There’s a very interesting book called “Flavor and Soul: Italian America at Its African American Edge”, which tells very well about an important aspect of the Italian American experience.
The relationship between the Italian Americans and the African Americans reveals more than one could think, about how the Italian Americans integrated into the American society and culture: what they gave, what they got, and how all that was influenced by the another group of immigrants who came to the US, this time from Africa. Our guest is Prof. John Gennari, the writer of this beautiful book
Hi John, welcome on We the Italians. African American and Italian American cultures have influenced each other for a long time, as your book teaches us. Please tell us more about it from a general point of view
From a general point of view, these two people are at the center of two great migrations: the migration from Africa, during the slave trade, and millions of Italians, during the years between 1880 and 1924, the great wave of immigration. These are the two largest movements in human history. So these great Mediterranean-Atlantic movements brought peoples to America, not just the US but also in South America. It’s an absolutely necessary ingredient in the building of the New World.
Many southern Italians came to the American South after the end of slavery, during Reconstruction, replacing some African American agricultural workers in Mississipi and Louisiana and working alongside those who remianed. Some Italians moved to the urban areas of the south like New Orleans, and it’s not a coincidence that Italians, in particular Sicilians, became so active in the development of jazz since the early part of the XXth century.
The industrialization and modernization of America in the North-East, the Midwest and even the West; the development of construction industry, manufacturing, the development of subway systems: these were people whose labor -- both industrial and agricultural labor -- was crucial to the development of modern America.
But they were instrumental also for the development of the culture industry in this country: performers, singers, actors, people who, along with Jews and immigrants from Eastern Europe, made a cultural revolution in this country. They challenged the Victorianism, the puritanism in this country and introduced a culture of performance featuring more physical expressivity and emotional honesty. I’m talking about people like Rudolph Valentino and Enrico Caruso, and later other performers and actors like Frank Sinatra, along with the great African American performers like Louis Armstrong, the great rhythm and blues musicians in the 40s and 50s: a scene that was largely dominated by the African Americans and Italians. This combination of labor (both physical and cultural) I think is really central for the building of the new world: these peoples had a vibrant and dynamic impact on the development of modern America.
Music and sound, film and media, sports and foodways are the topics you more specifically address … Could you please describe to our readers the development of this relation on all of these different topics?
I think Italians and African Americans share a certain sensibility, an emotional way of soulfulness and honesty, if you will. The African American blues has the kind of feeling that is similar to many songs from Southern Italy, the music and culture of the “canzone napoletana”, a musical “passione”, a melancholia. Those people had suffered a great deal but were very successful in transmuting suffering into joy and indulgence, in pleasures of the body: the body they had been using so much, because of the work regimes. There was harsh discrimination against these people, lynchings, mostly of African Americans, but there were also lynchings of Italians in New Orleans in the 1890s. These people suffered very much, and had to work very hard to be recognized as dignified human beings. And then ironically, or maybe not so ironically, these people, along with other immigrants like Jewish Americans, were responsible for the birth of the culture of enjoyment, the culture of pleasure in America. Music and food, singing, dancing and eating … it’s the transformation of suffering into joy. In music, films, sports and the other expressive practices I explore in my book.
Are there indications that the African Americans influenced the Italian Americans, or vice versa?
Yes, for example, the importance of Enrico Caruso. He was from Naples, came to the US and he was a hugely important figure for the popularization of opera. But those Caruso records were listened to by young African Americans, in particular from people like Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, and then by other great trumpeters and singers. Opera had a great influence on early jazz. I think that the jazz solo is like an aria in the opera. It has to do with love, the loss of love, the separation from love. You know it has a lot to do with romance and it’s like shaping a feeling into art.
It’s a very cross-cultural development, and it’s very interesting because we celebrate it in New Orleans every year. The most important celebration in the city, Mardi Gras, lines up on the calendar with St. Joseph’s day, the main religious holiday celebrated by Sicilians in New Orleans. Sicilians would take the Saint into the streets and parade. Young African Americans would do the same. We have this great tradition of Mardi Gras, but you can go to New Orleans anytime between April and November on a Sunday afternoon and get yourself into a second-line parade. People are going to dress up and dance and have a good time. It’s easy to recognize the Italian influence on that practice.
