Editors note: This was written a few years ago, before the Washington Football Team changed their name.
In a pivotal scene in The Godfather Part II, Kay Corleone (nee Adams, because what could possibly be more WASPy than Kay Adams, Dartmouth co-ed?), confronts Michael with the truth about the surreptitious abortion of their child, “an unholy, evil” act she likens to their marriage and to what she calls “this Sicilian thing.” Left unexamined, of course, is Kay’s own role in denying, enabling, and benefiting from the Cosa Nostra.
For over a century, Italian Americans have lived with the idea that WASP America may love our music, our food, our poetry, and our art, but doesn’t really respect, like, or trust us. The WASP owners of most of the means of production in the days of Carnegie and Morgan benefited from our cheap, white labor, buffering themselves from us with buffoonish caricatures, with immigration and naturalization policies meant to keep Southern Europeans distinct from “real” Americans. Even now, Italian Americans are stereotyped and propagandized as simple-mindedly affable and calculatingly murderous, domesticated house-pets or rapacious wolves. Dogs in any case.
Yes. I know Mario Puzzo wrote The Godfather. I know Francis Ford Coppola made Puzzo’s novel and screenplays into two of the greatest movies in the history of cinema. I don’t fault these Italian Americans for making irrepressible art highlighting exactly the struggle Italian Americans have had making a place for themselves in WASP America.
Of course Michael courts and marries Kay Adams.
Consider the exchange between Senator Pat Geary and Michael in Tahoe:
Senator Pat Geary: I can get you a gaming license. The price is $250,000, plus a monthly payment of five percent of the gross of all four hotels. [sneers] Mr. Corl-ee-own-eh.
Michael Corleone: Now, the price of a gaming license is less than $20,000. Is that right?
Senator Pat Geary: That’s right.
Michael Corleone: So why would I ever consider paying more than that?
Senator Pat Geary: Because I intend to squeeze you. I don’t like your kind of people. I don’t like to see you come out to this clean country with your oily hair, dressed up in those silk suits, passing yourselves off as decent Americans. I’ll do business with you, but the fact is that I despise your masquerade, the dishonest way you pose yourself. Yourself and your whole fucking family.
Michael Corleone: Senator. We’re both part of the same hypocrisy…but never think it applies to my family.
Senator Pat Geary: [exasperated] Okay. Some people need play little games. You play yours. Let’s just say that you’ll pay me because it’s in your interest to pay me. But I want your answer and the money by noon tomorrow. And one more thing. Don’t you contact me again, ever. From now on, you deal with Turnbull.
Michael Corleone: Senator? You can have my answer now, if you like. My offer is this: nothing. Not even the fee for the gaming license, which I would appreciate if you would put up personally.
I don’t personally know any Italian Americans who are proud of the legacy of the Mafia. But I believe I know plenty of people who see in Michael’s offer to Geary a kind of comeuppance, even a certain kind of justice, long deferred. An Italian American forced into the Cosa Nostra by circumstance turning the tables on Geary’s wop-shaming WASP, a stand-in, of course, for a century of very real anti-Italian hatred. As much as we hate the gangster stereotype, we’ve been allowed few other heroes outside of Christopher Columbus.
I hate the Columbian Exchange. I hate how Columbus himself thought of and treated indigenous people. I hate how many of the actual founders of this country felt about the indigenous people of this continent and the indigenous people of Africa.
I hate the nickname of the professional football team in Washington, DC. I think it’s a slur and shouldn’t be used. I don’t care if the Snyder family thinks otherwise. I hate it as much as I’d hate a team called the South Philly Dagos.
Discussions of Columbus Day and of October as Italian American Heritage Month cannot take place in isolation from Columbus the historical person. Italian Americans need to hear this. But we also need to be heard, and as long as we’re having this discussion, we need everyone else to be honest about the degree to which Anti-Italian and Anti-Italian-American tropes remain widespread and acceptable in everything from political journalism to children’s television.
I get it. We’re white. But we’re not named Smith or Jones or Rogers or Adams or some other thing from the Shire. We are without a doubt privileged because of our whiteness, even if our whiteness (and Americanness) has only been wholly accepted in the third or fourth generation of our families’ presences here. In Columbus, we, a despised and displaced people, laid a pre-emptive claim to a pre-emptive America in the face of the WASP power structures that not only controlled economic and social capital, but the literal definitions of “white” and “American.” That power of that symbol for Italian immigrants, and for their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, is real. Ask me how I know.
These days, Italians Americans aren’t marginalized the way people of color or white people from the wrong parts of Europe are, but we’re still gangsters and clowns and a-people who talk like-a this. I’m proud of Mario for consistently saving the Mushroom Kingdom and for his work as a plumber, but I find Nintendo’s later-day characterizations of his patterns of speech wholly offensive. The same is true for just about-a any-a chef you’ve ever seen on any-a children’s show.
Our ancestors were olive-skinned, non-English-speaking whites, but as everything from popular sentiment to my great-grandmother’s federal immigration papers make clear, we were only white (and in those says, “American”) in relation to darker-skinned people. Columbus Day was meant to cement our claim to Americanness, whiteness, and social respectability, wedding us with and contrasting us to other American whites, Anglo whites, the same whites casting us as idiots, wop-shaming us as a matter of practice and policy. Columbus Day is full of these kinds of ethnically, racially charged ironies. As human beings, Italian Americans ought to despise the evils inherent to the Colombian Exchange. I’m sure most of us do. We struggled as Other for over a century, a situation mitigated and frustrated by our fringe position within canonical whiteness.
You’ve likely heard of Sacco and Vanzetti. You likely don’t know about the mass lynching of Italians in New Orleans in 1891, or how both tragedies were driven by anti-immigrant and anti-Italian hatred. Italian Americans are right to want to celebrate our historical struggles in and contributions to the United States and the Americas more generally. How ought we tell our stories without becoming the locus of marginalizing power ourselves? Rather than beg special pleading for Columbus, shouldn’t we be ready and able to find alternative icon for ourselves, for the spirit that brought our ancestors here, and our shared belief in what America can be regardless of what it sometimes is?
If we’re hell-bent on locating Italian-American pride on an historic figure fundamentally tied to the American founding, Filippo Mazzei might be a model. A friend of Thomas Jefferson, it was Mazzei who famously wrote “All men are by nature equally free and independent” in a pamphlet promoting the cause of liberty in colonial America years before Jefferson made the sentiment famous in the Declaration of Independence. Unlike Jefferson, Mazzei seems to have managed to utter those thoughts without also owning slaves. Seems like good place to start.
We can remember Columbus’ place in history without idealizing Columbus the man. We can and should continue to teach, learn, and understand the unvarnished history of 1492 and all that came after. We can and should do all of these things without feeling the need to honor Columbus as the prototypical Italian American. He wasn’t. Our ancestors were. That’s enough.