Even after nine decades of life as an American, I can find new details about history — even history with particular personal resonance. Until reading in yesterday’s New York Times opinion pages Brent Staples’ piece titled “How Italians Became ‘White,’” I had no idea of the extent of depravity and racist violence inflicted upon Southern Italian immigrants in the early years of the last century. I knew there had been discrimination, but I thought of it in terms of slights or shunning – or struggles for employment or embarrassment about mob bosses – not being hanged alongside African Americans for the sin of skin that might have been somewhat darker. My Southern Italian relatives never told me about that.
Staples notes that “a white, Protestant and homogeneous America” was what Congress had in mind when it declared in 1790 that only “free white persons, who have, or shall migrate into the United States were eligible to become naturalized citizens.” His article continued, “The calculus of racism underwent swift revision when waves of culturally diverse immigrants from the far corners of Europe changed the face of the country.” Staples cites historian Matthew Frye Jacobson’s immigrant history “Whiteness of a Different Color” in noting, “the surge of newcomers engendered a national panic and led Americans to adopt a more restrictive, politicized view of how whiteness was to be allocated.” Sound familiar, does it?
In my as-yet-if-ever-to-be-published book, In Paris, Everyone Calls Me Honey, the letters my mother (family name Miele) wrote home from an extraordinary year as an art student in France are interspersed with descriptions of the struggles and successes of her immigrant family striving through the Depression years and beyond. As a second generation Italian-American, I was perplexed by the absence of empathy toward others enduring somewhat similar indignities. Riding in the car with two aunts on a shopping excursion, I saw one turn to the other and gesture toward me in the back seat. “You know,” the one said, “She thinks black people are the same as white people.” The other, the driver, replied, “That’s because she went to college.” I wish I’d known at the time to mention the lynchings.
Not long ago, my brother, visiting from the east, chatted with a diverse group of my Los Angeles neighbors. He told them about our Italian grandparents and the discrimination that existed on the East Coast when they started out. “Oh no, not Italians,” the neighbor said, implying my brother didn’t know what he was talking about, that no Italian-Americans ever suffered any hardships ever. Always the conciliator, I quickly interjected, “That’s because the Italians who came to California, established vast wineries and giant banks, and became leading citizens. Not everyone on the east coast was able to accomplish that, given the competition. But they managed to educate their children and assure their success, while becoming stalwart members of their communities.”
I am as proud of my immigrant ancestors whose names are now etched on the wall at Ellis Island as I am of the Revolutionary War surgeon and Midwestern homesteaders in my family tree. They and all their descendants have played important roles in making this nation worth preserving.