Editorial: Why are we celebrating Columbus Day?

Editorial: Why are we celebrating Columbus Day?

Columbus Day will be celebrated in New York this year, as it has been for many years before, on the second Tuesday in October.

Schools will be closed as will non-essential government offices, post offices and banks.

The question is why?

Why has New York not joined the dozen states and more than 130 local governments that have chosen not to observe Columbus Day altogether or replace it with Indigenous People’s Day?

Columbus Day has been celebrated in New York since 1792 on the 300th anniversary of Columbus’ birth.

President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation in 1892 to nationally commemorate  the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ birth. This followed an attack by rioters in New Orleans in which 11 Italian immigrants were lynched during a diplomatic crisis with Italy.

President Roosevelt signed a proclamation making Columbus Day a national holiday in 1934 amid continuing anti-Italian bigotry.

Italians had been among the targets of the United States’ first comprehensive immigration legislation signed in 1921 in response to a large influx of southern and Eastern Europeans.

The reason given on each occasion for honoring Columbus – a native of Genoa who sailed for the king and queen of Spain – was that he had discovered America.

This would be reason to celebrate if it was true. But it’s not. Not even close.

How could it be? Indigenous people had been living in the New World for centuries with their own languages, their own societies, their own systems of government.

The only way Columbus could have discovered America is if you considered indigenous people as something other than human.

And then you would have to ignore Norse explorer Leif Erikson, who reached Canada perhaps 500 years before Columbus was born, and the belief by some that Phoenician sailors crossed the Atlantic much earlier than that.

A second problem with the United States recognizing Columbus for discovering America is that he never set foot in North America.

During four separate trips that started with the one in 1492, Columbus landed on various Caribbean islands that are now the Bahamas as well as the island later called Hispaniola.

He also explored the Central and South American coasts.

But he didn’t reach North America, which of course was already inhabited by Native Americans, and he never thought he had found a new continent.

And then there was Columbus’ treatment of the “Indians.” Abysmal is too kind a word,

Columbus and his men enslaved many of the native people he labeled “Indians” and treated them with extreme violence and brutality.

The estimates of the number of native people who died as a result of Columbus’ voyages go into the millions.

Columbus was certainly not alone among explorers and conquerors in their brutality. Just look at what was done by Cortes with the Aztecs in Mexico, Pizarro in with the Incas in Peru and the English settlers in the United States.

One byproduct of Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral was a discussion of the brutality of the British Empire around the world.

This is not what many of us have learned in school about Columbus and others, but it just so happens to be the truth.

President Biden has joined the many governments and municipalities trying to make amends. Last year, he established an Indigenous People’s Day – the same day as Columbus Day.

But that’s not enough. Not at a time when the truth is under fierce attack.

We urge state and local officials to end the celebration of Columbus Day in New York.

There are many ways to honor the many contributions Italians have made to this country. Some people already mark Columbus Day as a way of highlighting the numerous ways Italians have enriched the nation.

Continue to celebrate these contributions but remove Columbus.

Just think about how Native American children must feel when their state salutes the discovery of a continent that their ancestors lived on many centuries before.

We understand that doing the right thing might not be politically popular and elected officials will undoubtedly try to avoid the subject.

Look at the tepid response of elected officials to reports of how Hasidic schools, which have received a billion dollars in taxpayer money, have failed to provide even a basic level  of education to Jewish students in New York.

Rep. Lee Zeldin, the Republican candidate for governor, is calling for a hands-off approach to the squandering of state aid. His Democratic opponent, Gov. Kathy Hochul, has left the issue with the state Education Department.

We also understand that schools that actually present a true account of America’s history are under attack across the country. We also are witnessing the banning of books and talk about the LGBTQ community – or even having two fathers or two mothers.

That, as history teaches us, is how leaders who seek to undermine a democracy exert their control.

As Winston Smith said in George Orwell’s “1984, “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”

All the more reason for schools in New York to ensure that students are being taught the truth about our history – the good, the bad and the ugly.

A true telling of American history arms us with the information needed to correct what we have done wrong in the past and guide us in how to avoid making those same mistakes in the future.

We shouldn’t celebrate holidays that do just the opposite.

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