Sunday, October 07, 2007

Columbus Day in Shoreline: the Radical Ponders Her Past

It wasn't until I first came to Connecticut, back in 1976, that I understood Columbus Day to be a major holiday -- that is, if you put aside its importance as one of several opportunities each year for Clover Day at Strawbridge & Clothier's, which were major holidays to some of our mothers. Columbus Day, or anything else ethnic, just wasn't recognized in Philadelphia's WASP-ier suburbs. However, my freshman year at Oligarch, since I was living in a frosh dorm named after a major Robber Baron that overlooked one of the main downtown streets, I was home one Sunday afternoon in October and heard a marching band. I looked outside and it was a huge parade, the Columbus Day parade. I discovered that a central feature of living in Shoreline, or anywhere else in New England for that matter, is a day where we celebrate the guy who never made it to New England at all, but who more or less stands in for all the other white guys and gals who hit the East Coast from Massachusetts down to the tip of Latin America over the next 150 years.

It wasn't until many years later -- graduate school, to be precise -- that I was introduced to the notion that celebrating the "discovery" of America was a problematic idea. They didn't teach us much about race and the decimation of native peoples in white suburban private schools or at Oligarch -- neither did we learn about colonization, imperialism, class formation, ethnicity, homosexuality or patriarchy. On Thanksgiving, in grade school, we made "Indian Head Dresses" out of colored paper and were even ignorant of the fact that we were imitating the wrong Indians. My school friends and I were vaguely aware that African-American people didn't live in "our neighborhoods;" we did know that African-American people worked in the school kitchen, but we didn't ask why. We knew that Black upper schoolers came out from the city on the train. What it meant to them that they did so we were not sure, and the fact that they did was wholly unconnected in our minds to the TV news stories we saw where people in places like Birmingham and Boston spat on black children going to white schools, or threw rocks at their school busses.

I know this sounds odd to many of you, but frankly I think it is much better to admit these things than pretend I have always been a Radical. I have always been kind of ornery and bad, but that is not the same thing at all. In any case --

My peers and I, we of the suburban white upper middle classes, were much better educated, I think, on other aspects of discrimination that tended not to make the news: for example, anti-semitism and anti-Catholicism. At least those of us in private school were. When my friend Davey Berg and I started the first grade, me in private school, him in public, I was driven home from school because it was a long way, and he walked. More precisely, he ran home from school most days, because a group of older boys specialized in jumping little Jewish kids and beating the snot out of them. When he told me this, I volunteered as a bodyguard, and went out to wait for him halfway between our houses and his school after I got home. I was devoted to Davey Berg, and we had started a nightclub together in his room called the "Blue Moon," or at least it was in the planning stages, so we were business partners too. Needless to say, our parents - who did know about the nightclub, and encouraged us to come up with a more thorough business plan before we opened -- knew nothing about Davey being terrorized by anti-semitic grade schoolers because we didn't tell them. I'm not sure it ever occurred to us that they could, or would, be able to address the problem. Then one day my mother went looking for me and found me standing on a street corner with my Dick Allen baseball bat (acquired at the Phillies' annual bat day), and as she was asking me what the hell was going on?, Davey came ripping around a corrner with a bunch of fourth graders hot on his tail yelling, "Dirty Yid!" After that, Davey got driven home from school too.

The following year we moved to a suburb where I could walk to school and Jewish people, when they asked to look at a house with a For Sale sign, were told that it had, unfortunately, just been sold, and had they considered Bala Cynwyd? And do I need to even say we had no Black neighbors? Black people lived in south Ardmore and Overbrook, in neighborhoods that were probably redlined.

