leaders had no problem with this. Neither, Staples points out, did his employer, the Times – it called the mob’s victims “a pest without mitigations.”
If the lynched had been black, it wouldn’t have raised much fuss. As African Americans know all too well.
But the Italian immigrants had allies – la patria.
The Italian government was so incensed by the incident that it broke off diplomatic relations with the United States and threatened to go to war over it.
President Benjamin Harrison – a Republican with such a peculiar obsession with his wife’s niece that he married her after his wife died – caved to the Italians. Kinda like Sen. Pat Geary of Nevada in “The Godfather Part II.”
He paid an indemnity and declared a one-time holiday to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the hemisphere.
The holiday stuck. The powers that were realized that Italians are white people, too, and wanted to bring them on board. They might not be as desirable as the British and the Norwegians, but at least they’re not Asian or black.
Why Columbus? After all, he never sailed close to what became the United States.
I guess Harrison had the anniversary in mind, when he wasn’t thinking about his wife’s niece, and there wasn’t anyone else who fit the role.
So that’s where I am. I get why it’s hard for Italian Americans to let go of Columbus. He represents our begrudged acceptance in this country.
But here’s the thing:
Two wrongs, three wrongs, 27 wrongs, thousands upon thousands of wrongs – no number of wrongs make a right.
The evidence is overwhelming that Columbus did what historians say he did. That’s horrible.
He deserves the vitriol he gets. As an American, Italian- or otherwise, injustice is anathema in whatever form it takes.
Even – no, especially – when it’s done by a homie.
However, before we knock down Columbus’ statues and change the name of Columbus, Ohio, and Columbia University and the District of Columbia, can I make a suggestion about Columbus Day?
Let’s keep it.
Except that we should honor the original idea behind it rather than who it honors.
Let’s make it a day to celebrate the immigrants who make this country what it is. All of them, not just us Italians.
Let’s make it a day to celebrate where we all come from. A feast day with a dizzying array of food, music and ritual.
A day to celebrate my Italian heritage and my wife’s Chinese heritage and your Mexican heritage and your Senegalese heritage and your British heritage and your Cherokee heritage.
A day for parades down Broadway in New York and Market Street in San Francisco and High Street in whatever we end up calling Columbus, Ohio.
And that statue in New York that Gov. Cuomo opposes tearing down?
I’m perfectly happy replacing it with one of his grandfather. Andrea Cuomo came from southern Italy to run a grocery store in Queens and start a family that gave our state two governors. He’s certainly a more honorable man than Christopher Columbus.
But if that seems vain, maybe a rotating series of statues in the renamed Immigrants Circle reflecting the diversity of New York.
The point here is this:
I get why you might object to a statue of a slaver and murderer in a vaunted spot of your hometown.
But he’s there to show compassion for the struggles of one of the groups that helped make this country.
If we can be more virtuous about who we honor – and generous about sharing that virtue – sending that statue a tumblin’ down might work.