Learning about Loss from Denise Giardina

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Denise Giardina meeting with First Year English majors and colleagues WVU Teaching Assistant Professor Sarah Morris and University of Pittsburgh Professor Lina Insana at the West Virginia and Regional History Center.

On October 12, Denise Giardina visited WVU. The visit was thrilling for me on many levels. Here are my thoughts, posted on the WVU Department of English blog, The Tenants of Colson Hall.

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When Someone Asks Your Thoughts on Columbus Day, You Give Them

My friend and fellow American Studies scholar, Ben Railton, prompted this post when he asked me for a response to the excellent blog posts around alternative visions of Columbus Day for his popular blog, AmericanStudier. Ben asked a complicated question and here is my response, posted on the AmericanStudier blog and here on my blog. Views are my own.

Colleagues in Italian American and Italian Diaspora Studies have been working both privately and publicly to ask for the dismissal of Columbus Day and replace it with any number of options, including Italian Heritage Day, Indigenous Heritage Day, and even Ethnic Heritage Day. See this letter and feel free to add your name to this petition. What is interesting to me about the letter is whose signatures are missing. I don’t know the reasons for this absence and I cannot conjecture, but the complications arise around Columbus Day, for me, in that any of the days mentioned above asks us to dismiss one group for another—as though there is not enough room at the table for all of us. Each of us holds an important piece of the intertwining, collaborative and colonial fabric of the project known as the United States.

Many Italian Americans, whether they remember directly or heard the stories, have bought into an assimilation story that suggests they have overcome great strife and deserve to have a day dedicated to their heritage, forgetting or refusing to acknowledge that Columbus is not the symbol of that heritage. In many ways, the strife was not simply overcome with hard work and perseverance, but is a process of suppression that we call assimilation that demands an adherence to homogenization of white nativist traditions, which bury radicalism, union solidarity, or a generalized contentious relationship with white nativism. In other words, assimilation is about embracing the abusers.

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Denise Giardina meeting with First Year English majors and colleagues WVU Professor Sarah Morris and University of Pittsburgh Professor Lina Insana at the West Virginia and Regional History Center.

I heard the Italian American West Virginia writer Denise Giardina speak last night about West Virginia’s socialist roots and she made one statement that I think speaks to Italian American suppression: “There was never a war on coal. Coal has been warring with West Virginia. The coal industry has destroyed what it has built.” She went on to say that she thought West Virginians suffered from a kind of Stockholm syndrome where they identify with their abusers and that is how an organization like Friends of Coal proliferates in West Virginia. I would suggest that is also how Italian Americans continue to fight for a holiday that has nothing to do with them. (If you have not yet read any of Giardina’s work, might I suggest you begin with Storming Heaven or The Unquiet Earth?)

Indeed, many prominent Italian American politicians are today spouting rhetoric that can be associated with the most conservative and right wing parts of our government. The irony for me is that while they attempt to gain traction with someone like 45, they have been used and dismissed fairly quickly (think of Chris Christie, Rudolf Giuliani, and Anthony Scaramucci). Other Italian Americans simply suggest that what occurred during Columbus’s Voyage of Discovery was a long time ago and we should live in the here and now while pontificating about tradition and cultural history. This last fallacy is predicated upon the idea that somehow Italian Americans above any other ethnic group in the US deserve to have a federal holiday named for them. They forget this holiday was not for them, but a way to reinforce colonial culture in the US while tangentially acknowledging that Italian Americans were more than gangsters or miscreants. From the beginning, Columbus Day has been about separating Italian Americans from the concerns of indigenous populations and African American people even though the concerns of each of these groups is not singular or separate.

Here are a few articles that might be of use: Laura Ruberto and Joseph Sciorra’s essay on recontextualization of not only Italian American history, but also the history of migration and colonization that happened in the Americas (if you haven’t yet picked up Ruberto and Sciorra’s co-edited two-volume set New Italian Migrations to the United States, Vol. 1: Politics and History since 1945 (2017) and Vol 2: Art and Culture since 1945 (2017), do it!), Elizabeth Mariani’s piece on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Kelly Castania’s piece on Italian Americans viewing themselves as allies to indigenous people, Bobby Dorigo’s piece on the false construct that Italian Americans have historically even viewed Columbus Day as their holiday, Jim McDermott’s piece on “Why Italian-Americans Deserve a Better Holiday,” Stefano Vaccara’s “Long Live Verdi” piece, and Robyn Pennacchia’s “I am an Italian-American and I Think Columbus Day is Garbage.” There are many more, and I hope my colleagues in Italian American Studies might add to this list.

