The Italian Enclaves Historical Society welcomes guest blog posts from contributors like the one below written by Stephen Cerulli of the John D. Colandra Italian American Institute in regards to the concept of shifting away from Columbus as an Italian icon. The following does not represent the opinions of the Italian Enclaves Historical Society in any way:
When change comes, it arrives quickly. Throughout the country, Columbus monuments are being contested, vandalized, and removed. The genesis of this movement is in 1990s when monuments and his day were contested more frequently. However, only recently have statues been removed. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, and the birth of a massive national social justice protest movement, Columbus statues are being removed en masse. As of this week – West Orange, New London, New Haven, San Francisco, St. Louis, Sacramento, Middletown, Hartford, Columbus, and San Diego – have removed their monuments. With this in mind, what role should Italian-Americans play in the removal of Columbus statues? This post will argue that Italian-Americans should be the leaders in their removal so they can have a say in their replacement.
Before exploring what role Italian-Americans can play, and how to do it, the reader must understand why so many Americans are troubled by Columbus. Though is his role in linking the world was monumental, many of his choices, even in their own context are problematic. Knowledge of Columbus actions was more limited when chosen as a figure to represent Italians in America, however recent scholarship has highlighted the degree of to which he participated in acts, such as large scale slavery. Even his colleagues considered his actions unusually cruel. Contemporary research has even uncovered that multiple Spanish colonists were concerned with the actions that he took while governing them. What Italian-Americans need to understand is the objections to Columbus are not an attack on Italian heritage, but are instead criticisms of Columbus the person.
On a side note, many in the Italian American diaspora are unaware of the long term consequences Columbus’ historical contributions has had on their own history. Throughout the middle ages, southern Italy was an independent kingdom and based out of Naples. Shortly following the linking of the Atlantic world, the Spanish Empire partook in a massive decades’ long war in the Italian peninsula that was financed with New World gold. The long term consequences of this turned much of Italy, especially the south, into Hapsburg dependencies. One important Italian-American historian argues that the diaspora’s history is full of ironies, perhaps arguing that the southern question – the creation of the south of Italy as a dependent region, which sparked the diaspora – started with Columbus could be added as another one of those ironies. With that in mind, it is no wonder that the Genovese explorer has zero monuments erected in the Italy’s south.
However, many do acknowledge Columbus’ historical deeds and its consequences for what they were. Never the less, they argue that we shouldn’t take down his monuments because they are “part of history.” This is questions deserves some prodding. Mainstream historians in the American Historical Society have taken the position that monuments are not history. They argue that monuments commemorate historical events and figures. This “part of history argument” argument could also be used to defend removing Stalin statues in the former Soviet Union. Nonetheless, those fell, and the
horrors of the gulag were not lost to our collective historical memory. Back to Columbus, historically Italian-Americans commemorate Columbus for their own identity based reasons. However, the context of how we understand Columbus has changed. A digestible and excellent analysis of this context is found in “Recontextualizing the Ocean Blue Italian Americans and the Commemoration of Columbus,” by Laura E. Ruberto and Joseph Sciorra.
The purpose of this blog is probe on why Italian-Americans should take leadership roles in removing Columbus monuments. A few years back, in La Voce Di New York, I assumed that the monuments would eventually topple and that Italian-American’s have to do something about it. I argued that a few members in each community should work on a replacement and take the responsibility to persuade and educate Italian Americans. A good example of this is action is found in New Haven.
In Stamford, my hometown, a few of my friends and I also put this logic into action. We called our local representatives to test their openness to the issue (they were), we tried to reach out to the local Italian American organizations (who were hostile), and had conversations with people in Stamford’s Italian social clubs and online. It is a lot of work, but our group managed to get 500 signatures in 21 hours. In our case, what/who do we want to replace Columbus with? We choose Bruno Giordano, Stamford’s first Italian American mayor.
Our reasoning for this takes in consideration the monument’s context. Stamford’s monument, like many of the Columbus monuments in America, was erected by the Italian-American community to honor the contributions of Italian-Americans in their locality. We consider our position conservative, because we want to make sure that this park continues to honor the Italian diaspora, in Stamford, on-par with intention of the erection of monument in 1960. If other Italian-Americans want to be leaders the transition, a good place to start is for learning their own local diaspora’s history. However, there are big names” such as Mother Cabrini and Sacco and Vanzetti.
To conclude, Columbus monuments are coming down no matter what. In the past few weeks alone, more have been legally removed than in the past 50 years. Italian-Americans should consider the historical consequences of Columbus when we choose to berate or defend him. Never the less, the tides are changing and Italian-Americans can either ride them or be swept up. If Italian-Americans want monuments that commemorate Italian-American contributions to a locality, they must take leadership in taking Columbus down or else they may lose a chance, to have a say, in what replaces it. On this issue, I always turn to the most famous line of Il Gattopardo: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” If we want monuments that continue to honor a locality’s Italian community, we will have to change how we honor them.
Stephen J. Cerulli
John D. Calandra Italian American Institute
Queens, New York