In 1952, the great African American writer Ralph Ellison published Invisible Man, coining a phrase that became ensconced in the national lexicon. Essentially, Ellison’s eloquent wordage symbolizes how American society views African American men, indeed all black Americans: as marginal figures, almost “invisible” to the average citizenry at-large. The phrase speaks to black history, particularly the obstacles African Americans had to overcome (and still do) in achieving social parity in American society (although their successes in politics, music, sports and, now, cinema are truly staggering).
With no disrespect to Mr. Ellison, I would make the case that the plural of that phrase–“invisible people”- is now more applicable to Italian Americans. By that, I refer to how the achievements of Italians in America are fairly invisible to our fellow Americans. With the exception of negative media images (mobsters and morons), where our “ethnicity” is shoved in front of peoples’ noses with a disdainful glee (“Yo, Vinny!”…“Take the gun, leave the cannoli”), the word “Italian” is written in invisible ink when it comes to the staggering achievements of our own community.
Take, for a quick example, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, now serving her second term as U.S. Speaker of the House. Pelosi is 100% Italian, having grown up in Baltimore’s “Little Italy” to political royalty (her father was a popular mayor in the 1940s). Neither in 2006, when she was first elected House Speaker, nor a few weeks ago, when she returned in triumph again, did a single mainstream newspaper point out that she was not only the first female speaker, but the first Italian American. Think about it: Pelosi is third-in-line to the presidency, the highest position which any Italian American politician in our nation has ever attained, yet the press celebrated her gender rather than the cultural background which nurtured her talents.
Even more staggering: Nearly every ‘glass ceiling’ broken by American women in politics was shattered by an Italian American one: Emma Bambace, first female VP of the International Ladies’ Garment workers’ union; Ella Grasso, first female governor elected in her own right; and Geraldine Ferraro, first female VP ever selected for a national ticket. And the work of Eleanor CUTRI Smeal, president of NOW, certainly made such victories possible.
To her credit, Pelosi publicly acknowledges her heritage in interviews whenever she can. But, why is the onus on her? Why does the press refuse to do so? Could it be that decades of endless defamation have conditioned reporters to disassociate anything positive with being Italian? Pelosi is as far from the media’s “guidette/bimbo” stereotype as can be. Marisa Tomei’s Mona Lisa Vita in My Cousin Vinny as a potential U.S. president? Truly absurd!
(Sidenote: To the Italic Institute’s credit, we found that Pelosi may actually be the SECOND Italian American House Speaker – Sam Taliaferro Rayburn [D-TX] served during the 20th Century.)
Or take Dame Libby Komaiko Fleming, who passed away last week. She was a Chicagoan who transformed Spanish flamenco dance in America, creating the famous Ensemble Español in the 1970s. Was she Italian American? No, but the two major mentors who gave her talent wings certainly were: Gus Giordano (she studied with his dance company) and then Jose Greco (real name: Costanzo Greco, from Brooklyn, who truly started the flamenco dance craze in the U.S).
Only the Chicago Tribune mentioned that Greco was her mentor and identified him as Italian American. Obits in every other major paper did not. Again: the “invisible people.”
One could play this game endlessly, noting how so many Americans of Italian heritage changed their names to assimilate. Famous jazz drummer Louie Bellson? Real name: Balassoni.
Writer Ed McBain? Real name: Salvatore Lombino. This list goes on in modern times: Actor Steve Carell? Real name: Caroselli. Chicago Cubs manager Joe Madden? Real name: Maddonini.
To the average American, there is nothing “Italian” about these people. To Italian Americans, we see the strong family backgrounds, the nurturing of talent, their passionate yet humble natures.
Positive traits, admirable people. Yet again, they are “invisible Italians” to the rest of America.
Despite the stereotype of a loud, hand-waving lot, Italian Americans continue to quietly influence American society in amazing ways. Perhaps, like actor Claude Rains in the 1933 horror film The Invisible Man, Italian Americans in every field of endeavor should wrap themselves in gauze. That may, perhaps, be the only way in which they will be properly identified and celebrated. – BDC