Lastly, Riggio, the CEO of Barnes & Noble was the Grand Marshall for this year’s Columbus Day Parade. He chose to invite (for the first time mind you), Italian American writers to sit on a B&N-themed float. Internationally-celebrated authors like Gay Talese shared the float with deeply-respected writers like Maria Mazziotti Gillan (her ground-breaking multi-ethnic anthologies are true artistic and communal collaborations and her work at The Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College, where I first heard Jimmy Santiago Baca, Amiri Baraka, and Allen Ginzberg all read live, is a fundamental and important place for those who are marginalized as students and writers), and lesser-known, but talented writers like Olivia Cerrone (The Hunger Saint) and Annie Lanzillotto (L is for Lion). Lanzillotto hung a circle banner that read: Honor Indigenous, but I could not help but feel that Riggio and the Italian American committee who run the parade were using my writer friends and peers to justify the parade and the holiday. These writers were never asked to march before and to put them on a float with large cut-outs of book covers with canonical Italian male authors (Dante! What an Italian American!) is both problematic and insulting. Lastly, days before New York’s Columbus Day parade, Our Lady of Loreto Church in Brooklyn, NY was destroyed. This church, built by Italian immigrants in 1906, was a true marker of Italian immigration and determination, but it seems we dismiss actual history of immigration in favor of empty symbols that align with genocide, colonization, and the precursor of Manifest Destiny.

At a time when white supremacists are once again rearing the most heinous aspects of white nativism’s construction, it is more important than ever to challenge the discourse that dictates we have to accept what is offered and not expect anything more or to think we cannot change the course of an increasingly dangerous present. I want to be an ally to the indigenous. LGBTQ, immigrant, and all POC communities because the way I see it, my life is not mine own. For better or worse, it belongs to this project known as the United States and each of these individuals and communities help to make me, a child of first and second generation Sicilian and Irish immigrants, what I am and want to be—someone who grows in compassion, but stands in the righteousness of social justice for all. We must resist the easy road or the quick fix. We must engage with the hard dialogue and learn to keep silent and listen. I not only heard Denise Giardina speak this week, but also attended West Virginia University’s 25th Anniversary of the Peace Tree Celebration.

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Onondagan Chief Oren Lyons at the WVU 25th Anniversary of thePeace Tree Celebration

Onondagan Chief Oren Lyons spoke, and like Giardina’s talk, I was inspired by his wisdom. Both Lyons and Giardina have dared to stand in their truth no matter the consequences to their careers or lives. Lyons talked about how lacrosse is a hard game and that during his career and the careers of the young men he watches play today how much loss is involved. He said, “They lose. They lose a lot. BUT, they are never defeated.” I want us to recognize that it is not only and always about winning, but about as Giardina said during her talk and Lyons alluded to, the spiritual journey. This journey brings us together in solidarity and allows us to fight injustice wherever we see it or experience it. We must be willing to see each other’s humanity and stand up for anyone who has their basic human rights withheld. Letting go of Columbus Day would be a step forward for Italian Americans that might mean we lose a holiday, but we would gain an expanding consciousness and community. #RESIST

Remembering

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My dad in Germany during the Korean War.

“I raised my hand because they asked who could type,” he said. “I could type.” If my father’s story of his service in the Korean War began with his administration skills, it always ended with the admonishment: “never volunteer for anything.” He never saw combat since he was stationed in Europe to take care of personnel files. He seemed to have a good time so it didn’t make sense that volunteerism was a bad idea. But after 9/11 he told me a different story, one that suggested a larger truth. He told me of the men in his battalion, their names long forgotten, but not their service. According to my dad, two-thirds lost their lives in Korea. The jumpers, he told me, all died. He wound up in Germany taking care of personnel paperwork only because a guy two in front of him in the line died in a jump. “The next guy went to jumper school and I wound up in Germany,” he said. “That’s how they did it. One went to Germany, one went to Korea, and one went to jumper school. I would have been in Korea otherwise. I owe my life to that guy. The guy in front of me died too. Almost all of my battalion died.” While his battalion was fighting in Korea, my father was taking care of their personnel files, including their benefits and letters home to their families when the servicemen were killed. I’m only alive due to the death of a serviceman that sent my dad to Germany instead of the front lines. He didn’t volunteer for anything; he shaped the story of his service in that way to make the story more palatable when his kids were younger. Maybe he was old enough not to care or he thought, after 9/11, I was old enough not to be shielded any longer. Or maybe he knew that his daughter with the “motormouth” would be the one to tell the story of his service and the losses his battalion suffered–a loss, I sense, he still feels today.

#RESIST

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Tamburri’s grandmother’s enemy alien registration card issued in 1942. She’d migrated to the United States in 1906. Image credit to Anthony J. Tamburri.

Here is a link to CUNY Calandra Institute Dean Anthony J. Tamburri’s recent article on when Italians were considered “enemy aliens” in the U.S.: “When We Were The Muslims.” We must not allow this type of discrimination, based upon prejudice and fear, to become our way of life once again.

