Maybe it was actually DiPasquale. Maybe there was a space between the prefix, maybe there wasn’t. Ellis Island was infamous for issuing multiple flawed iterations of the same last name. Regardless, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to presume that my ancestry probably includes as cousins (in some form another) the individuals who lent their name to the old pharmacy on Broadway and still find that appellation on a Federal Hill square and thoroughfare. The distance between New York and Providence is not that great (particularly when most Americans think Long Island and Rhode Island are the same thing anyways).
It is altogether refreshing and heartening to see, at long last, a serious conversation in the mainstream discourse  about settler colonialism in North America and the merits of linking Italian American identity to the man who was responsible for so much genocidal malfeasance upon these shores starting in 1492. The man we call Christoper Columbus was a sailor of fortune, a brigand, and a disreputable character whose crimes were so immense and altogether grotesque a genuine simulation of his deeds in cinema would earn a hard X rating, with all the pornographic connotations that categorization brings to mind. In many ways, his reign of terror on these shores includes as a legacy the vile nature of policing’s political economy as an anti-democratic, anti-human, and anti-BIPOC project. There is a clear genealogy between the roving bands of marauders he commissioned to seek gold in the Caribbean, the fugitive slave patrols, and the hyper-militarized gendarmes who prowl our communities under so many layers of legislative insulation that practical redress of grievances is impossible in our civic realm.
Why is Italian American identity twinned with such a vile human being? We count amongst our ancestors true greats like Sacco and Vanzetti, Antonio Gramsci, and so many others who fought nobly in direct opposition to what Columbus stood for. How is it that Federal Hill, which in 1914 included amongst its locales of Italian immigrant organizing a Karl Marx Hall, is now seemingly a capitol for the most vile cultural nexus of anti-Black racism, misogyny, homo-/trans-/bi-phobia, toxic masculinity, and a hyper-reverence for American settler-colonial imperialism that at times approximates the adulation of a consecrated sacrament? The two most powerful Rhode Islanders, Gov. Gina Raimondo and Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello, are both Italian Americans and subscribe to some of the most noxious forms of white supremacy. Madame Governor, with sponsorship from the most revanchist elements of Wall Street, seeks to further segregate public education under the auspices of the charter school industry with support from Jeb Bush protegees. Speaker Mattiello denies the reality of chattel bond slavery in colonial Providence despite the fact the city was the continental industrial hub of the Triangle Trade.
Contemporary Italians would be mortified by the behavior of their American cousins. Do any of the restaurant patrons on the Hill realize that, during the last century, the Communist Party of Italy maintained a bipartisan governing contract with the Christian Democrats that lasted from 1945 to 1991, a treaty of civic administration not unlike how Democrats and Republicans simultaneously governed America? Do they understand that Italian Communism, far from a marginal force, was one of the major hubs of organization for a guerrilla war that led to the defeat of the World War II Axis powers? Have any of them watched 1900, Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic history of the Italian labor movement, which commences with peasant partisans in 1945 emerging from their cottages upon news of the Axis defeat carrying aloft red flags and singing loud praises for (no word of a lie) “Comrade Stalin”?
What the fungul happened?
We can try to pin this on Catholicism, which undeniably warded off secular influence on our polity in the past century whilst providing parochial schools that were separate but equal (if not moreso). It is impossible to forget that Italian American letter writing campaigns, sponsored by the CIA and the Church, sent epistles back to the old country to prevent a total Communist victory in the 1948 parliamentary elections, insuring the ascendancy of Alcide De Gasperi rather than Palmiro Togliatti. But to pigeonhole all Italian Americans into a stereotypical representation of piety bordering on fanaticism is a great disservice to our history, our culture, and our heritage. If that were the case, how do you explain political careers of Socialist New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and Communist New York City Councilor Peter Cacchione? How do you account for the pastoral career of perpetual Socialist Party presidential candidate Norman Thomas, who prior to entry into electoral politics preached the progressive Social Gospel to Italian American Presbyterians in East Harlem?
Social history is a tremendously complicated and intricate discipline, one which seeks to account for political economy on the one hand and testimonial exegesis on the other. It would perhaps require a much wiser student of the discipline to comprehend the nuances.
But in my understanding, it would seem, after World War II, Italian Americans made a deal with the Devil by selecting to “become white,” to use the phrasing of a recently-deceased scholar.
What do I mean?