Also, let’s take a look at Frank Sinatra, Louis Prima, Mario Lanza, Bobby Darin, Tony Bennett, the doo-wop singers like Dion DiMucci, Dion and the Belmonts, the New Jersey rock/pop groups the Rascals and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, who shaped American popular music in the 40s, 50s, and into the 60s. These were the years of the popular singer as an important cultural figure. Think about Elvis Presley coming out of Mississippi, going to Memphis, becoming one of the pioneers of rock and roll, bringing rhythm and blues together with gospel: that is true, but Presley was also a great admirer of Mario Lanza. He studied Lanza’s recording of “O Sole Mio” very closely and then came up with an Americanized version called “It’s Now or Never,” which became a hit in the early 60s. He looked to Dean Martin - born Dino Crocetti - as his model of the pop singer. That figure of the charismatic individual who’s able to front a band, who has sexual appeal, who is a tough guy but has a tenderness, a poignancy, an emotional complexity … it’s the crossing of Italian Americans and African Americans in the great stream of American popular culture, and it’s very, very important.
What about food?
I highlight food in my book because I think it is crucial to these groups and to culture, more generally. The argument that I make is that, again, these two groups come out of a tradition of agricultural work, literally producing food. When they didn’t have freedom because of slavery, sharecropping, and peonage and they couldn’t take advantage of the good cuts of the animals, they came up with all the uses of organ meats. Soul food features hearty green vegetables that have been cooked slowly in pork fat: it clearly has parallels with Italian food.
I grew up in a family in which we had polenta regularly, with chicken cacciatora and other kinds of stews. My parents liked organ meats and, you know, when you are young and you smell that kind of smell, you try to get out of the house. Sometimes when I visit the homes of African American friends and family (my African American wife is from Nashville, Tennessee and her mother’s people are still in Mississippi) the smell from the kitchen is exactly the same. It comes back to me from my childhood, but there is also the important tradition of the table: the conviviality, the gathering to eat and to socialize and to build the center of the community. This is a commonality between these two cultures and there is also the argument I make in the second chapter of my book: the crossover between sound and food.
If you look at early jazz and blues, so many of the titles of the songs have food references, they are about the pleasures of the table. “Everybody Eats When They Come to My House” is the title of a swing tune by the great Cab Calloway. Callaway was very fond of Italian culture and of Italian food and Italian slang, and you can see it in the lyrics of his music. He was very familiar with the Italian and Jewish quarters in NY in the 30s and 40s. Another example is Miles Davis, the Porgy and Bess LP, capturing the sounds of the Charleston, South Carolina food vendors, an intersection of sound and soulfulness, eating and talking, the pleasure of the table, the pleasure of conviviality.
Italians food vendors were a very important part of the American cities and of their soundscape back in those days. The fish vendor, the fruit man … they would cry out to let others know they were selling. There a palpable affiliation between the sound and the food. They are literally in the soundscape of the American cities, and that was associated with black, Italian and Jewish culture.
The hard work, a common topic: it also relates with what you wrote about sports, right?
Yes. The people who built the modern cities of this country had bodies made for production. When they became sports figures they became objects of visual consumption, sport heroes. Today, Italian Americans have a very prominent role in US basketball culture, not so much as players but coaches, broadcasters, and marketers. Sports media in this country have a large presence of Italian Americans, in radio shows, television broadcasting and such. It goes back to what I told you about food: the conviviality, the talk, getting together in bars and taverns. People are spending more time outside of their home, but they listen to sports talk radio and they argue with each other, and there’s a vibrancy about that, a sense of connection, social connectivity. There’s all of that in sports as well.
Talking about Italian Americans in baseball, you may not recognize many names of Italian American athletes nowadays: but it wasn’t like that in the past, with Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra and others. Baseball is now dominated by Latin Americans, players from Puerto Rico, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic: that is exactly what happened with Italian immigrants 70 an 80 years ago. The number of Italian great baseball players in the 40s, 50s and 60s was very high, like Latino players today.
Is there a difference in how this relationship developed over the decades, if we look at this from a geographic point of view? Maybe in the South of the US was different then in the West, or in the Midwest, or the North East?
