Hang around and keep listening and you keep learning.
For a long time it has struck me that North America and the United States, from the beginning of colonization, have been dominated by Anglo culture. I have said before that Slavs and Greeks, Italians and the Irish, were not really white until World War II, when the residents of little Italys and Irish neighborhoods joined Greek and German Americans in an army that segregated only blacks.
Germans, the largest contingent of immigrants from the Civil War until 1900, had busied themselves with making bread, beer, and sausage, building middle-American cities like Milwaukee and St. Louis. But Anglo-Americans dominated our politics and our literature, and were, I guess, the mavens of most of our news media. And the doctors of the policy of “assimilation” of American Indians.
Today I learned, in the New York Times, from Brent Staples, author of “How Italians Became White,” that “President Benjamin Harrison proclaimed it [Columbus Day] as a one-time national celebration in 1892 — in the wake of a bloody New Orleans lynching that took the lives of 11 Italian immigrants. The proclamation was part of a broader attempt to quiet outrage among Italian-Americans, and a diplomatic blowup over the murders that brought Italy and the United States to the brink of war.”
The story is longer and more complicated, but when Italians in the 1800s came to the United States they were often labeled as “black,” were shuttled to jobs in the South that had once been done by slaves, and were in general, even in the eyes of “enlightened” Northern newspapers and academics, considered evolutionary inferiors to the real white race—read Anglo-Americans.
Staples is deeply embarrassed by the newspaper he now works for, which once said that “There has never been since New York was founded so low and ignorant a class among the immigrants who poured in here as the Southern Italians who have been crowding our docks during the past year.”
Staples says that “The editors reserved their worst invective for Italian immigrant children, whom they described as ‘utterly unfit — ragged, filthy, and verminous as they were — to be placed in the public primary schools among the decent children of American mechanics.’”
So Harrison proclaimed Columbus Day, and it hung on, and helped the Italians become part of the American “founding myth.” We know about all of that now, know that Columbus never set foot on the mainland, know that he subjected the indigenous people he met to slavery and exploitation of the worst kinds—some call it genocide. But the story of Columbus’s “discovery” of America and its annual celebration has raised Italian-Americans from their own horrible exploitations, harassment, discrimination, and lynchings, to respectability as White Americans.
The world turns. South Dakota might have been the first state, in 1990, to declare October 12 Native Americans or Indigenous Peoples Day. And now at least eight states, 10 universities and more than 130 cities across 34 states observe Indigenous Peoples Day as an alternative to the federally recognized Columbus Day.
There is no need to justify a day set aside to honor the original peoples, but it is a time to take some satisfaction in the fact that, for all the diseases that Columbus and other Europeans brought, all the torment and the attempts to kill them literally and with assimilations, Indians are still here, in the United States of America.
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