If race prejudice was the theme of the sixties, it wasn't something I connected fully to my own life until later. Anti-semitism was like social wallpaper where I grew up, and my parents -- being outsiders to the whole Eastern white establishment thing -- recognized it only sporadically when some event brought it to their attention and a friend of theirs was getting screwed. Clearly it never occurred to them that they should not buy a house in a segregated neighborhood, for example. They neither tolerated discrimination against Jews, nor did they discuss these events with us in any principled way. I remember my mother telling my father about ripping a room full of women a new one when an organization we belonged to as a family appeared to be ready to "black ball" as it was called then, a prominent local Jewish family -- who were, by the standards of the time, also really wealthy. I also remember people telling my parents we should join the local country club, where a lot of my friends took tennis and squash lessons, and my mother explaining to us kids that we weren't going to join because "lots of Mommy and Daddy's friends aren't welcome there." I remember the huge stink when the president of one class of seventh graders was not invited to join "the" dancing school everyone else was invited to -- because she was Jewish -- and when confronted by other parents, the flustered committee explained that "they hadn't thought she would be comfortable there." I remember overhearing the mother of one of my sister's friends whispering to another about "how Jewish" her class was, and what a shame it was that the school needed parents "who could pay -- no matter who they are, apparently."

And while the anti-Catholic stuff was perhaps not as awful or pervasive, it was pretty bad all the same. One year there was a big brouhaha because the leading girls' Catholic school had announced that, as it was harder and harder to recruit nuns to teaching orders -- or any orders for that matter -- that they were going to aggressively recruit "lay" teachers. Once the nuns were gone, many of those parents yanked their kids (nuns are such a draw!), and sent them to my school. We got a group of new students so large they had to split the fifth grade in half, something that was unheard of. You would have thought the Pope had landed on the Upper School hockey field: this, some parents said, would "change everything." One mother sniffed that she would be shocked if her daughter could hear the teacher, what with the "clatter of beads clicking." And of course, there was the local Catholic Church which, because of its proximity to public transportation, was known by all of us Presbyterians and Episcopalians as "Our Lady of the Railroad Tracks."

So today, when I heard the marching bands, I grabbed Breezy the Dog and headed out to look at the parade. I thought about race, and prejudice, and how Italians have been as despised as any other ethnic group until quite recently. Any Italian-American college graduate of about my age in Shoreline can tell you how college counselors steered them into commmunitiy college or religious schools, while Anglo kids were groomed for Oligarch, Zenith and the like. So this parade, named as it is for the leading symbol of genocide (although only the first perpetrator) is not simply a celebration of colonization -- although it cannot evade being that -- it's also a celebration of Italian-American community, and achievement against tough odds. In our park, there is a big, romantic statue of Columbus, as there is in every Connecticut town, erected by the Sons of Italy. Currently, it is decorated with wreaths donated by every big organization in Shoreline, including Oligarch, which probably had quotas on Italians just like they did on Jews until the last twenty-five years or so. There was a big reviewing stand, where our Congressional Representative, an Italian-American woman, was standing with every other politican who represents our neighborhood except for our war-mongering senator. Most of them are Italian-American; only one, our ward representative, is Black.

And as I watched the parade, I thought about how wrong it is to celebrate the event that got the whole thing rolling: Native American genocide, slavery, racial violence and exclusion, formal and informal colonization. The whole ball of wax. And then Breezy and I got into the Spirit of Parade. She barked at the police horses, I cheered for everyone who walked by -- the girl scouts, the fire department, the Senior Citizens Fife and Drum Corps. All of these groups (with the exception of the Senior Citizens Fife and Drum, I am sorry to say) were very representative of our diverse city here in Shoreline. Breezy's blind friend Skippy, an Italian greyhound, showed up in an orange, white and green scarf, and got her picture snapped by the local paper.

And I am reminded that a cultural event that is an insult to one group of Americans is a way of establishing a claim to history for others, and that Italian-Americans are not celebrating the discovery of America at all. They are celebrating themselves, and their own tenacity against discrimination. And it is probably those of us who are standing on the sidelines watching that have all the explaining to do.


Anonymous said...

Your post reminds me of what Rabbi Harold White talked about in his Rosh Hashanah sermon a few weeks ago at Georgetown: "My own alma mater Wesleyan, known for its liberal point of view today, was governed by a President in 1938 who discouraged Christians from showering in the same stalls as Jews. President McConoughy confronted my cousin who was a student at the time with the question,'Why do you Jews insist upon being academics? You should consider plumbing, carpentry, or electrical contracting' My cousin was graduating as valedictorian of his class when this question was posed to him."