The Electorate

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Maggie is going to die tonight. Pregnant and rational, two qualities not usually associated with women, Maggie is the community-building leader on The Walking Dead. Negan used the phrase “right hand man” in the trailer for the upcoming premiere and she is the one who, in the words of Rick, “hammered out the deal” that helped their community survive before they met Negan and his gang, the Saviors. Maggie was emerging as a strong leader, one who could eventually replace Rick. The de facto hero Rick is an unstable, loose cannon who wreaks havoc on his community with outbursts both physical and emotional. And yet, even when it is against the rag tag community’s best interest, they continue to follow him. So, it is with Donald Trump and his supporters.

I knew “The Donald” in New York. So did my father. Trump is as emotionally erratic as Rick is and as much of a guy with a hero complex. Only Trump knows how to fix it. Only he can stop the turmoil by creating even more turmoil. Trump, like Rick, plows full steam ahead no matter what anyone tells him or how much destruction he causes.

When my dad was a young man, working as a loan officer for a local bank in Queens, Trump sent one of his college friends to the branch to take out a loan. Trump hadn’t made a name for himself yet. He had recently graduated from college and his father was still in charge and held all the purse strings. The person applying for the loan was not a U.S. citizen and had no collateral. Trump was the co-signer, another person with no real collateral. Five thousand dollars seems like nothing today, but this amount was a large sum in the mid-60s. Especially to a small bank branch in Queens that would have to pay it back if Trump’s friend defaulted on the loan. My father understood what Trump was attempting to do and denied the loan. His manager over road my father’s decision and sent the approved application to the main bank headquarters, but they bounced it back: REJECTED. The branch manager ignored their decision and the local branch became liable for the money. When my father told me the story, he said, “I told him that Donald was pulling a fast one, but he wouldn’t listen. I knew we’d never see a penny of that money again.” He was right. After nine months, not one cent had been repaid. When the branch attempted to contact Trump’s friend, Trump called the branch to curse out the bank manager and my father. According to my dad, Trump used a string of f-bombs and threatened them with having his father pull all of his money out of the bank—a number that was more than likely in the millions. My father told me this tale over a meal. That’s when I get most of my information about my parents’ young lives. Snuck in between the lasagna and fennel, before the cheesecake and oranges come out, I discover my parents actually do know the score, even when they ignore it.

The telling of this story was prompted by my own tale of Trump. I was working for a real estate attorney in Manhattan. One day, I picked up the phone, answered it professionally and politely as I always did, and I heard something I’d never heard before: “This is Donald Trump. I want to speak to your boss.” I thought it was a joke. The lawyer for whom I worked had a lot of big real estate clients, but never “The Donald.” I almost responded: “yeah, and I’m the Queen of England,” but something told me to believe the voice. I put him on hold and went down the hall where I found my boss strategizing some deal with another lawyer. I expected him to tell me to take a message. That’s what he always did. Instead, he ran down the hall—a man who only walked slowly—and picked up his phone. He had a series of five or six consultations with Trump over the course of a few weeks. The bill was small in comparison to most of his clients, less than $20K, but Donald didn’t pay it. When I asked my boss what to do, he said not to bother. “Why?” I asked. “He needs to pay his bills!” I didn’t yet know my father’s story. I was working on the assumption people paid their bills, especially people who were rich. My boss said, “he never pays his bills and you can’t ask him because then he bad mouths you. Just let it go.” When I told my father this story, he laughed and said, “he’s an ass and he never changes.” Then he told me the story about the bank loan.

Years later, after 9/11, my dad and I were walking the Atlantic City boardwalk. The Blue Angels were flying overhead and police in riot gear and armed with automatic weapons were lining the pier. In the background, Trump’s casinos were in various stages of ruin. My father railed against Trump. “He’s a greedy S.O.B. who doesn’t care about any body but himself.” My father knew about the bank loans and the bankruptcies and how Trump left Atlantic City in worse shape than he found it. He pointed out buildings that were recently vacated and shook his head. He couldn’t understand how someone like him could continue to garner support in business when it was so clear his only business plan was to declare bankruptcy when he got bored or bled the resources dry. We bonded over our disdain for a man who made money by putting others in pain. And yet…

Yes, there’s an “and yet.” A few months ago, my dad suggested he might vote for Trump. I was shocked. “How could you?” I asked. “After everything you know about him, dad. How could you? I don’t understand.” My dad shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe he’ll be able to do something,” was his only response. I haven’t had the courage to ask him more recently how he’s actually going to vote in light of Trump’s latest rants.

