Back in the 1980s, after viewing a 9-part PBS series called Civilization and the Jews, I wrote a grant request to the National Endowment for the Humanities for funds to produce a similar series on Italians. My application was rejected partly because my perspective was “too positive,” that the script needed balance. Oddly enough, the Jewish series was nine hours of exceptionalism and heroic survival. I knew then that my version of our 2,500 year heritage was unmarketable.
PBS has since broadcast series on many ethnic groups, funded by NEH and others, with nary a negative tint. This month, Asian Americans are having their turn. Their 5-part series includes South as well as East Asians. The multicultural formula is the same: hardworking immigrants overcoming White racism.
Series producer Renee Tajima-Peña recalls that it took her some 25 years to finally get a call back from PBS for her application for an Asian American series. Just to put this delay in perspective, it took 30 years for our community to break through, if you count from my attempt to the one granted to producer John Maggio in 2015. His series, entitled The Italian Americans was far different from my outline and seriously flawed. It opened with scenes of The Godfather to explain stereotypes without actually condemning such “art.” Moreover, it gave air time to David Chase who produced The Sopranos and Maria Laurino who wrote for that defamatory HBO series. [The Italic Way did a full-staff review in issue XLI, 2015.]
The Asian series has no such moral confusion. Old movie stereotypes of Asians are shown as bigotry, not art. Among Ms. Tajima-Peña’s accomplishments are the Oscar-nominated film Who Killed Vincent Chin? and other positive films exploring race, immigration, class, and gender. When I read that title I imagined an alternate universe: a Scorsese version called, Who Killed Vinny the Chin?
By coincidence, this Asian series has debuted during the Chinese pandemic in the hope of sparing Chinese Americans from any more White bigotry. Not to worry. The media has already expunged both the name of Wuhan and Chinese from the virus and refrained from embarrassing investigations into Asian wet markets that produce annual epidemics for export.
We should have the same media discretion applied to the Mafia. Even in the agony of Italy’s terrible loss of life from the Chinese Virus, the media finds time to tell the world of a Mafia resurgence. Here, newspapers follow old wiseguys to their graves despite the “science & data” that gangsters represent only .00016% of Italian Americans, because “ya gotta admit,” they exist.
Asian Americans can take comfort in the universal condemnation of the White bigotry they claim, but they haven’t tasted the shame Italian Americans continue to endure. Our Mafia albatross began in the 1800s and never abated. Our past generation’s support of Fascist Italy is still meant to embarrass us, while murderous Communism is no reflection on Chinese immigrants today.
The series, of course, covers in detail the Japanese American internment without any mention of Italian American suffering from that same Executive Order. But, what I found curious was the sympathetic treatment of Buddy Uno, an American-born Japanese who fled to Japan to escape White bigotry. When the war broke out he made propaganda broadcasts to American troops. Had Buddy been an Italian American beaming Fascist messages, the shame would be too much for any Italic filmmaker, or PBS.
It is apparently all right for every minority to proudly wear the scars of White bigotry without exposing its own dark soul. One reviewer of this series notes that the subject of anti-Black bigotry by Asians is left out. This not only applies to the Asian-Black violence during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, but to the on-going affirmative action controversies in high schools and colleges. To Tajima-Peña, Asians are also people of color. They need to show solidarity in the unending fight against White supremacy.
Some parting remarks: Did you know that in Asia Euro-Caucasians are “White Devils” or “the Big Nose Ones?” Did you know that Asians yearn for our Greco-Roman society, so different from their own stifling cultures? Did you know that we sacrificed tens of thousands of young White men, including Medal of Honor winner John Basilone, to liberate China, Korea, and the Philippines from racist Japan?
Clearly, many Asian Americans have forgotten. -JLM