Statue of Christopher Columbus in Providence, Rhode Island.
Kenneth C. Zirkel/Wikimedia Commons
comparison / memory

Recontextualizing the Ocean Blue

Italian Americans and the commemoration of Columbus.
Significantly, many Columbus statues around the country were commissioned, paid for, and built by Italian immigrants. The statues were not created—as in the case of Confederate statues—to impose political dominance over others; on the contrary, the monuments were a means to gain entrance into a racist society under the cover of whiteness. Theirs was no doubt a troubling, but all-too-common, approach to assimilation. Contributions of small change from working-class Italian immigrants helped underwrite statues like the grandiose marble one dedicated in 1892 in New York City or the smaller bronze one erected in 1930 in Easton, Pennsylvania. In some communities like Easton and Richmond, Virginia, the Ku Klux Klan actively campaigned to prevent the placement of Columbus statues in public spaces in opposition to Catholics and “foreigners.” In short, these monuments were historically contested sites where Italian immigrants sought visibility in the remaking of local landscapes and the larger political sphere.

In 1971, politicians and business people, many of them Italian American, succeeded in making Columbus Day a federal holiday. This legal holiday—which, importantly, has never been officially named as a day for Italian Americans—came about with the rise of the white ethnic revival, when the national discourse around normative whiteness shifted from “Plymouth Rock whiteness to Ellis Island whiteness,” as Matthew Frye Jacobson has noted. In brief, Columbus Day coalesced at the moment ethnic Europeans became most invested in whiteness, in the face of civil rights movements of African Americans and other minority communities, including, importantly, Native Americans.
View source