Another Columbus Day has come and gone. This latest one was quieter than some previous ones. It is as if each side in the culture wars has staked out its turf and for the moment is content to let things ride.
Columbus may be considered a five-stratum tel. Tell is an archaeological term. It refers to a human-built mound over time mainly from debris by inhabitants living at the same site. Archaeologists excavate such tells until they reach bedrock. Each stratum or layer is carefully marked. One of the most famous tells is located at Megiddo, the mound that gave us the word mount Megiddo equals Armageddon. It is a mound of over 25 levels and served as the source for the book The Source by James Michener.
Normally, the layers are counted from top down since that is the sequence in which they are uncovered. In this blog on Columbus, I will start from the bottom up.
LEVEL 1 HISTORIC COLUMBUS
Historic Columbus refers to Columbus in his own time frame – Who was he? What did he do? Why did he do what he did? Although the ancient Greek Herodotus is generally referred to as the father of history from nearly 2500 years ago, the academic concept of history is more recent. The first graduate school in the United States was at The Johns Hopkins in 1876 following its post-Napoleon development in Germany. Many history organizations here were founded in the immediate aftermath of this new way of pursuing knowledge. One key element of the methodology was the search for and use of sources to shed light on what actually had occurred.
This layer is primarily the realm of scholars. Archaeology can contribute as excavations reveal artifacts and texts from the period under review. Sometimes archives in churches and libraries provide previously unknown or unexamined materials which can be woven into the narrative. Even when the subject is a single individual like Columbus, scholars need to broaden their horizons both geographically and chronologically to situate the figure in his time and space. What was he thinking when he was planning his voyage west? What did he know? What did he hope to achieve. Here is where letters, diaries, and journals from the time period and in his own hand become important.
Sometimes people or events studied within the academic arena break out into the public arena, for example, Hamilton, the musical.
LEVEL 2 AMERICAN HERO COLUMBUS
Columbus, of course, never reached what became the United States. Why then did the Founding Fathers make such a big deal about including naming the capital of the country after him?
At the birth of the United States, we were a young country. Obviously. But we were also young in time. We had severed our ties to England. That meant we could not draw on English history as our own. The events and people in English history well-known to the Founding Fathers were now off limits. Our historical memory as Americans began on July 4, 1776. So while England, France, Spain, and later Germany and Italy could boast of their ancient and long-lived cultures, we could not. Instead, we had to create a past for ourselves so we, too, could be proud of our heritage.
One obvious example was through the (Protestant) Bible. We were God’s New Israel. Suddenly we had a heritage that was thousands of years old, even older than England!
Another way was through Christopher Columbus. His stature in 1792 made his tricentennial a significant event to people seeking to create a heritage for the country. For the next century through the quadricentennial belatedly celebrated in 1893, Columbus became a national icon. The female version Columbia became a symbol of the country before Lady Liberty was erected in New York.
This Columbus had a national impact. Many streets, parks, rivers, and cities are named after him as a national hero.
LEVEL 3 ITALIAN-AMERICAN COLUMBUS DAY
When Italians began migrating to the United States in great numbers, they followed the example of the Founding Fathers. The new immigrants were not biological sons or daughters of the American Revolution. The Irish and the Germans had been here longer. So the Italians fastened their attention to Columbus, just as the Founding Fathers had. Suddenly the Italian immigrants had a more than 400-year tradition of being in the New World; they were part of the American national narrative.
For the next century following the Columbus quadricentennial, the Columbus Day celebration shifted from being a national event, to one more closely identified with Italian Americans. In communities with a significant Italian immigrant population, Columbus Day became an even important holiday. Finally it became a legally recognized national holiday. Of course, if you live in a community without a significant Italian presence, then Columbus Day was a vestige of the time when it was a national holiday.
LEVEL 4 HISPANIC-AMERICAN COLUMBUS DAY
There has been another wave of immigrants to the United States since the Italians arrived in force. For Hispanic-Americans, Columbus Day provided a ready-made opportunity to connect to their new country. Part of the reason was that Columbus was not an unknown figure to immigrants from Latin America. It was easy for them to join the parade, quite literally.
Consider my own village in the suburbs of New York. Earlier in the 20th century, it had experienced a wave of Italian immigration. There are few families or businesses dating to prior to World War I here. The next wave was from Central America and other Latin American countries. The mayor has changed from being Italian to being Peruvian.
Here is where the stratum begin to merge. For decades, the Italians had taken the lead in organizing the parade and arranging for the funding. This year the Peruvian Mayor joined with them in laying a wreath in front of the statue of Christopher Columbus in Columbus Park. The Mayor also was the grand marshal of the parade. All the school bands from elementary school to high school participated in the parade. There were other bands as well from a variety of organizations, ethnic, social, cultural. Elected officials were there including the County Executive, the State Senator, and the State Legislator. The parade truly was a community event.
LEVEL 5 WOKE COLUMBUS DAY AKA INDIGENOUS PEOPLE DAY
In the culture wars, Columbus has become a vilified figure of evil. He certainly should be toppled if not thoroughly erased from the American national narrative. Communities have had mixed reactions to the Woke admonition. Some have adhered to the Woke guidelines and cancelled Columbus. Some have straddled the issue and sought to pay homage to both sides. Parades tend to be for Columbus while ceremonies at a fixed location are more likely to be Woke. Each community makes its own decision.
The number of Hispanic-Americans probably exceeds the number of Woke Americans. This means that just as Italians changed the way Columbus Day was celebrated in the United States, so Hispanic Americans are likely to impact the way Columbus Day is recognized. Hispanic-Americans do not necessarily subscribe to the view that Columbus Day should be a day of mourning for what Columbus did himself to indigenous people or what others later did. Certainly not the parade I watched in my own village. Like the Founding Fathers and Italians who sought to celebrate their American identity, the Hispanic are bringing their own decidedly un-Woke fervor, enthusiasm, and energy to the event. It is the one national holiday, where they can most enthusiastically express their American identity that is directly based on their own heritage. We can witness a similar dynamic unfolding in voting. These people are proud to be American and want to celebrate it.