Over time, Columbus Day has become more opposed than celebrated, especially among the predominantly leftist student body at NYU. Columbus Day, though established as a celebration of American heritage, can no longer be approached with the same patriotism. Recently, the holiday and its namesake’s legacy have been met with backlash. Why should we honor a man who killed millions of indigenous people and laid the foundation for the transatlantic slave trade? When New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio called a committee last October to determine the fate of the Christopher Columbus monument in Central Park, I admit I was a bit disturbed by his decision to allow the statue to stand. But, as I have learned, the controversy surrounding the statue and Columbus Day itself is far more nuanced than I once believed. De Blasio’s ruling on the Columbus monument is logical and reflects the desires of an ideologically diverse New York constituency.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt first put Columbus Day on the federal calendar in 1937, following intense pressure from the Italian American lobbyist group, the Knights of Columbus. Across the country, Italian Americans considered Columbus’ exploration to be a source of cultural pride — a celebration of an Italian man and his achievements, which were aided by Spanish Romanian Catholic leadership. Still, for some of the three million Italian Americans comprising 14 percent of New York City’s population, Columbus remains an icon of cultural significance. Even the monument itself was erected not to directly fame Columbus but to make Italian Americans feel welcome in New York after persecution in the 19th and 20th centuries. De Blasio, had he chosen to remove the monument, would have risked his actions being interpreted as a direct assault to many New Yorkers, especially voters.
However, in allowing the monument to stand, De Blasio highlights rather than mutes the grim reality of Columbus’ notorious voyage. To subdue the sentiments from the indigenous community, De Blasio attempted to extend an olive branch to meet the overdue solidarity. In addition to the proposal to erect a new statue on Columbus Circle honoring indigenous people, De Blasio’s committee suggested adding Indigenous Peoples’ Day to New York City’s calendar. Currently, 55 other cities across the country observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the second Monday in October. De Blasio took a much needed step in moving New York onto that list.
This is not a total congratulations of De Blasio’s ruling — his decision to leave a plaque honoring Marshal Philippe Pétain, a French Nazi collaborator, teeters on unacceptable. Some statues, such as the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, deserve a place in history books alone. However, when it comes to Columbus, De Blasio was tactful in addressing the inevitable friction between history and the present. While Columbus certainly shouldn’t be regarded as a benevolent historical figure, he was integral in the formation of the world as we know it, and, for some, an important cultural icon. The United States is laden with monuments that reveal pieces of our nation’s imperfect history. But for figures like Columbus, whose influence on American history continues to be significant and complicated, a long-standing monument — accompanied by a indigenous peoples’ monument — could serve as a source of national reflection.
A version of this article appeared in the Jan. 29 print edition. Email Alison Zimmerman at [email protected]