It’s a day of shame. There’s an obvious reason for this, having to do with the capacity of a nation-state to enshrine as one of its “holidays” the commemoration of a figure who represents the colonizing project. As Nas once put it: “The Indians helped the Pilgrims / and in return the Pilgrims killed them / I call your holiday hellday.” Columbus Day, like Thanksgiving, is adequately understood as a hellday.
Yet there is another, less considered reason for feeling shameful on Columbus Day, and this has to do with the “construction” of its commemoration. For, nowadays at least, the celebration of Columbus Day is bound up with Italian-Americans’ need for a day that would recognize their own particular contribution to “American culture.” Columbus Day is meant to be a day of pride for Italian-Americans—and this, I am trying to say, bears its own peculiar shame. Columbus, it will be noted, was Italian—but what is an Italian? And what does Columbus have to do with Italian-Americans?
Most Italian-Americans, of course, descend from “the South,” i.e. that bottom half of the peninsula and Sicily, whereas Columbus was very much a Northern Italian. This means something, for Italy, as we now know it, did not exist prior to the mid-1800s, and its “unification” should not permit us to forget the reality of uneven development within the nation-state whereby Southern Italians came to form a kind of subaltern—hence the fact that most Italian immigrants to the U.S. come from the South. America signaled a kind of promise to which one could belong, beyond the limits of an impoverished existence. As Carlo Levi observed during his banishment to the South (Italy’s Siberia) during the early twentieth century, most Southern Italians saw New York, rather than Rome, as their capital.
So what does it mean about the idea of “America” that Southern Italian-Americans, in order to assert their full inclusion into this idea, find themselves seeking identification with a figure of the North, the region to which they once found, and still find, themselves in opposition? America, it is the place where all can be forgiven, or more likely forgotten. An older family member of mine once proclaimed that the difference between Northern and Southern Italians is that the former, unlike the latter, “don’t know how to cry.” I find myself inclined to give such crying the connotation of mourning, and thus to ask whether Columbus Day shows that Southern Italians, having found America, have likewise learned how to not know how to cry.
I prefer to commemorate the day with some thoughts from Frank Lentricchia’s novel, The Music of the Inferno, which I have found to be the most profound meditation yet on Italian-American identity:
“To this point in all of human history, eighty-two billion have walked this earth. About six billion yet do. Seventy-six billion dead. Mostly unrecorded. Not even a name. Most of the surviving names can be attached to nothing. A little bunch of letters called a name, written somewhere. That’s all. How many names in all of human history can you remember, not counting the living? If you wrote these names on paper, how many sheets would it take? […]”
“God alone knows all the names and deeds and what goes with what.”
“We do a little of God’s work. On occasion. In our stories. ‘Borne back ceaselessly into the past,’ said Mr. Fitzgerald. With all due respect, beautiful but untrue. Unless we carry ourselves back to the past, and to the dead, who need us. The living and the dead. We require each other’s presence.” […] “You ask, Who am I? Me? Like America itself, upon discovery, I am old. A man made of old words. Other people’s words. In a manner of speaking, I am a happy man. You, as you said at the bus station, are the wedding guest in Mr. Coleridge’s poem, and I the ancient mariner. Murder, Mr. Guest, we feel on the pulse. Love is against the grain. Hard work.”
“How many times has that been said?”