When We Weren’t White

This blog post was actually scheduled to publish during the week of Columbus/Indigenous Peoples Day. But Mercury Retrograde was in full swing at that time, supposedly causing everything technical to go totally whack; somehow, the post never appeared. So let’s blame it on Mercury Retrograde! Here it is now, belated and totally out of sync with the holiday, but heartfelt nonetheless.

I am, as confirmed by DNA testing, half-Italian. My grandparents were each born in America, but their own families, including some older siblings, were born in Italy: Lucca, in Tuscany, and Vasto, not far from Rome.

One of my great-grandfathers actually arrived on the shores of America pre-Ellis Island, coming through Castle Garden, on the southern tip of Manhattan. Mansuetto Gregori arrived with his wife and children sometime during the 1840s or 1850s, long before Castle Garden stopped processing immigrants in 1890. Family legend, related to me by my grandmother decades ago, held that, having arrived in New York and before moving to what would eventually be Sioux City, Iowa, Mansuetto quickly changed the spelling of the family name to Gregory, hoping to be taken as “Black Irish” (the name once given to those dark-haired, olive-skinned Celts who descended from survivors of the 1588 destruction of the Spanish Armada). The Irish, as Mansuetto quickly determined, had assimilated and were accepted in America, as Italians were not. I’ve never quite understood why Mansuetto would have believed that his accent, as he learned English, would fail to identify him as Italian rather than Irish, but I suppose that logic would have been his least consideration at the time.

We Italians weren’t White, you see. We would not be considered White until 1965 (I was 11 years old), when racist quotas on Italian immigration would finally be overturned.

So although many people–people of color, indigenous people, and those of Asian, Pacific Islander or Jewish descent–might easily glance at me and think, “privileged White person”—and although I, personally, suffered quite little of the anti-Italian sentiment which was once rife in the United States–well, no, not quite. My experience falls nowhere near the same classification as that of many Jews or Asians, and certainly doesn’t even place in the same solar system as the racism experienced daily by most Black people in the United States. But it was not all smooth sailing, either, especially for my paternal Grandmother and Grandfather. As I have reported in prior blog posts, they endured terrible incidents of bigotry throughout their lives. For my Grandmother, especially, those incidents left emotional scars; I will never forget my feelings of disbelief, shock, and grief as she related the painful story of the racist remarks she suffered in her early childhood from her teacher, an Irish-American Roman Catholic nun. (See “And Speaking of Prejudice”, from January 18, 2018.)

For, yes, as Italians, we were also Roman Catholic. Few people today realize or recall just how detrimental to his campaign was the Roman Catholicism practiced by John F. Kennedy. Yet it was not long after his assassination that I sat in my fifth grade classroom, listening fearfully, as my teacher explained to the class that, should the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religion ever be revoked, “THEY” would come for us, just as they had murdered our President.  Fortunately for my peace of mind, there were many Catholic children in the neighborhood where I first grew up, since Holy Name church and school were literally around the block.  But the one little girl who was just my age (all the others were older or younger) wasn’t permitted to play with me, the “Car-tholic” girl.

Still, most of these fears and slights touched my life only peripherally, fading away as I grew to adulthood. Perhaps that is why I reacted viscerally to the reframing of Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day. Please do not misunderstand! I genuinely believe this is a long-overdue reparation for and acknowledgement of the horrific damage suffered by the native peoples following the arrival of Europeans on the American shores. Nevertheless, I also have a heartfelt personal investment in Columbus Day, as an Italian American aware of the sad truth of the origins of the holiday: that the celebration (originally intended as a one-time event) was declared by the short-lived President Benjamin Harrison in 1892, following the horrifying New Orleans lynching of 11 Italian immigrants. The murders brought Italy and the United States nearly to the point of war; the Italian consul in New Orleans left the city at his government’s direction, and Italy cut off relations with the United States until President Harrison’s paltry act of reparation.

So while I rejoice at the new national consciousness and acknowledgement of wrong doing, at the truth and justice brought to the reframing of the day, for me, personally, it can never quite be that. Columbus Day will for me, always, be known as “Murdered Italian Americans Day”. My racially-profiled ancestors are to me, you see, quite as important as yours are to you. And none of them, yours or mine, deserved to be treated as less than human because of the circumstances of their birth and heritage.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “You Dirty Wop”, which you can find in the Archives, below, from February 1, 2018.

2 thoughts on “When We Weren’t White

  1. We have such power to stop prejudice of any type and turn instead to inclusiveness, though sadly it isn’t being done to this day. I can vividly remember the venom spewed at our television set from my father against any report of “that Catholic president”. I remember how it sickened me, even as a young girl. And added to that experience was the fact that I was never invited to a friend’s home during high school years because I wasn’t Catholic, and it was felt that I might be a bad influence on this girl. We get through these life experiences somehow, though, only to hear from this same friend years later that her “purple hats” group is for those red-hat ladies of the Catholic faith only. How very different perspectives can be for each of us. A very powerful blog post, Becket. Thank you for writing it.

    Like

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