Mayor Bill de Blasio reacted to the sudden Department of Education (DOE) decision to rebrand the public school calendar Columbus Day, which has garnered backlash from some politicians and the Italian American community.
Columbus Day, named after the historical figure and Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, was rebranded by the DOE as Italian Heritage Day/Indigenous People’s Day, and falls on Oct. 11 this year.
De Blasio said that the decision was made without him or School Chancellor Meisha Porter knowing. He said they spoke about it and agreed it was not the “right way to handle things.”
The mayor said, both in his defense and Porter’s, that it didn’t surprise him that the name change wasn’t brought to their attention but understood the inherent controversy.
“Saying very clearly that we honor Italian Americans, I’m an Italian American, I could not be more proud. I focus on my heritage all the time,” said de Blasio, clarifying that he wants to recognize the contributions of all Italian Americans.
Columbus’ place in history is contentious at best for many cultures, Caribbean, African American, and Native American, to name a few. Given the past year of racial awareness of Black and Brown New Yorkers because of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, the name change of the holiday seemed to be an attempt to assuage all groups that somewhat backfired.
It’s widely known and documented that Columbus did not discover the Americas and his presence on the islands in the late 14th and 15th centuries notes the beginnings of the trans-Atlantic slave trade of Africans and the vicious marauding of indigenous peoples in North, Central, and South America by Europeans.
Columbus was a part of the “Age of Exploration,” putting him in league with other European sailors like Giovanni da Verrazzano and Juan Ponce de León.
Columbus’ tarred legacy, however, doesn’t negate the overwhelming achievements of much later generations of Italian immigrants and Italian Americans to the fabric of New York City life, from building skyscrapers to beloved food to holding political offices.
De Blasio said that he’s upholding the decision to honor those histories, like his own, and encouraged understanding the full history behind the legacy.
“The process wasn’t right but the end result, a day to honor Italian American heritage and indigenous peoples, I think that’s a good way forward,” said de Blasio.