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Coming of Age on the Streets of Italian New York

by ADAM CHIMIENTI

With all the recent attention paid to the civil rights movement of the sixties, the wisdom of our elders has taken on a new meaning for activists and academics today. Last week, the celebrated Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow) told her many Facebook followers it was time to get out of the narrow lane of activism, to see the bigger picture and connect the key issues of our time. She was moved to write this after reflecting on the anniversary of the March on Washington and her singular focus on incarceration within the United States. I am sure she is not alone in this regard.

This past month, there were many opportunities to reflect on the words, actions, and careers of important historical figures such as the only remaining speaker from the 1963 March, Representative John Lewis of Georgia. We saw profile pieces of Bayard Rustin, the lead organizer of the march alongside A. Philip Randolph, in various news outlets and calls that the new civil rights movement—the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender equality movement—needed leaders as courageous and impassioned today. There were also discussions about the problematic approach to women leaders in the movement and implications of the lessons to be learned today about respect and true equality.

In times like these, we see the importance of anniversaries and the remembrance of history. Yet, within the same week, we also bristle at the cool calculation and sheer hypocrisy of modern liberal US politicians such as President Obama, John Kerry, Susan Rice, Nancy Pelosi, and Eric Holder pushing for yet another war with highly suspect motivations. These Democrats are highly regarded for their achievements and backgrounds simultaneously. In other words, many have claimed that they are living embodiments of progress in a United States that had moved beyond race and gender issues. Of course, such claims are highly dubious and the problems that the US faces today can be traced to the systemic and racist imperialism of Washington and Wall Street.

It does beg the question: Where we would be without all those small pockets of resisters, working for equality, transparency and peace throughout the long nights, drawing the connections in their minds and then out in the streets? Yes, times are bad today but there have been enormous strides made in pooling people from many different backgrounds, locations and ideologies together to defy injustice. Unfortunately, single-issue and identity politics has continued to hamper the formation of more profound movements for which so many yearn.

The Making of a Radical Public Intellectual

Perhaps it is an appropriate time to turn (or return) to a radical thinker who is not as well known amongst younger generations as he should be. Dr. Michael Parenti has inspired countless students around the world. By covering a broad array of political topics, both international and domestic, he has woven important narratives about our modern world. He has a natural gift for conveying messages of strength and unity with eloquence and humility. It is all too rare to have such a figure turn 80 years old and continue to reach out to new and old audiences, employing a consistent disregard for the powerful and a passion for the people.9781599540580_p0_v2_s260x420

Parenti came of age in a special time and place for movements of social justice. His work can be better understood by looking at his background and, thankfully, as the latest volume in the VIA Folios series comes the author’s memoirs,Waiting for Yesterday: Pages from a Street Kid’s Life (New York: Bordighera Press, 2013)It provides us with a look at Parenti’s younger days in New York City’s Italian Harlem. The reader will find intriguing and amusing tales of, among many other topics, wise grandmother midwives, street games and nicknames, the icemen of Manhattan, the misinterpreted role of Italians in both World Wars, and a confident rebuttal to silly stereotypes of Italian American culture and celebrity. The connections Parenti draws within the anecdotes of his earliest days come across as strong as those he has drawn throughout his celebrated career opposing empire, racism, organized religion and countless other topics.

The Moral and the Relative

While I had read at some point that Parenti was from New York City and I understood the name was Italian, I never really paid too much attention nor was too interested in such personal connections (unlike my father, who always takes note of success or renown among his fellow Italian Americans). If anything, I sensed that most who trace their ancestry back to Italy tended toward conservative political stances that I couldn’t understand, nor tolerate.  I was often disturbed by my kind’s eagerness to forget or misinterpret the struggles their own parents or ancestors endured when they arrived in the New World. Yet, after studying some Italian while living in Rome, I recalled Mr. Parenti’s work and contemplated its significance to me as an Italian American from New York. It was also then that I realized that his surname actually translates to relative or related, befitting due to his rare gifts of communication.

I most recently rediscovered the author after a conversation with a dear professor from my Queens College days. Gerald Meyer, who is a leading scholar on Italian Americans in New York City, had encouraged me to delve into the world of my Italian America heritage at a critical point in my life. He recently pointed out to me that Michael Parenti was actually born and raised on the same streets as both my parents and nearly all my extended family and that he had written a new book about the neighborhood.  I was eager to hear this world-renowned scholar’s tribute to the New York City that I always wished I knew better: that gritty but lively neighborhood where there were cousins, friends, fruit vendors, gangs and excitement packed on every block. It was a world of tenement buildings and projects where the Southern Italian language and culture, that of my own blood, was everywhere.

