You Dirty Wop!

Having read my post “And Speaking of Prejudice”, about his mother, my grandmother Marie Gregory, my now 88-year-old Dad called me with some memories of his own experiences with anti-Italian bias in the early years of the 20th century.  Unlike Grandma’s, though, Dad’s experiences were, shall we say, a bit more, hmmm, prosaic.

He recalled, for instance, a childhood incident in which a handyman walked into their home on Southern Avenue, chuckling. It seemed that one youngster frequently rode his bike past the house and, if Dad’s father, Charles Sr. (best known as “Pop” or “PopPop”) was out working in the yard, the boy would yell, “Dirty Wop!” as he pedaled past.

This time, though, the situation turned out a bit differently, as witnessed by the handyman..  “Kid,” he told Charles Jr., “your old man just picked up a brick and lobbed it and knocked that little snot right off his bike.”  (Pop was, after all, a fireman, and accustomed to handling heavy equipment accurately!)

Fortunately for my grandfather, it was a less litigious era. At any rate, the boy was apparently undamaged, since he scraped himself and his bike off the pavement and made his escape, never again riding by to scream epithets at PopPop.

Dad had his own encounter with anti-Italian prejudice when, as a sophomore in high school, an older boy chose to repeatedly shove him and repeat the “Dirty Wop!” sentiment. Consultation with his friends resulted in a possible solution to this problem.  It appeared that someone in his crowd knew Big Sal, who, for $25.00, specialized in handling these delicate situations.  In the mid-1940s, $25.00 was a ton of money, of course, but Dad was already working as a soda jerk at the local drugstore and had his own funds.

As it turned out, though, Dad didn’t need to divest himself of all his earnings. The next time he encountered Bully Boy, Dad explained that he was going to send Big Sal and his henchman after him.  Scoffing, the bully decried the idea that Dad even knew anyone named Big Sal, but Dad’s cohorts, eyes widening, backed Dad up. “$12.50 each, for Sal and his helper,” they explained, “and”,  jerking their heads in Dad’s direction, “he works,  he’s got the money.”  Dad further explained that Big Sal specialized in removing those body parts which would ensure that the bully would not be siring future generations of racist morons.

Apparently, this final threat did the trick. A coward, as all bullies are cowards, the moron backed off and never bothered Dad again.

Oddly enough, the druggist for whom Dad worked throughout high school–just as much a part of the Italian-American community as Dad–always greeted him with, “Hey, you dirty Wop!” Dad always replied jovially with the same sentiment–thereby proving (as if proof were needed) that it is not our words themselves that ever have any real meaning; it is the intent with which they are spoken.

And Speaking of Prejudice…

Marie Gregory

My paternal grandmother, Marie, was a full-blooded Italian American and Roman Catholic. Those two traits define her, in my mind, more than anything else.  “Grandma Gregory” was a grand old matriarch who laughed as easily at herself as at others and whose humor was often mildly bawdy, peppered with Italian phrases that I (at least as a child) rarely understood.  She taught me most of what I know about cooking, and was perfectly comfortable when I left the Catholic church because, as she explained, “I don’t care where you go to church as long as you go.”

But the very traits which most define her in my mind meant that Marie Gregory’s early life was not always comfortable or easy. Few people today remember, or even know, that Roman Catholicism was a reviled religion in America as late as the 1960; the bias against the faith not fading until the 1980s.  I feel sure that (knowing how unpleasant facets of  history are glossed over or rewritten in schoolbooks) young people today aren’t taught about how great a detriment his religion was during the election of John F. Kennedy.  Being a Roman Catholic in America wasn’t at all an easy thing in the first three-quarters of the 20th century.

Nor was being an Italian American. Ask anyone about the largest mass lynching in the more sordid chapters of America’s history, and they will no doubt surmise someplace in the deep south—something probably involving the KKK.  They would not guess 11 Italian Americans in New Orleans in 1891 to have been the victims of this atrocity—nor that the man who orchestrated the lynching later became governor.

My Grandma Marie was born just 14 years later, in 1905.

Indiana was not, thank heavens, New Orleans, but, as she told me many years later when I was a woman in my 20s, that didn’t mean that the Italian American community in Indy escaped prejudice completely unscathed. She had more than a few sad examples of anti-Italian bias.  It was in that light that Grandma narrated a story that has stayed with me for all the intervening decades as the most telling demonstration of the complete illogic of racial prejudice.

