Hatred and its Sly Legacy


Roland Merullo


     This essay has been published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 1, 2000. Roland Merullo has kindly consented to make the essay available on the World Wide Web site of Albany Order Sons of Italy.

      Over the course of the last three decades, we have given a great deal of attention to the question of hatred in American higher education. The word itself is not always used. We say "racism" or "sexism," "bigotry" or "homophobia," but hatred is the real issue, the poisonous root from which all the other ugly behaviors sprout.
     Lately, what interests me most in this discussion is not the motivation of those who hate, but the response of their victims: the way hatred is internalized; the psychological imbalances its spawns as it mutates, echoes, and filters down through generations. In its complexity and subtlety, this process seems to me perfectly analogous to the long-term patterns of environmental damage. When a poisonous chemical is for spilled into a body of water, it has certain immediate, obvious effects - some fish die, the water becomes undrinkable. Later, as the chemical embeds itself in the muddy bottom, the effects are more difficult trace, but no less harmful - the internal structures of plants are altered, poisoning the fish that feed on them, harming the birds and humans that consume those fish. Over time, the whole ecosystem tilts out of balance.

     In the academic world, we are more adept at pointing out the initial spill than we are at following the poison through its mutations. We don't give much attention, for instance, to the demon of shame, even though it is so commonly found in the descendants of the groups that were despised and ridiculed and even though it is so disruptive to the proper functioning of an individual, a family, or a university culture.
     The most honest way I know approaching this question is to take an example from personal experience and hope it sheds some light on the larger question of hatred and its after effects. My own parents were the children of immigrants - Southern Italians on my father's side, and poor English Catholics on my mother's - and it is easy enough to trace the fine thread of shame and self-consciousness that runs through me, my parents, my grandparents, and back to the bigotry they endured when the first came to this country. That does not mean we stumble through the world hanging our heads, apologizing, and feeling badly about ourselves. Neither does it mean that we blame our individual failings on enemies from long ago. What it means is that old insults have mutated within us, forming small pockets of awkwardness, bloated pride, self-consciousness, and buried anger.
      It seems to me that one of the best examples of this hatred-shame connection is the fact that my father's parents - who came to America near the turn of the last century - did not bring up their eight children in a bilingual household. Though, as boys and girls, they heard the language spoken in their home, my surviving aunts and uncles on that side of the family remember only a few dozen phrases of Italian. When asked why , they answer with some regret that their mother and father emphasized English because they wanted their children to "fit in better" with the America that surrounded them.