From New York Streets to the World At Large

Parenti’s memoir, an engaging read at 155 pages, is evocative of a time and era that have historical significance but are often reduced to caricature and even disparaged. The work is full of interesting information that I think many readers, not only Italian Americans, would find familiar, heartwarming, and enlightening. For those who are unfamiliar with the culture beyond the stereotype, the book provides a grasp of US history that is as relevant now as ever. The street smart Parenti is certainly one of the more astute observers on the political scene in the US, critical of the power that is wielded by greedy and morally bankrupt business and government elites. Born in 1933, he grew up in a small enclave of migrants around East 118th Street in northern Manhattan. His mother, however, was considered an outsider, since her family was from Calabria, the southernmost region of the boot on the Tyrrhenean side. The Calabrian immigrants at that time lived in another enclave mere blocks away in East Harlem, but in those days, for those folks, it was a world away.

Parenti reminds us that most Italian immigrants that arrived in the so-called last great wave would not likely have identified as Italian but rather from the region or the city from which they came. The term paesani, we learn, was not actually meant to refer to countrymen or fellow Italians; rather it was meant by the migrants to refer to those from the same city or town in the homeland. This explains why it seemed problematic when Michael’s father went on to marry an “alien” from outside the region his family knew and understood.

Parenti points out that only after facing harsh discrimination did many of these migrants warm to the notion that they were all somehow “Italian” and, oddly enough, became nationalists half a world away. In the US, these men and women were unwelcome outside of their communities despite their hard work and contributions. There were also implications of criminality, violence and an uncivilized nature that dominated media depictions (and still do to a certain extent), effectively stigmatizing the culture of the migrants in both the eyes of their impressionable children and the rest of society. This was evident in the case of the Italian radicals, Sacco and Vanzetti, who were unfairly tried and executed in the 1920s. For many of these migrants, the US was unwelcome in their hearts and they longed for their home across the Atlantic. The author describes how the older Italian migrants used to belt out curses in their distinctive accents, such as mannaggia l’America or Damn America! Life in Southern Italy was hard but for these men and women, there was a sense of belonging that many would never seem to find in their adopted New York.

The common cause with which some of these migrants would identify stretched beyond the narrow confines of their culture. Parenti frequently emphasizes the compassion and commiseration between the different races in the US. He also devotes several informative pages to the US Congressional representative from his district, Vito Marcantonio and the renowned New York City educator Leonard Covello. The effects of marginalization were rather evident on the streets of Harlem and, consequently, these two community leaders were devoted to justice for all.

For Vito Marcantonio, the issue of justice revolved around economics but also consistent anti-war and anti-imperialist stances. For example, Marcantonio fought for the rights of his Puerto Rican constituency in New York and in the Caribbean, despite charges of disloyalty from his fellow Italian Americans. Unfortunately, the African American labor organizer A. Philip Randolph was actually reluctant to work with Marc (as he was affectionately known) because he refused to shun Communist Party members who asked for his support and assistance.[1] In acceding to these requests, the New York City congressman was wrongly depicted as a communist himself.  Then, as today, ideology hobbled the efforts to build unity and overcome racial and class-based oppression, even among the most determined and effective leaders and activists.

For Marcantonio, and similarly for Parenti throughout his career, experiences of racism and prejudice shaped their thinking processes and encouraged an uncompromising radical posture. In Marcantonio’s case, he was often shunned and/or targeted by the centers of political power while beloved by his own people, i.e. the Italian, Puerto Rican, and African Americans living in his crowded district. Parenti´s career as an academic has also been hampered by marginalization. In an interview in 2012, he explained that he was ¨deprived of a regular university position because of my activism and iconoclastic writings¨ and therefore devoted his life to being a public intellectual.[2] In his memoirs, he reflects on how the community he grew up in has largely vanished over the years. The Italian American identity that defined his upbringing had gradually weakened. Meanwhile, Parenti himself frequently “looked beyond the horizon” and the old neighborhood. It seems he countered the loss of his authentic culture by traveling throughout the country, writing and lecturing extensively in the name of speaking truth to power, and forging the connections and relationships that define his career.

While much of our cultural heritage either remains in the memories of the elders or has vanished with the departed, it is increasingly incumbent on younger generations to frequently reflect upon our history. I would agree with the caveat added by the late great Howard Zinn that our radical and popular history is most riveting. As Michelle Alexander recently noted, we need to bring the most relevant aspects of this history into our own broader understanding and remind others of the meaningful connections. It is no small consolation that Michael Parenti is still willing and able to remind us of such lessons, providing us with the essential contexts. That he does so with humor, intelligence, and style is all the more reason to celebrate.

Adam Chimienti is a teacher and a doctoral student originally from New York. He can be reached at ajchimienti@gmail.com.

Notes

[1] A prime example of this was when Vito Marcantonio sponsored a bill for a permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee in 1943 because of the Communist taint that Marcantonio had acquired. For more see Lisa Phillips, A Renegade Union: Interracial Organizing and Labor Radicalism, (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 77-84.

[2] Carl Boggs, “Reflections on Politics and Academia: An Interview with Michael Parenti,” New Political Science, Vol 34:2, 1 June 2012.

Adam Chimienti is a teacher and a doctoral student originally from New York. He can be reached at ajchimienti@gmail.com.

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