Monday, October 11, 2004

My university deals with Columbus Day by ignoring it completely. I just got back from the library, which was open as usual. Classes went on as usual. If this post seems rushed, it's because I have to write fast so I can get to swim practice, which is being held as usual. All of this as-usualness is an attempt to avoid controversy, because Columbus Day is now associated with imperialism, conquest and genocide. My university would like to avoid protests on campus, so they don't do anything for Columbus Day.

This is interesting to me, because to the people I study, it meant something very different. For them, Columbus Day was a time to stake Catholics' claim to be fully American. In the early Twentieth Century, many Americans believed that the U.S. was a white, Protestant country founded on white, Protestant ideals. Only white Protestants could fully live up to those ideals, so only they were worthy of American citizenship. Acting on this belief, various white Protestants did a lot of very bad stuff, such as restricting immigration to favor Northern Europeans, as well as attacking black men who tried to exercise their citizenship by doing things like voting or joining the army. The Ku Klux Klan, which was as militantly anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic as it was racist, rose to new prominence in the 1920s on this set of beliefs.

To the people I study, Columbus was a symbol of the fact that the U.S. was not a Protestant nation, founded on Protestant ideals. Catholics had been here since (what they considered to be) the very start. Columbus Day parades were an opportunity for Catholics, led by the patriotic Catholic fraternal organization the Knights of Columbus, to assert their right to American citizenship in a visible and unapologetic fashion.

Now, I tend to think this was pretty misguided. For one thing, Columbus does represent imperialism and all that other bad stuff. For another, by arguing that there had always been Catholics in America, the Knights of Columbus and their allies seemed to assert that how long your people had been here was an appropriate criterion for determining who should get to be a citizen. The point shouldn't be that Catholics should be in the exclusive club of people who could be American: it should be that American citizenship ought to be open to people of all faiths or no faith. They should have been battling the underlying assumptions about the limitations on citizenship, and to be fair they did some of that, too. But they returned time and again to the theme that Catholics had helped build America and therefore deserved equal membership in American society and civic life.

But I still can't totally dismiss Columbus Day as "Genocide Day," the way protestors used to when I was an undergrad. That's part of it, but it's also a day when people stood up and told the Ku Klux Klan to screw itself. I don't really want to commemorate Columbus, but I do think there's something to be said for remembering that history of resistance and defiance.

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