Yes, sure. The book is largely based in the Northeast, where I grew up. I talk about New Orleans in the first part of the book because of the history I learned there about the development of jazz.
I was born in 1960 in a small town in the western part of Massachusetts, a two hour drive from Boston to the east, and three hours from New York and to New Jersey to the south, where my mother’s family was located. This area of the Northeast (New Jersey, New York, Philadelphia, the Southern part of the New England in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts) has the largest population of Italian Americans today, and they also have a large population of African Americans. There is a big intersection between those groups in these places.
It happened the same way in Chicago and Saint Louis, in the Midwest. For similar reasons, there were migrations largely for industrial labor but there was also a development of culture as well in the California cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. The West Coast film and TV industries and music studios carry the black/Italian cultural weave forward. When many African Americans were moving to Chicago, NYC, Baltimore, Washington, and Detroit, they also moved to Los Angeles and other parts of California. There’s a different cultural equation there than in the Northeast and Midwest, but you see similarities too – for instance, the jazz and Beat poetry bohemian enclaves of Greenwich Village in NYC and North Beach in San Francisco, where Italian-owned restaurants, clubs, and coffee houses were so important.
There continues to be heavy black/Italian contact in Brooklyn and in Staten Island, in New Jersey, where we see an intensification of social collision and cultural collusion. These groups live in neighborhoods that are next to each other, and sometimes they are in conflict. There’s a great amount of sharing, and romance, as well, but also competition for jobs, political power, and recognition.
I concentrated my research on the Northeast because of my time living in places like Philadelphia, the lower East Side of Manhattan, Jersey City, and Brooklyn, and these are locations that became the template for Hollywood representations of ethnicity. We see it in The Godfather and all the gangster movies, in Rocky and Saturday Night Fever, in the earliest films of Spike Lee, which I spotlight in a chapter of the book.
Which were the main topics of opposition and conflict between African American and Italian American cultures?
I mentioned earlier the discrimination Italians faced in the early years of the century. The Italians were racially ambiguous, somewhere in between white and black, or tenuously on either side of the color line. In the American South, some Italians were subjected to some of the same Jim Crow restrictions as African Americans. If they went to school, they went to segregated schools with African American children. Later, after the Second World War, it became much easier for Italians to assume a “white” identity like other European immigrant groups like the Germans and the Irish. In America, almost by definition, the formula to achieve whiteness is to put a border between yourself and blackness, and to develop an identity which is in opposition, oftentimes in violent opposition, to the black Other.
In the post WWII era Italians moved into segregated suburbs outside the cities that didn’t allow African Americans to buy property. Some of the Italian Americans who remained in the cities became resentful of African Americans and Latinos. In the suburbs they developed a deep investment in the meaning of home and property, and they saw African Americans and Latinos coming to these areas as threats to the value of property, and as criminals. There was just as much criminality in the Italian neighborhoods as in the black neighborhoods and the Latino neighborhoods. There were gang wars between these ethnic groups. When the civil rights movement developed in this country, many Italian Americans were part of the resistance, particularly if the civil right African Americans chose to exercise was to move into an Italian American neighborhood. Not all felt that way: there were many progressive Italian Americans who worked nobly on behalf of the black freedom and equality revolution. But there also were a lot of conservative, reactionary Italian Americans that stood up for segregation. Some neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Newark and Chicago became like the American South, with white families not wanting black children in the same schools as their children, and not wanting black or Latino neighbors because they believed that their property values were going to diminish.
Let's talk about people. Which are the most important names, on both sides, who left a mark on this relation between two cultures?
As I mentioned earlier, Caruso, in relationship with Louis Armstrong, or Frank Sinatra. Sinatra was a great hero for the African American musicians. He was a strong anti-racist leader.
He played in Gary, Indiana, when hundreds of white students at Froebel School in 1945 walked out of their classes to protest African American students …
Yes. He had a very robust sense of integration. He developed strong relationships with African American actors and performers like Harry Belafonte, Sydney Poitier, Quincy Jones.
