In a letter to fellow psychologist Marie Bonaparte (yes, a great grand-niece to the Corsican-born Italian emperor, original family name: Buonaparte), Sigmund Freud famously asked, “What do women want”? Though he never found an answer, he did once write that “women oppose change, receive passively, and add nothing of their own [to society].”
Flash-forward to 2020, where that certainly is not true. An American woman of mixed Jamaican/South Asian ancestry was selected as the VP candidate for the Democratic Party, following Sarah Palin’s selection as the VP candidate for the Republican party in 2008. The first woman ever selected as the first VP candidate on a major party ticket was, of course, an Italian American: Rep. Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, a fact which very few media outlets noted after Senator Kamala Harris’s recent selection by Joe Biden. Which leads to an answer to the question, “What do Italian Americans Want?” to wit: How about simple recognition, either historically or ethnically, to our contributions to America?
Textbooks, of course, would be a good start, but, as an educator, I can tell you that our community is woefully underrepresented in the American narrative. Sacco and Vanzetti, the anarchists executed after a kangaroo trial in Boston in 1927, occasionally get a mention, but usually to shore up attacks upon recent immigrants, not out of any empathy with the Italian American experience. Educational textbook writers never seem to get beyond what I call the three C’s: Columbus, Capone, and Crowds (i.e, the faceless, anonymous “immigrants” of the great migration from 1880 to 1920). Columbus has now joined Capone as a “controversial” figure, thus leaving us with the amorphous Crowds. The Italian story (-ies) in America is thus reduced to a bland recognition of Italian grandparents and, of course, foodstuffs.
One can’t help feel a twang of jealousy at the willingness with which the American educational system is now eager to expand textbooks with the names and achievements of Black, Hispanic, Gay, Female, Native American, etc. achievers throughout history. It is, to borrow President Lincoln’s phrase, “altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.” [BTW, speaking of history: On the train ride to Gettysburg in 1863, Lincoln was accompanied by Italian minister Joseph Bertinetti and two of his staff members.]
What prompted this new openness to re-educating the public? Largely, the very public protests by BLM and other activist groups. One can fault their methods – that is, destroying public property – but not their intent. It is this passion, misguided though it may be, which prompted journalists and educators to intelligently reflect on how our public discourse, including the media, fairly, or unfairly, promotes the unforgotten histories of our various ethnic groups.
Freud’s catty remarks toward women are, I’m afraid, more apropos in 2020 to the Italian American community at-large. It is the vast majority of Italian Americans who “oppose change, receive passively, and add nothing of their own” to our society. Be they leaders of major organizations, our intelligentsia in academia, or the vast majority of assimilated Italian Americans, our community, as a group, is largely content to go-along-and-get-along.
Many leaders see their roles in our organizations as political stepping-stones or a chance to feel like a big-shot. Many of our academics feel either restrained or simpatico with the aggressively PC agendas of most colleges, often promoting the histories of other ethnic or religious groups instead of their own. And the vast majority of “comfortable” Italian Americans in suburbia have views of Italy or Italian American history which never go far beyond the Three C’s.
Should Italian Americans be marching in the street, agitating for change? An Italian American leader once told me at a dinner gala that “Italian Americans don’t do protests.” I asked him if he ever heard of Mario Savio, the leader of the Free Speech student protest movement at the University of Berkeley in the 1960s. He had not. An Italian American college professor once chided me for promoting positive Italian American role models such as Ella Grasso (the first American woman elected governor in her own right) and Dr. Rocco Petrone (head of the NASA launch operations for the Moon Landing). He compared it to “ethnic chauvinism” (bragging). And there are far too many examples of “proud” Italian Americans at various dinner celebrations over the decades, expressing admiration for the fictional Don Vito Corleone yet politely ignoring me when I brought up A.P. Giannini, the non-fictional giant of corporate America (he founded the Bank of America).
So, what does this Italian American want? I want U.S. history books and American movies to reflect the same diversity found within all other racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual groups. I want the vast majority of Italian Americans, be they bland businessmen and women or Giovanni Come Latelys to various causes, to passionately promote and defend the Italian heritage….if they so choose. (If not, please get out of the way). And I want names like Mario and Giada to be considered every bit as “American,” and as worthy of automatic respect, as Brad or Tiffany, not subjects of mirth.
Final thought: Super Mario the Plumber, the mustachioed and rather foolish video game character, was based on Mario Segale, a wealthy Italian American real estate and construction company mogul born in Seattle. Segale owned the warehouse where the creators of Nintendo invented the video game. There was nothing silly or “ethnic” about Segale. He was, first and foremost, an “American.” And yet, when transferred to a popular video game, he became the familiar ethnic caricature beloved by Americans and American culture. Above all, I want this sort of distorted nonsense to stop. -BDC