Happy Whatever Day

It’s Columbus Day. Since I’m neither Italo nor Native-American, it’s no big whoop for me. I know the arguments on both sides and have some sympathy for both viewpoints. For Italian-Americans, it’s become an ethnic pride day more than a celebration of Christopher Columbus or even Fredric March’s portrayal of him in the historically inaccurate and deeply cheesy 1949 bio-pic:


To the descendants of the people who lived on this continent before Europeans, Columbus Day is a celebration of dispossession, enslavement, and genocide.

My online friend Ben Railton has written an excellent piece at TPM Cafe: How To Reinvent Columbus Day. He’s sympathetic to the idea of changing the name to Indigenous Peoples’ Day but is also fair to Italian-Americans and their attachment to the Columbus myth. Ben points out the rarely discussed historical origins of the federal holiday:

…while some of us know about the role Italian Americans played in the holiday’s late-19th century growth, there’s virtually no collective memory of the historical event that most contributed to that trend. That would be the 1891 lynching of 11 Sicilian immigrants in New Orleans, triggered by the killing of the city’s police commissioner (a crime for which all 11 men had been found innocent). President Benjamin Harrison’s 1892 call for a national observance of Columbus Day, while connected to the 400th anniversary of the explorer’s first voyage, was also a rebuttal to this act of mob violence and the anti-Italian sentiments it reflected.

Benjamin Harrison actually accomplished something during his inert Presidency? Who knew? He’s best known as the guy who both defeated and lost to Grover Cleveland as well as being an ancestor of the Harrisons of Pawn Stars fame. How’s that for trivial trivia? As always, I’m full of it…

Columbus Day always makes me think of the epsiode of The Sopranos wherein Silvio and the boys take umbrage at an anti-Columbus protest and break it up with baseball bats. Here’s the scene where  their harebrained scheme is hatched:

Ralph Cifaretto attempts to intimidate the protest leader Del Redclay by dropping a “bombshell” on him about Iron Eyes Cody:

Cody’s real name was Espera Oscar de Corti. He was the son of Sicilian immigrant parents who was born in Vermillion Parish, Louisiana. One of the reasons he chose to pass as an Indian was the virulent prejudice in South Louisiana towards his real ethnic group as exemplified by the lynching cited by Ben Railton. Cody’s secret was widely known by 2002 when the Christopher episode aired.

For those of you too young to remember why Ralph called Iron Eyes the “poster boy for youse people” check this out:

Iron Eyes

As you can see, he was also the poster boy for environmentalism.

All roads lead to New Orleans, and life continues to imitate The Sopranos.

Happy Whatever Day.

3 thoughts on “Happy Whatever Day

  1. I was always surprised that Columbus Day never caught on with US immigrants from Latin America where they celebrate it as Dia de la Raza. Maybe they are sick of being defined by their race.

    The thing is that Columbus’s journeys did unite the Old World and the New World and, unlike earlier trans-Atlantic journeys, the connection established has been maintained. It sure didn’t work out well for everyone, but many of those New World kingdoms were just as bad as Old Spain. Like the Ukrainians greeting Hitler as a liberator, many anti-Aztec and anti-Inca groups were up for a big surprise after they threw in their lot with the Spanish. I don’t think we should be celebrating Columbus himself. Maybe we need something like Memorial Day to commemorate the global unification that Columbus played a major role in. For better or worse, it was a defining journey.

    I also have often heard that the eleven Sicilians lynched were mafiosi and that the settlement payment after their deaths bankrolled the original Italian mafia in the US. I assume this is one of those anti-Italian slurs, though it speaks to the credit of the Sicilian immigrants who supposedly did the lynching.

    1. Nope. They were innocents or at the very least not guilty. Remember, the lynching was done by conservative reformer types who were from fine old New Orleans families.

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