People like my dad, living on a pension, not quite making it, are afraid. That’s how someone like Rick gets to take charge past the time when his efficiency and effectiveness as a leader works. We’re not living in a zombie apocalypse, but the way those on The Walking Dead react to Rick or the Governor or Negan is not much different to how citizens respond to Trump. People think he has an idea, no matter how outrageous, and put their faith in the crazy idea in the hope it might work. They hope it might place them in a better position than they had before. They try to not to think about how it could ultimately destroy them. Like Rick, Trump is a guy who always gets a second and third and fourth and fifth chance. Maggie finally comes in to her power on The Walking Dead, and I’m not sure she gets to do more than feel her potential. That’s why I don’t think someone like Clinton, who has better credentials than perhaps any previous candidate in history, is still not a shoe-in to become the next U.S. president. Trump’s taking his name off of his hotels. He thinks he can hide the evidence of his misdeeds and bad business practices. But then again, he hasn’t had to hide any of his atrocious behavior during this election cycle—the badder he is, just like Rick in The Walking Dead, the more folks seem to take to him.

The Horror…

Back when Donald Trump announced he was running for president on June 16, 2015, most of my friends thought he was a joke that would last two weeks. I didn’t. I used to work for real estate attorneys in New York City back in the 1990s. I knew how much he was despised and how no one would do anything about his heinous, bullying behavior. I knew he would get the nomination. My friends wanted to shut me up every time I mentioned Trump. They’d tell me to calm down. They’d speak platitudes like: “Trust me, he’ll never last. No one will vote for him.” In the last few months, their dialogue has changed: “Well, even if he gets the nomination, he’ll never be elected in the generals.” Guess what? He could easily be elected in November.
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His primary win tonight in Indiana all but seals the deal. The Republican convention will be a crowning of Trump, a man who does not actually want to be president, but will do
it anyway (and run the country like a four-year long Celebrity Apprentice series). If you think he cannot win the general election, guess again. I am horrified by this primary process in the same way I was when I watched George W. Bush take the presidency in 2000. We all know how well that turned out.

Watch some Trevor Noah on Donald Trump.  Then watch John Oliver. The presidential primaries have been great for comedians, but for the United States, not so much.

Elevated Risk

13002446_10208048388020403_3384221694321341558_o (2)A few days ago I cracked open Inventing the Public Enemy: The Gangster in American Culture: 1918-1934 by David E. Ruth. Over the title page was a small notice with a Homeland Security symbol. The notice read as follows: “As of 15 November 2007, the book you are holding has been deemed ‘Elevated Risk’ in accordance with PATRIOT-USA as per NSA and DHS regulations. By checking this book out of the library, you may be subject to the exceptional deployment of certain surveillance measures from the United States of Homeland Security.”

At first I thought it was a joke played by a bored, creative undergraduate student. Then I thought, if this is real, how come it’s the first time I’ve ever seen one of these? Then I was disconcerted. Libraries have always been my safe havens. When I arrive in a new city, the first thing I do is obtain a library card. The URI librarians and I are on a first name basis. It might have to do with the fact that when I was a child, librarians were the kindest people I knew. I was the adolescent that took out 12 to 20 books at a time–the stacks sometimes as tall as I was. I loved roaming through the card catalog and picking books out by the strange sounding titles or even stranger author names. I cracked open the spines of books and smelled the pages. The librarians always helped to reach the books placed on a too high shelf.

When I saw the Homeland Security notice, I did what I was trained to do: I went to the source. My librarians would know the answer. Tell me it was, in fact, a joke. When I asked the URI librarians about it, they said, “well, some books were deemed an elevated risk after the Patriot Act, but we never marked up our books.” One of the librarians called Brown University (where the book was from) and came back with this story:

Apparently back in 2011, Brown placed this notice in every book that had words like bomb, bombing, terror, terrorism, gang, gangster, etc. It had to do with some new amendment to the USA Patriot Act. Brown removed the notices a few years later, after the expiration of said amendment. Apparently, “they missed a few.”

After my visit to the URI library, I received an email from David E. Ruth. I wrote him because I wanted to know if he knew about the notice or if he might have some other insight. He said, it was “a product of clever anti-Patriot Act activism by someone at Brown.” So, I dug further. In June 2015, Section 215, which according to Slate magazine was “commonly nicknamed the ‘library records provision,'” expired. Before the expiration, librarians had fought this amendment through various tactics. In particular, some librarians hung up signs that stated: antipat4

Now I’m not sure what to think. If the Brown librarians were practicing civil disobedience, why didn’t they tell the URI librarians? Perhaps the Brown librarian with whom my librarian spoke did not work in the library during the years of fighting Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Or perhaps we have reached a point in time where we all know we are being monitored and accept it. Was the notice then both a warning and a protest? Either way, I know more and less about how I might be a deemed a “public enemy” for my reading and writing habits.