Tuesday, April 23

Why History Matters

The mob comes for the acquitted, as illustrated for Once a Week: An Illustrated Weekly Newspaper (1889–1895), March 24, 1891.

By Anthony Julian Tamburri

As long as individuals continue to promote false narratives in their writings or — as in the case of the website, We The Italians — spread said narratives on the pretext that theirs is a aggregator of what is stated elsewhere, those who are interested in factual representation of the history of the Italian in America shall be forced to del with the challenge of correcting said narratives.

In this brief, penultimate chapter, I shall deal first with We The Italians and then pass on to another example or two of how we Italian Americans can sometimes be our own worst enemies. We cannot complain about any aspect of the treatment of Italian Americans — e.g., labor issues, media representation, inclusion in non–Italian/American projects and entities — if we ourselves are not properly informed about the issues at hand. We come off as misinformed and hence ignorant of our own history.

I should also state here that it is not a betrayal of one’s heritage to recognize a negative aspect of one’s history. On the contrary, it illustrates one’s open–mindedness to the issue in question. It also implies a lack of blind prejudice in said regard. The overall point of contention may still be made; and it would then be executed, at said juncture, in a more informed manner, for which, in the end, the initial point of defense may figure even more valid than it did at the outset.

Such was the case with We The Italians and its promotion of the article The Innocent 11 and the Creation of Columbus Day. The issues of both the 1891 lynchings and the creation of Columbus Day — “The Columbus Affair”, as I have called it (2021) — is so much more complex than what we have seen emanating from the Italian/American promoters of the Genovese explorer. The labyrinthian and recondite history — that is multi–cultural and multi–lingual, to boot — makes it the overtly challenging historical convolution that it is. Yet, uninformed self–proclaimed spokespeople, who are not trained scholars and researchers, continue to spew forth historically incorrect and, as a result, ineffectual, if not damaging, discourses. We can only assume that it is the lack of regard for the seriousness of intellectual activity that moves the untrained to engage in activity of which they have very little to no expertise. This, in the end, is a basic issue we still need to confront within the Italian/American population.

That said, when an aggregator such as We The Italians, or any other site with a similar purpose, includes articles of a dubious intellectual and historical foundation, it has a distinct obligation to be sure that what they promote is correct. Unfortunately, what We The Italians forwarded by Mr. Basil Russo about the 11 innocents deviates in no small way from the truth. Equally unfortunate is that the editor of We The Italians sees no responsibility to fact check what appears on his website. In an email sent to me, Mr. Mucci wrote:

This is why you’re barking at [sic] the wrong tree. One thing is what is published on [sic] our magazine, or in my interviews; another one is the news section. We’re an aggregator, not a newspaper, and I know you very well know that (Tamburri – Mucci correspondence).

The overall exchange was both pleasant and respectful; I mean to underscore this before I continue. That said, with our conversation proceeding, Mr. Mucci suggested that I write to Mr. Russo. But anyone familiar with Mr. Russo, knows that he is adamant in his stance that what he believes is sacrosanct. He leaves no room for debate. The very fact that he publicly pronounces that those who do not support Columbus are traitors to their heritage says it all. Of course, I declined the suggestion. Instead, my response to Mr. Mucci, in the meantime, was the following:

I will tell you briefly why I am not barking up the wrong tree. […]

I understand your issue of We The Italians as an aggregator, as you mention. That said, you then run the risk of people assuming you are in agreement with the expressions and ideas articulated, unless, of course, you state clearly at the beginning of each piece that it is indeed a non–vetted, non–edited piece. Such a system, however, runs the risk of sending around erroneous information, which is the case here (Tamburri – Mucci correspondence).

My point here is basic. We simply cannot perpetuate romanticized, false narratives. What Basil Russo has written in this second historically dubious article is not an opinion piece, that is an entirely different ball of wax, as we say. He is passing off what he has written as chronicle, historical facts, all of which could not be further from the truth, as we shall see.