There were also African American writers who became interested in the Italian American community. Most of the great African American writers of fiction from the 1950s used Italian or Italian American characters, because they knew them, they lived in the same neighborhoods. James Baldwin is an example: he was born in Harlem, and there were many Italians there. He moved to the Greenwich Village, into a mostly Italian neighborhood, and he filled his novels with Italian American characters. Albert Murray was another African American writer, very important for the history of blues and jazz. Coming out of Alabama, he moved to Harlem and spent time in Rome when he was in the Armed Forces: he was able to see the parallels between the American South and the Italian South and wrote beautifully about them.
More recently, film actor Robert De Niro has had several romantic relationships with African American women. He lives in Tribeca, in lower Manhattan, and he’s a voice of progressive race relations and integration.
Then there are black Italian Americans, people who have both Italian and African heritage. One of them is the actor Giancarlo Esposito, of whom I wrote about in the book because of his extensive work with Spike Lee. The writer Kim Ragusa is the daughter of an African American mother and an Italian American father. She wrote a beautiful book, The Skin Between Us, a memoir.
Spike Lee is a key figure in this book, because he’s an important African American film director who grew up in a mostly Italian American neighborhood in Brooklyn, Cobble Hill. His best friends and worst enemies were Italian, and you see that reflected in the movies, where there are Italian characters who are really racist and others who have a fluency and an ease with black culture. In Do the Right Thing Spike Lee thinks of himself as an honorary Italian character, because he works in an Italian pizzeria, but he’s also at odds with the pizzeria’s owners – a microcosm of the complexity of the larger black/Italian social relationship.
These are some of the key figures I write about in the book. At the end of it there is a part about somebody who’s not a famous person, but is quite a notable person to me. His name was Ficre Ghabreyesus. He was an immigrant to the US from Eritrea. He grew up as part of the Italian colonial system in East Africa, was educated by Italian nuns, spoke fluent Italian, fought in the civil war between Eritrea and Ethiopia and lost a brother in that war. He and two other brothers came to the US in the late 1970s and opened a great restaurant in New Haven, Connecticut. New Haven was a great Italian-Black city, with a very strong tradition of both cultures. The restaurant was called Cafè Adulis, with a very interesting mix of cuisine between East African, Mediterranean, Italian and Middle Eastern too. He was a wonderful man. Unfortunately, he died several years ago just after his 50th birthday, because of a heart condition. He was married to the great African American poet and scholar, Elizabeth Alexander, who introduced me to my wife twenty years ago: we had a very close relationship. In some ways, he was the most Italian person I’ve ever known. He had such a great command of the language and of the cuisine, he was a student of Italian history and architecture. He made me think in a more international way of this relationship between Africans and Italians.
Let's talk about the present. Unfortunately, because of a new great wave of immigration, Italy seems to have a problem with Africa, in this very moment. What's the status of the relations between Italian Americans and African Americans, today?
I maintain a great interest about what’s happening in Italy, because I still have family there. I travel there regularly and I hope to bring my daughters there. They are adopted from the northern region of Ethiopia, close to the border with Eritrea. So I’m raising two young African women who also are Italian American.
Considering what Europe is going through, the immigration issues, I’m very concerned about how that’s going to influence the relationship between African Americans and Italian Americans. I was very hopeful about this relationship. After the period of violence in NYC, years of deep conflict between the communities, there have been hopeful signs of reconciliation.
I see this in college classrooms in particular. The younger students don’t carry the baggage of previous generations; they really are interested in the cultural similarities, more than the sources of friction and difference in the past. At the University of Vermont, we get a lot of students from NYC, New Jersey and Philadelphia. They’re all about cultural mixing and looking to the future.
Trump’s reactionary white nationalism unfortunately has garnered support from no few number of Italian Americans. In the greater New York area (including the suburbs in Long Island, Westchester County, and New Jersey), Trump found his strongest electoral support in Italian American neighborhoods. Certain Italian American politicians have been in the forefront of the anti-immigration hysteria. I’m very fearful about this, as I am of what I see in Italy and other parts of Europe: this fear of the immigrant Other, this deepening identification with whiteness. This is very, very dangerous.
Is your book going to be published in Italy too?
I don’t know. Perhaps with the support of great people like you, there will be an Italian publisher who becomes interested in translating and publishing the book. I would love to have many more Italian readers, and to come to Italy to discuss the book!
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