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The NEA got it right!

I write in response to André Dimino’s article “Hey, NEA! No Way!” about the NEA’s resolution concerning Columbus Day. First, let me establish my bona fides to address this issue. My father, maternal grandfather and maternal great-grandparents were all born in Italy — every drop of my blood traces back to Italy. So, I am as Italian as one can be. I am also a teacher of 26 years experience, and for the last 18 years, I’ve been a dues-paying, rank-and-file member of the National Education Association. In fact, for 17 of those 18 years, I’ve held some kind of elective office in the organization, usually on the regional level. I have also attended a great many state-level Representative Assemblies, which are the organization’s highest decision-making body.

And let me start with that distinction: The resolution that Mr. Dimino finds so objectionable was not made at a “convention” as Mr. Dimino writes, but by the NEA’s National Representative Assembly. This is a vital distinction. The National Representative Assembly is the NEA’s highest decision-making body, and it was there that the resolution was passed — by a large margin, in fact. The NEA national leadership has no power to reverse any resolution passed by the National Representative Assembly, no matter how much pressure the Italian-American community applies to it; their own internal regulations prevent this.

Whatever else the NEA may be, it really is a democratically run organization that adheres strictly to its own rules. Write all you want; the leadership of the NEA Leadership is unable to do anything until the next Representative Assembly. And only NEA members in good standing duly-elected to the National Representative Assembly may make proposals for resolutions, and reversing this one would require a new resolution. The likelihood of the NEA leadership themselves putting forth a resolution to reverse a resolution that was previously democratically approved by their own membership is very low. This is especially true if they are responding to an outside pressure group, if only because it would set a very bad precedent.

But beyond this, any fair-minded person with a good understanding of America’s history can readily understand the reasoning behind the NEA’s resolution, which I see as only partly about Christopher Columbus himself. His “discovery” of the New World really did initiate the disasters of imperialism and colonialism for indigenous people of the Americas, and the colonization of the New World was what drove the Atlantic slave trade. No historian would contest the truth of these statements.

Mr. Dimino’s statement that the New World was “not a Garden of Eden” may well be true, but it is also irrelevant, as he is attempting to paper over the immense suffering European colonialism caused in the New World, and, indeed, much of the world generally. Celebrating Columbus’ discovery of the New World carries with it inherently a connotation of the celebration of the genocidal disasters that ensued. The members of the NEA themselves and the children they teach are often descendants of the peoples who suffered immensely because of European colonialism. They cannot ignore that connotation.

Also, how not having a federal holiday for Christopher Columbus is a violation of Italian-Americans’ civil rights escapes me entirely. None of this is political correctness: It is simple honesty.

And if most of us are honest, as Italian Americans, few of us are really celebrating Columbus himself on this holiday, anymore than most Irish people (or at least the Irish people in America) are really celebrating any element of Roman Catholicism on Saint Patrick’s Day. We are celebrating our people and their heritage. I believe this fact presents us with an opportunity to find a meaningful compromise. We can move to turn Columbus Day into Italian-American Heritage Day. This would be a fair compromise that would retain the recognition we are looking for while respecting the experience of others. That’s the best of what it means to be an American — of any kind.

The above appears in the December 2019 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.

About Richard Sasso

Richard Sasso is an award-winning, 26 year veteran Nationally Board Certified Teacher who has taught English, ESL, and Spanish in high school and junior college. He is also longstanding teacher union activist in the National Education Association. He has a forth coming book, “Becoming Italian: My Long Journey Home” through Casa Italia. He lives in Northlake, and loves deep dish pizza and the music of Miles Davis.

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