First, the 11 Italians were not all murdered by lynch- ing; several were killed by gunfire and then hung. This does not take away from the tragic and unjust aspect, to say the least. Nonetheless, it deviates from the facts. Indeed, the murder of Police Chief Hennessey remains unsolved today. Some speculate that he was indeed the victim of an assassination plot because he was siding with one of two factions fighting for control of the New Orleans seaport(1).

Second, what Harrison did in 1892 was by no means the first celebration of the Columbus voyage; there was one in 1792, organized by the WASP leaders of the very young US, those of the first and second generation of the Mayflower and other ships of that era; those of English origins who wanted, at that time, to celebrate the newly independent and distinctly separate nation of colonies from the old world, id est, England.

In 1892 Harrison wrote the following about the second celebration of the “the discovery of America”:

I, Benjamin Harrison, President of the United States of America, in pursuance of the aforesaid joint resolution, do hereby appoint Friday, October 21, 1892, the four hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America by Columbus, as a general holiday for the people of the United States (Emphasis added).

While we can extrapolate as much as we desire, there are two significant (read, meaningful) aspects here: First, Harrison calls it the «the four hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America by Columbus», emphasis here is on the act not the agent, the “discovery of America.” Second, Harrison called it a «general holiday for the people of the United States», not specifically for Italian immigrants or their progeny. Now, some may see me as anti-Columbus in stating as much. That would be mistaken. I have more faith in my general reader’s judgement; I do not see most engaging in any sort of supercilious act that would place them in that category of Italians, who never truly lived in the US yet pontificate on what it means to be an Italian American — or Italian Americans, those self– proclaimed defenders of history and culture but have yet to read enough for a basic knowledge, let alone proclaim themselves as experts in the field. Of course, one would also be mistaken, especially if one’s concerns are about defending a stance, rather than the more honest substantiation of a correct historical discourse and then using said history to defend a stance(2).

Further still, an act of rhetorical prestidigitation or a simple error in fact, the Columbus statue in NYC had nothing to do with the lynchings in New Orleans. The author’s statement, «That same year, Columbus Circle — with its towering 76-foot statue — was constructed at the foot of New York City’s Central Park», leaves the reader to believe that the statue was constructed in response to the 1891 lynchings. Nothing could be further from the truth. Talk of and fundraising for the statue began in 1889 (Anonymous 1889), and its design was finalized in 1890 by an Italian sculptor in Italy (Gaetano Russo), where it was constructed, and ultimately assembled in NYC (Anonymous 1890):

In the month of February, 1889, a movement was set on foot by Il Progresso Italo–Americano to erect on the fourth centenary of the discovery of America a monument to Christopher Columbus, giving it to the City of New York. A subscription was issued and a fund of $5,000 has been accumulated…The monument will be constructed in Italy by the fa- mous sculptor, Gaetano Russo, whose design was selected and approved by a committee nominated by the Italian Government.

[…]The proprietor Il Progresso Italo–Americano, Chevalier Carlo Barsotti, … has already commissioned the sculptor to begin his work…

Most of the money had been raised not by the nickels and dimes of the poor working class, but by the fundraising efforts of the likes of Barsotti and company. July 1889 and March 1890 are the two dates that provide us with indisputable information about the Columbus statue in New York City a good year before the tragic lynching of March 14, 1891. Chronology is obviously of the essence in this and any other history. Indeed, as one sees from this brief bibliography of newspaper articles, much of this information is readily available online and elsewhere, for which one need not even wander through the dusty shelves of any library.

* * *

Bad history of this sort leads to two detrimental ends. First, any specific argument based on erroneous narratives takes away from the overall question at hand, and hence said argument is sidelined by such infelicities. Second, in a general sense, to those who are correctly, and historically informed, such errant romanticized narratives simply make us look bad: that we are not aware of our own history.