Following the end of the Second World War, the last vestiges of Old Europe collapsed. The Western European kingdoms, founders of the vile colonial system that had upheld their economies for 450 years, were forced by the economic, political, and spiritual bankruptcy to cede control of their empires. Their longstanding intercontinental system of maintaining white supremacy imploded under the weight of its own contradictions. By the time of the Bretton Woods Conference, which established the worldwide postwar economy, so-called white Anglo Saxon Protestants (and their various continental cousins) saw themselves in a mathematical minority and with rapidly-decreasing fortunes. America was delivered the scepter of leadership by the British and French, who saw their landholdings decreasing by thousands of square miles per day, designated as the de facto hegemon at the forefront of “The American Century.”
And so in response, in order to maintain the system, Eastern European immigrant groups that had populated the urban centers over the prior six decades were allowed into the bounty of whiteness. Jews, Poles, Slavs, Italians, and many others saw the final hindrances upon their class ascendant trajectory removed. Admittedly this came with great ease, America had just fought a war and so many millions of these veterans were granted the GI Bill of Rights, allowing them to gain free college education, low-interest suburban housing mortgages, and access to credit via a nationwide Keynesian mandate of full employment with record-high union density in the labor market.
Yet it was a poison chalice. Simultaneously, all African American veterans were denied these benefits across the board, preventing the constitution of intergenerational wealth and credit that my grandfather passed on to my parents and which they (hope) to pass on to me. Redlining, block-busting, and de facto educational segregation, along with a multitude of other systemic racist encumbrances, built a perfect storm of misery for our Northern BIPOC siblings who should otherwise have full and equal access to the bounty of our shared labors. That hero of Irish Catholic bravado, Joseph McCarthy, availed his services of Dixiecrat segregationists, tarring any and all struggles against Jim Crow as “Communist plots.”
The Caribbean poet, statesman, and philosopher Aimé Césaire once wrote “We must study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativism… At the end of all the racial pride that has been encouraged, all the boastfulness that has been displayed, a poison has been distilled into the veins of Europe [and America] and, slowly but surely, the continent proceeds toward savagery.”
Whiteness as a psychological and social construct lacking scientific correlation and validation is a toxic force most immediately for those placed in the crosshairs of white supremacy and racism. America has far too many tree roots drenched with the blood of lynched African Americans, too many grassy plains made red with the slaughter of the Indigenous, and incalculable more sites of carnage, bigotry, and degradation to deny this.
But it degrades the beneficiaries of white supremacy as well. While it delivers short-term, material, tangible benefits, it simultaneously, like a subtle malignancy, does incalculable harms to us. It makes Italian Americans behave like a bunch of embarrassing bullies, shallow neanderthals obsessed with consumerist delusions of grandeur. We fail to recognize Mafia films and television shows like The Godfather, Goodfellas, or The Sopranos for what they actually are, dire warnings authored by Left-leaning Italian American artists seeking to alert us that behaving like school yard buffoons and braggarts will lead to spiritual and corporeal death. The fact that denizens of Johnston can be one of the highest concentrations of 2016 Trump voters while simultaneously placing upon a beatific multimedia altar self-proclaimed Italian progressives like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and David Chase is a testament to the appalling level of media illiteracy in this state and country. (And the fact that I honed this analytical lens at Rhode Island College’s Film Studies department, less than 5 miles from DePasquale Square, is even more damning.)
Christopher Columbus is neither the soul of what it means to be Italian American nor the pinnacle of what our nationality is capable of. Instead he should be relegated to the penumbra of our cultural heritage and history. He was a thief, a rapist, a génocidaire, and a fraud. Monuments to him not only designate allegiance to a historical falsehood, they represent deference to a path of ethical self-destruction, communal implosion, and cultural suicide. The goal of dismantling propaganda in service to a moral abomination like him is to build a true, beloved community envisioned by Martin Luther King, Jr. and so many more Italian Americans who were and are on the right side of the line as the moral arc of the universe has made its bending journey toward hoped-for justice.
We as Italian Americans have the opportunity to move beyond whiteness and into the community of true human solidarity that transcends what our skin looks like and engages with dignity in healing each others’ souls, one where there are enough resources, wealth, and goodwill to be fairly apportioned to all. If the catalyst of this be the simple removal of a few statues and abandonment of certain festivities in October, we should see this gauntlet thrown before our feet as an open invitation to cultural and spiritual dignity rather than diminution and insult.
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