All of a sudden I was pretty glad that MoCon has been decommissioned. For more of Rabbi White's sermon, see:

cantdance said...

woah, i'm ignorant. hadn't even thought of the Italian-American connection to columbus day.

the statement "a cultural event that is an insult to one group of Americans is a way of establishing a claim to history for others" immediately reminded me of the confederate flag. Where I grew up some rallied around it as a positive symbol of their heritage, while others (myself included) insisted it was a symbol of a shameful era. I am not endorsing the confederate flaggers' (especially unapologetic) racism, or saying they are just like italian american's celebrating columbus day. It is interesting, however, to think about the truth of your statement, and what cultural events assume that status in various region of the country.

Anonymous said...

I think that cantdance's comment (perhaps inadvertently??) points to another possibility: that some symbols are so riddled with their histories of violence, racism, colonialism (take your pick) that they can't (or perhaps to my mind, shouldn't) continue to be valorized.
I certainly think that the Confederate flag is one such symbol. And I have a strong suspicion that Columbus Day should be another.
I love a parade as well as the next person, but perhaps the important history of Italian Americans in the US could/should be disaggregated from the conquest of the Americas? Or is that just (anti-Foucauldian) wishful thinking on my part? ....the two are, in fact, historically linked in all sorts of complex ways ...
Thanks for all this rich food for thought, TR!!

cantdance said...

right with you Zenith91.

Flavia said...

Lovely post, as usual, TR. I like the way you complicate the way that Columbus Day is often understood or depicted by one side or the other (and of course I'm always a sucker for your autobiographical, moments, too!).

I think that I also didn't make a connection between Italian Americans and Columbus Day until college--and I'm half Italian! I often ascribe this to having grown up out west, where I think ethnic loyalties are much less pronounced than they are in many eastern cities--but it's also true that my one grandfather (who was born here but whose first language was Italian) just hated all that ethnic identity stuff. He was an ardent member of the local Elks and Eagles lodges, but refused to join the "Verdi Society" because it was limited to Italian-Americans and he never could understand why that kind of association would be appealing or interesting to anyone.

Lyonsferocious said...

A grad school friend of mine sent a link to your blog my way, and I feel compelled to comment.

I'm from Denver, where controversy about Columbus Day has raged for at least 18 years, and results each fall in a bitter struggle and, often, a number of arrests.

Over the course of my short life, I've been a part of the protest movement against Columbus Day celebrations - for exactly the reasons you lay out. I think the fact that we continue to celebrate a genocidal rapist with a national holiday is obscene.

I'm a white kid, a western european mutt with british looks and an italian first name. I think an important tactic in undoing the weird white racialization is to understand, reclaim and celebrate European heritages.

But there are ways to do that without paying homage to a legacy of genocide. Italian Americans - awesome. Columbus - not awesome (and not even necessarily from Italy, for the record.)

Its true that the people on the sidelines have the greatest obligation to end these kinds of celebrations.

so, next year, instead of blogging about it, you should come to Denver - I'll save a spot on the foldout couch for you.


MountainLaurel said...

TR, I was with you right up till the end, when you described how Italian Americans were shunted toward community college. See, I'm not Italian (mostly from the British Isles, actually) but come from a largely Italian town, where I was shunted toward the CC by TPTB (which were Italian).

When I got my doctorate, I entertained a fantasy of going to my high school guidance counselor, showing him my degree, and telling him sweetly that I really did intend to go to the CC, but they don't offer doctorates.

Edward Carson said...

He raped, lied, and horded -- I love the way Howard Zinn presents this false concept of herofication.

But, I do enjoy the day off.

Lesboprof said...

What a fantastic post! Your experiences--growing up a decade or so earlier and less than 1 hour away from where I grew up--are so different from my own, yet the issues we confronted are the same. I think I need to respond to it in my own post.

I really appreciate your thoughtful contemplation of the conflicts inherent in the celebration of Columbus Day. I will pass the post on to my colleagues...

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