When We Weren’t White

Last year (and we are blaming Mercury Retrograde for the problem) this post failed to publish in time for the Columbus/Indigenous People’s holiday.  So this year it is being reprinted timely.

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 (mostly) 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 almost nothing 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 most Jews or Asians, and certainly doesn’t even place in the same solar system as the pervasive 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, and not even for my own father. As I have reported in prior blog posts, my grandparents 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 when she first related the painful story of the racist remarks she suffered in early childhood at the hands of 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. Bigotry comes in many forms.

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 this new national consciousness; at the acknowledgement of wrong doing, and at the justice and truth brought to the reframing of the day, for me, for me personally, it can never quite be that. Columbus Day will for me, always, be recognized as “Lynched Italian Americans Day”.  You see, my racially-profiled and murdered ancestors are to me quite as important as yours are to you. And absolutely 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.