My Fellow (Italian) Americans
We Owe Ourselves More Than Columbus
Someone recently told me they think this newsletter has wide appeal. I appreciate that. Worth noting: this praise was via text, with a key word originally mistyped: “I think your writing has white appeal.” That’s funny, right?
People are mad that Chris Pratt’s Mario doesn’t-a-talk-like-a-dis. I, for one, am amazed Nintendo got away with that shit for so long. I haven’t watched the Mario trailer, but it did come a few days after Colin Jost’s joke about whether or not Italians are white. (Colin Jost is the waspiest wasp to ever come out of Staten Island, which is a big part of why the joke worked1). If you don’t understand the context (“wait, Italians are white now?”) there’s no shortage of literature on the subject. Here’s one place to start.
Italian Americans have reached just about every summit of American life. As much as our contributions have enriched and transformed every facet of the larger culture, the stereotypes persist in almost every popular editorial medium: our men are affable buffoons, petty toughs, or mob chieftains; our women are some variation of Strega Nona or Marissa Tomei2 from My Cousin Vinny.
When we’re in charge of the tropes, the art’s irrepressible. The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, A Bronx Tale, etc. Michael Corleone’s whole quest to become legitimate is, after all, an allegory for becoming “American.”
Consider the exchange between Senator Pat Geary and Michael in Tahoe:
Senator Pat Geary: I can get you a gaming license. The price is $250,000, plus a monthly payment of five percent of the gross of all four hotels. [sneers] Mr. Corl-ee-own-eh.
Michael Corleone: Now, the price of a gaming license is less than $20,000. Is that right?
Senator Pat Geary: That’s right.
Michael Corleone: So why would I ever consider paying more than that?
Senator Pat Geary: Because I intend to squeeze you. I don’t like your kind of people. I don’t like to see you come out to this clean country with your oily hair, dressed up in those silk suits, passing yourselves off as decent Americans. I’ll do business with you, but the fact is that I despise your masquerade, the dishonest way you pose yourself. Yourself and your whole fucking family.
Michael Corleone: Senator. We’re both part of the same hypocrisy…but never think it applies to my family.
Senator Pat Geary: [exasperated] Okay. Some people need to play little games. You play yours. Let’s just say that you’ll pay me because it’s in your interest to pay me. But I want your answer and the money by noon tomorrow. And one more thing. Don’t you contact me again, ever. From now on, you deal with Turnbull.
Michael Corleone: Senator? You can have my answer now, if you like. My offer is this: nothing. Not even the fee for the gaming license, which I would appreciate if you would put up personally.
I don’t personally know any Italian Americans who are proud of the legacy of the Mafia. But I believe I know plenty of people who see in Michael’s offer to Geary a kind of comeuppance, even a certain kind of justice, long deferred. An Italian American forced into the Cosa Nostra by circumstance turning the tables on Geary’s wop-shaming WASP, a stand-in, of course, for a century of very real anti-Italian hatred. As much as we hate the gangster stereotype, we’ve been allowed few other heroes outside of Christopher Columbus.
Of course Michael Corleone courts and marries Kay Adams.3
If we’re hell-bent on locating Italian-American pride on an historic figure fundamentally tied to the American founding, Filippo Mazzei might be a model. A friend of Thomas Jefferson, it was Mazzei who famously wrote “All men are by nature equally free and independent” in a pamphlet promoting the cause of liberty in colonial America years before Jefferson made the sentiment famous in the Declaration of Independence. Unlike Jefferson, Mazzei seems to have managed to utter those thoughts without also owning slaves.
It’s Italian American Heritage Month, but the idea of Columbus as avatar of Italian American pride is, in 2022, ridiculous. Columbus, the man, is not worthy of that kind of honor for reasons I shouldn’t have to list. I’m not talking about general, anti-colonial tropes (although those are valid). There are specific reasons, and they have everything to do with his own specific, heinous deeds. Italian Americans need to hear this. But we also need to be heard, and as long as we’re having this discussion, we need everyone else to be honest about the degree to which Anti-Italian and Anti-Italian-American sentiments remain widespread and acceptable in everything from political journalism to children’s entertainment.
Italians are white, but we’re not exactly from the Shire. We are without a doubt privileged because of our whiteness, even if our whiteness (and Americanness) has only been wholly accepted in the third or fourth generation of our families’ presences here. In Columbus, we, a despised and displaced people, laid a pre-emptive claim to a pre-emptive America in the face of the WASP power structures that not only controlled economic and social capital, but the literal definitions of “white” and “American.” That power of that symbol for Italian immigrants, and for their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, is real. Ask me how I know.
These days, Italians Americans aren’t marginalized the way people of color or white people from the wrong parts of Europe are, but we’re still gangsters and clowns and a-people who talk like-a this. I’m proud of Mario for consistently saving the Mushroom Kingdom and for his work as a plumber, but I find Nintendo’s later-day characterizations of his patterns of speech wholly offensive. The same is true for just about-a any-a chef you’ve ever seen on any-a children’s show.