In addition to my work in the editorial world of both Italian and Italian/American studies for the past four-plus decades, I have been engaged in scholarly research and writing in both journal venues and books. For any of us in the intellectual world of Italian/American studies, writings such as Mr. Russo’s can only, at best, set us back on our heels. At worst, it discredits any discourse any of us wish to bring forth, be that discourse scholarly or of a more popular nature.

For these last two reasons especially, the factually correct needs to be underscored when we receive such erroneous writings from the self-proclaimed who are not experts in the field. In this specific case, I urged We The Italians to follow the events as they unfolded, and not to promulgate writings, at times infelicitous in style and rhetoric as well, that create romanticized narratives based on erroneous statements that, ahimé, assuage any sense of inferiority complex of which Giovanni Schiavo discussed so adroitly in his writings.

If one wishes to promote Columbus, one should do so. But one needs to cite the scholars in the field, those who have writ- ten on the history of Columbus and all that surrounds him. While they might be critical about a number of issues of both Columbus and those around him, they nonetheless sing his praises for the initial act of the “the discovery of America” and demonstrate how he might remain a symbol. They include, Elise Bartosik–Vélez, Matthew Dennis, Felipe Fernández– Armesto, and Robert Royal. But it takes a skilled (someone who has worked in the world of the scholarly) interpreter of these writings and others to being forth a positive discussion of Columbus, as a symbol of «new possibilities, a new world, a new time, and the re–discovery of paradise», and argue, as Heike Paul suggests, that it was the «successive Spanish col- onists who supposedly destroyed this paradise and perverted Columbus’s vision. His journey to the “new world” thus en- capsulated “a brief moment of wonder followed by a long se- ries of disasters and disenchantments”»(51–52).

Notes

    1.  For more on the killings/lynchings, see Daniela Jäger. With regard to taking aides, Jäger writes: «According to rumors, David Hennessy … was going to testify for the Provenzanos in a new trial, scheduled for October 19, 1890. It was an open secret in the city that the police force favored the Provenzano group and that bribery played an important role» (164).

    1. Let us also acknowledge that if Harrison wanted to curry favor with  anyone, it was with the Italian government, which had threatened total severance of diplomatic ties with the United States after those responsible for the  lynchings were never prosecuted.

Works Cited

Anonymous 1889, Per Cristoforo Colombo. La lista XXIII, «Il Progresso Italo–Americano, lunedì–martedì 8–9 luglio, 1.

Anonymous 1890, In Memory of Columbus. A Description of the Monument to be Erected in this City, «New York Times», Sunday, January 20. 16.

Heike P., 2014, The Myths that Made America: An Introduction to American Studies, Transcript Verlag, Bielefeld.

Jäger D.G., 2002, The Worst ‘White Lynching’ in American History: Elites vs. Italians in New Orleans, 1891, «AAA: Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanistik», 27. 2: 161–179.

Anthony Julian Tamburri is the Dean of the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute (Queens College, CUNY) and Distinguished Professor of European Languages and Literatures. His research interests lie in literature, cinema, semiotics, interpretation theory, and cultural studies. He has divided his intellectual work evenly between Italian and Italian/American studies, authoring more than a dozen books and one hundred essays circa on both subject areas in English and Italian. He is also the editor of more than thirty volumes and special issues of journals. His most recent publications include: authored volumes: A Politics of [Self-] Omission: The Italian/American Challenge in a Post-George Floyd Age (2023); Re-reading Italian Americana: Specificities and Generalities on Literature and Criticism (2014); Re-viewing Italian Americana: Generalities and Specificities on Cinema (2011); Una semiotica dell’etnicità: nuove segnalature per la scrittura italiano/americana (2010); and Narrare altrove: diverse segnalature letterarie (2007); co-edited volumes: The Cultures of Italian Migration: Diverse Trajectories and Discrete Perspectives (2011); Mediated Ethnicity: New Italian-American Cinema (2010); and Italian Americans in the Third Millennium (2009).