      On the one hand, that drive toward assimilation seems a natural, and even an admirable response to life in the New World, given the environment of the day. Having left behind the perils and privations of the southern Italian countryside (a place, in 1900, where upward mobility was the stuff of the afterlife), my grandparents did not want to handicap their American-born children by making them seem in any way foreign. In comparison with what they had known in the Campanian villages, this country was a vast garden of opportunity: Why hobble their offspring in the corner were only tomatoes and basal grew? Why make them Different, when the road to success was paved with Same?
     On the other hand, it seems clear to me now that their motivations weren't so purely pragmatic, that a measure of shame was involved. In a more welcoming environment, they would have encouraged their children to speak both languages, but being Italian in America in the first half of the 20th-century meant experiencing ubiquitous mockery, poverty, widespread and unchallenged discrimination, and difficulty in finding good work.
     Pick up copy of Pietro Di Donato's novel Christ in Concrete, and you get a sense of how Italians felt in that not-so-gentle America (and perhaps how recent immigrants field in this one). In the time without affirmative action or bilingual education, when discrimination against racial and ethnic groups was not recognized as unhealthy, never mind illegal, the choice was simple: Make your children as American as possible, as quickly as possible, or subject them to harassment, continued economic hardship, an even violence. As proud as my grandparents were of their heritage, they could not help but internalize some of the ridicule sent their way by earlier immigrant groups - the Irish and wealthier English, especially. That ridicule was absorbed into the tissue of their family, quietly, secretly, and toke the shape of braggadoccio, on the one hand, and the nagging whisper of inadequacy on the other.
      I do not claim some unique pain for my grandparents, or for the other Italians who came to America in those years. Every immigrant group in the last two centuries - Jews, Poles, Irish, Swedes, Norwegians, Russians, Germans, and late-arriving English Catholics in my grandparents' day, and Mexicans, South Koreans, and Cambodians in more modern times - has suffered at the hands of earlier arrivals. All of them absorbed a measure of hatred in one form or another; all their descendants carry alongside their pride, the shadow of self doubt.
      But the Italian-American experience is the one I know best. And because the world of the academy is the subject of these pages, I want to illuminate a larger point about the aftereffects of hatred by claiming that Italian-American academicians, even now, find themselves in a particularly awkward predicament. The awkwardness comes from the fact that the culture in which we work is, in many ways, antithetical to the culture from which we are descended. One is the domain of the intellect, the other of emotions. One is primarily atheistic and rational, the other grounded in Roman Catholicism, intuition, and superstition. One speaks in the measured careful tones of the scholar, the other puts high value on warmth and openness. One makes physical contact illicit, the other champions it.
     What interests me - again, as an example that underscores the general pattern - is how the modern Italian-American academic trims or refuses to trim his or her personality in anticipation of the humor of the faculty lounge, the unspoken etiquette of the conference hall, the careful chemistry of the classroom, and how those decisions redeem or refute the decisions made by our grandparents or great-grandparents in response to the much more obvious and damaging bigotry of another arena in another day       I grew up in a largely Italian American enclave just outside Boston proper, a place that puts its own twists on the local accent. When I listen to my adult voice on tape - even now, twenty-five years after having left that neighborhood - I am surprised to hear, not "dese" and "dose" exactly, but a certain slight hardening of the "th" sound. It is something I cannot change. Or, more precisely, it is something I could change, just as I probably could change my Boston accent, but the more purely American speech, the speech of the academy, would feel awkward on my tongue. Phony, as we used to say in the old neighborhood, where inauthenticity was second only to disloyalty on the list of cardinal sins.
     A small thing perhaps. No doubt I am more sensitive to my hard t-hs than most listeners, in the faculty lounge or elsewhere. But that heightened self-consciousness, that faint expectation of mockery, is precisely the point. My sensitivity has to do with not wanting to give credence to the oldest criticisms that were leveled against Americans of my ancestry - that they were crude, loud, violent, insufficiently intellectual, and overly emotional.

     In people from other ethnic backgrounds, that self-consciousness takes different forms. I had African American friends in college, and met others, later, in the academy, who were so determined never to make themselves vulnerable to racist criticisms that they developed an excessively careful manner of speaking and behaving. In effect, they traded their "African-ness," a piece of their identity, for acceptance, just as so many other groups in the melting pot have done. Some of that is a necessary and healthy compromise - in one way or another, all of us trim our sails in order to travel with the fleet. And who is to say precisely what "African-ness" is? Like Italian-ness, it can take many forms. But, in the case of those friends at least, it felt to me that the price of "fitting in better" was a damage self. They had traded away too much of their authenticity and individuality - distorted their speech patterns, and lost or hid their ebullience, passion, an empathy.
     My friends didn't just trim their sails, they lowered and wrapped them - but at least they had made themselves safe from the types of ridicule that had been leveled at their mothers and fathers and friends outside the academy. Their careful behavior was a cumbersome but effective armor against the criticism - sometimes imagined, sometimes real - of their colleagues.
      One Italian American professor I know swears that his fellow teachers scrutinize him for signs of latent violent tendencies, as if anyone with black hair and a name that ends in a vowel must have a darker side straight out of The Godfather or The Sopranos. I believe him. Even now, I occasionally feel the shadow of such cliches - reaffirmed constantly by popular culture - falling over me in the classroom, in job interviews, in pricey hotels or restaurants. How peculiar it is that Hollywood, radio, and television continue to pump fresh juice into those Italian-American stereotypes, long after the media has been made hyper-conscious to characterizations that may be offensive to just about every other group.