Our ancestors were olive-skinned, non-English-speaking whites, but as everything from popular sentiment to my great-grandmother’s federal immigration papers make clear, we were only white (and in those days, “American”) in relation to darker-skinned people. Columbus Day was meant to cement our claim to Americanness, whiteness, and social respectability, wedding us with and contrasting us to other American whites, Anglo whites, the same whites casting us as idiots, wop-shaming us as a matter of practice and policy. Columbus Day is full of these kinds of ethnically, racially charged ironies. As human beings, Italian Americans ought to despise the evils inherent to the Columbian Exchange. I’m sure most of us do. We struggled as Other for over a century, a situation mitigated and frustrated by our fringe position within canonical whiteness.
You’ve likely heard of Sacco and Vanzetti. You likely don’t know about the mass lynching of Italians in New Orleans in 1891, or how both tragedies were driven by anti-immigrant and anti-Italian hatred. Italian Americans are right to want to celebrate our historical struggles in and contributions to the United States and the Americas more generally. How ought we tell our stories without becoming the locus of marginalizing power ourselves? Rather than cling to Columbus, shouldn’t we be ready and able to find alternative icons for ourselves, for the spirit that brought our ancestors here, and our shared belief in what America can be regardless of what it sometimes is?
If we’re hell-bent on locating Italian-American pride on an historic figure fundamentally tied to the American founding, Filippo Mazzei might be a model. A friend of Thomas Jefferson, it was Mazzei who famously wrote “All men are by nature equally free and independent” in a pamphlet promoting the cause of liberty in colonial America years before Jefferson made the sentiment famous in the Declaration of Independence. Unlike Jefferson, Mazzei seems to have managed to utter those thoughts without also owning slaves. Seems like a good place to start.
We can remember Columbus’ place in history without idealizing Columbus the man. We can and should continue to teach, learn, and understand the unvarnished history of 1492 and all that came after. We can and should do all of these things without feeling the need to honor Columbus as the prototypical Italian American. He wasn’t. Our ancestors were. That’s enough.
I’ll finish this post with a poem. There's a pedantic debate among some Italian American writers and scholars as to whether Lawrence Ferlinghetti counts as an Italian American. I would never say that's the only way to think of him, but I don't understand the need some have to excise him from the tradition. I understand it rhetorically, but I fail to see what it accomplishes. Here's what I know: the night he died, I dreamt about my late grandfather, zizis, great uncle. We were trying to put names to the ancestors buried in Campania. This poem, to me, is one of his best:
The Old Italians Dying
For years the old Italians have been dying
all over America
For years the old Italians in faded felt hats
have been sunning themselves and dying
You have seen them on the benches
in the park in Washington Square
the old Italians in their black high button shoes
the old men in their old felt fedoras
with stained hatbands
have been dying and dying
day by day
You have seen them
every day in Washington Square San Francisco
the slow bell
tolls in the morning
in the Church of Peter & Paul
in the marzipan church on the plaza
toward ten in the morning the slow bell tolls
in the towers of Peter & Paul
and the old men who are still alive
sit sunning themselves in a row
on the wood benches in the park
and watch the processions in and out
funerals in the morning
weddings in the afternoon
slow bell in the morning Fast bell at noon
In one door out the other
the old men sit there in their hats
and watch the coming & going
You have seen them
the ones who feed the pigeons
cutting the stale bread
with their thumbs & penknives
the ones with old pocketwatches
the old ones with gnarled hands
and wild eyebrows
the ones with the baggy pants
with both belt & suspenders
the grappa drinkers with teeth like corn
the Piemontesi the Genovesi the Siciliani
smelling of garlic & pepperoni
the ones who loved Mussolini
the old fascists
the ones who loved Garibaldi
the old anarchists reading L’Umanita Nova
the ones who loved Sacco & Vanzetti
They are almost all gone now
They are sitting and waiting their turn
and sunning themselves in front of the church
over the doors of which is inscribed
a phrase which would seem to be unfinished
from Dante’s Paradiso
about the glory of the One
who moves everything…
The old men are waiting
for it to be finished
for their glorious sentence on earth
to be finished
the slow bell tolls & tolls
the pigeons strut about
not even thinking of flying
the air too heavy with heavy tolling
The black hired hearses draw up
the black limousines with black windowshades
shielding the widows
the widows with the black long veils
who will outlive them all
You have seen them
madre de terra, madre di mare
The widows climb out of the limousines
The family mourners step out in stiff suits
The widows walk so slowly
up the steps of the cathedral
fishnet veils drawn down
leaning hard on darkcloth arms
Their faces do not fall apart
They are merely drawn apart
They are still the matriarchs
in Little Italys all over America
the old dead dagos
hauled out in the morning sun
that does not mourn for anyone
One by one Year by year
they are carried out
never stops tolling
The old Italians with lapstrake faces
are hauled out of the hearses
by the paid pallbearer
in mafioso mourning coats & dark glasses
The old dead men are hauled out
in their black coffins like small skiffs
They enter the true church
for the first time in many years
in these carved black boats
The priests scurry about
as if to cast off the lines
The other old men
still alive on the benches
watch it all with their hats on
You have seen them sitting there
waiting for the bocce ball to stop rolling
waiting for the bell
for the slow bell
to be finished tolling
telling the unfinished Paradiso story
as seen in an unfinished phrase
on the face of a church
in a black boat without sails
making his final haul
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She remains flawless.
And of course Kay Adams went to Dartmouth.