In Grandma’s era, children did not attend preschool or nursery school or usually even kindergarten. At age 6, a child began first grade.  And so, clothed in a frilly little dress, ankle socks and Mary Janes, perhaps bows tied into her hair (or so I have always pictured her since hearing this tale), clutching her little sack lunch, Marie Gregory trooped off to her first day at a parochial school in Indianapolis, to be taught by Roman Catholic nuns.

The convents of that time were full and bustling places, and the majority of nuns were trained either to teach or as nursing staff. I’m uncertain of the religious order running the school to which my Grandmother was sent—Benedictine? Franciscan?—but the most of the nuns running her school were of Irish American descent.

And so my then-six-year-old Grandmother entered her first grade classroom and took her assigned seat, eager to begin the new adventure of school.

And was yanked aside by her Irish American nun first-grade teacher to be told hatefully, “We don’t want you Wops in our school!”

Wops. Dagos.  Italian Americans.

This Irish Catholic nun owed her spiritual allegiance to a religion whose titular leader, the Pope, was (and at that time, had been for centuries) an Italian.  Yet she told the little six-year-old Italian American child that she didn’t want Wops in her school.

There was nothing the nun could actually do to expel Marie from the school, but her point had been made: You are the outsider. The other.  Unwanted.  Because of your racial heritage, I (a supposedly spiritual person, as demonstrated by my veil and rosary and the vows I made) hatefully reject you.

I’ve wondered, sometimes, how that selfsame nun would have behaved had the Pope—the Wop Pope, the Dago Pope, the very Italian Pope Pius X–arrived for a visit. But in that era, Popes did not leave the Vatican.  That Irish Catholic nun never had to run smack into the glass that was the illogic of her racism.

As I say, Grandma’s story has stayed with me in all the intervening years as a telling demonstration of the complete insanity of racial prejudice, and of the harm it does. As a 70-something-year-old woman, my Grandma Marie had not forgotten the cruel bias of the Irish Catholic nun.  It still bothered her.

It still bothers me.

And it should.

Grief and Prejudice

A while ago I sat with an acquaintance, a devout Christian, discussing a mutual friend who was grieving the loss of a loved one. Our conversation centered on whether or not the individual’s grief had exceeded the bounds of normal mourning and become debilitating.

I’d held this same discussion only a few days earlier with another acquaintance, one who is Jewish. During that conversation, my Jewish friend had described to me her faith’s designated period of mourning, which, as she explained it, was far longer and more ceremonial than what most Western society considers usual.  As I listened to her explanation, I realized that the Jewish customs of mourning genuinely ministered to the survivors.

I felt as if scales had fallen from my eyes. How wise to accept mourning, even deep and long-lived grieving, as necessary and healthful, and to provide ceremony and time for its passage! Why had I never encountered this civilized concept before?  My friend’s explanation of Jewish mourning rituals forced me to acknowledge that that we as a society were perhaps not doing our loved ones any favor by allowing them only a brief interval of grieving before insisting that they now “get over it”…“get back to normal”…”take an antidepressant med”…“stay busy to take your mind off it”.

During the second conversation about grief, this time with my Christian acquaintance, I mentioned this (to me) enlightened view of the grieving process. Nodding in response to a comment made by my acquaintance, I explained, “Well, a Jewish friend told me that in her faith…”  And although I know that I continued my explanation intelligently and comprehensively, I cannot now recall anything of what I said from that point forward in the conversation, because I found myself focused on only one thing: the expression of utter distaste that flitted across my Christian friend’s face the moment I said the word “Jewish”.  It was there and gone in an instant, but it was unmistakably there: the grimace of aversion the moment I said the word, “Jewish”.

I’m sure my own eyes must have widened in shock at response to what my brain had so clearly registered. Sitting before me was a sophisticated, intelligent, 21st century individual, one whom I was sure that, if charged with prejudice against Jews, would have vehemently denied it.  And yet a single expression unmistakably crossing a face had just clearly said otherwise.

Prejudice knows no sanity. The spiritual leader to whom my Christian acquaintance declares allegiance was born, raised, and lived a Jew. His name was not actually Jesus Christ; Jesus is a Greek rendering of his name, combined with a Greek title.  His Jewish name was probably Yeshua Ben Yosef.  And he, Yeshua, is the spiritual ancestor from whom all Christian faiths claim descent.  Yet more than 70 years after the horror of the Nazi death camps, I witnessed a Christian’s face betray utter distaste at the thought of a modern Jew.

As I think of it now, remembering, I am no longer shocked, although perhaps even more dismayed. Does prejudice never die?  Do the old hatreds never end?

I began the conversation with my Christian acquaintance discussing the topic of grief. And I ended it grieving — grieving the unbounded, undying continuation of hate and ignorance and prejudice.