     One example: A few years ago, Garrison Keillor had a talented young mimic on his "Prairie Home Companion" radio show. The girl had a real genius for making different voices come out of her mouth, and performed a variety of skits that highlighted her ability. I was enjoying the broadcast until I heard her say, in a threatening, gravelly voice: "Blow da safe, Rocco."
      A gentle, approving laughter rippled through the live audience. Would the reaction have been the same if she'd said, "Eat the watermelon, Tyrone," or a "Stop pinching that penny, Jacob." or "Please ask Maria to stop eating tortillas and start doing some work? "
     Italian American professors find themselves in the odd predicament of presiding over classrooms in which they can feel the politically correct antennae trembling in the air - yet that correctness does not quite extend to their own tender spots. In a novel-writing class I taught recently, a class in which we used The Great Gatsby as a text for illuminating certain techniques, a Jewish student noted, with some pain in her voice, that "the bad guy [Wolfshiem] is a Jew.">
      "I know how you feel," I blurted out. "How do you think it feels to me that four out of every five legbreakers on the screen or the pages is named Bruno, Vito, or Guido?"
     Perhaps I should have been more restrained, stifled my own sensitivities in the name of maintaining some idealized professorial persona. But that ideal grew out of a dominant culture that was Anglo Saxon and white, and I share only one of those labels. Or perhaps, here and in the classroom, I should acknowledge that Jews and Blacks suffered so much more from bigotry than Italians ever did, and that, since Italians have blended so well into all aspects of American life, the words "guinea" and "wop" soon will fade from the American vocabulary entirely, or at least become as taboo as the other emblems of hatred such as "nigger," "spic," "kike." But the question is not who suffered more, and who has more right to complain about it. The question is a modern version of the same one my grandparents faced: How do we balance the blending with the preserving. How can we be American and "professional" without blotting out the rest of who we are - our womanliness, our blackness, our Italian-ness. The real question is: What is lost to academic culture when descendants of the victims of hatred are shamed into subverting aspects of themselves that the dominant culture derides?
     In struggling to answer that question, I have come to believe it is both good for me and good for the academy that I put a hand on a student's shoulder when I am talking to her or to him - when it seems right for me to do that - because, in my corner of the American garden, that gesture was neither sexual nor a matter of power, but implied commiseration, affection, and respect. After years of trying to be reserved, I now believe it is perfectly fine to express emotion in the classroom if I am moved by a story or a stanza of poetry: To me, that emotion is part and parcel of the value of literature. To talk with my hands, to keep my speech patterns the way they are as long as they fall within the general laws of grammar, to be the person I actually am - an American from a working class, primarily Italian background - those qualities are give me authenticity, and help give the stew its spice.
     I do not walk into the classroom or the lunchroom wearing a red-white-and-green armband proclaiming my portion of Italian blood, making a fuss about my ethnicity and showing off old scars and bruises at the smallest signs of insult. The American academy has enough of that behavior to go around, and much of it seems like self-indulgent narcissism rather than concern for fairness.
      But neither do I let myself be governed by the echoes - quieter now - of old catcalls, and lace my cultural inheritance, an inheritance I happen to like, into a tight suit that goes by the name "professionalism" and seems somehow less than human to me. To teach within the constraints of that tight girdle would mean accepting defeat at the hands of the bigots of the last century. It would mean carrying into the classroom or the faculty lounge a person I am not. How could such a person - such a phony, my aunts and uncles might say - be of any benefit to a student, an institution, or to academia as a whole? How can a anyone who is crippled by shame - Italian-American, African-American, Mexican-American , homosexual, or female -- show any love for students or colleagues? And, without the balm of love, how can the wounds of hatred ever heal?

This essay was developed as a part of the effort of The Albany (NY) Area Lodge of The Sons of Italy to make available material that will develop an appreciation and understanding of The Italy-to-USA Avventura. The writers of this essay and other text found on this world wide web site claim sole responsibility for the content of their productions.


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