On celebrating all people


Published: 10/9/2020 2:42:37 PM

I want to express my gratitude to Italian Americans of Barre. Your rich and painful legacy as quarry workers and monument makers was chronicled through many exhibits at the Granite Museum, which I visited for the first time last week.

Thank you to the great-great-grandpapas of the 1870s who — like so many immigrants — took a chance in a strange new world. I learned that many Italians came from very socialist regions in Italy, and were skilled and experienced organizers. You were organized enough to support union activities that demanded better wages and work conditions. You organized around unions and inspired us to see beyond unionizing in a capitalist mode. You reimagined socialism, with strategies for more fair distribution of community resources and wealth. I had forgotten that Sacco and Venzetti are your people and shaped the white American experience of Italians, in Barre.

For better, and for worse?

For better, in that Barre socialists supported the early mill strikes in Lowell, Mass., that “gave workers the weekend.” Children of the Massachusetts strikers were transported to safer climes of Barre, Vermont during the most violent of those times.

For worse. Italians were not considered white people through the 1920s, so rocking the boat with socialist ideas wasn’t such a good thing. Especially in a state that enthusiastically embraced eugenics, and considered Southern Europeans racially inferior. Especially where bosses were known to treat workers badly, particularly when those workers were not simply from a different class but considered a different race.

In 1892, on the 400th anniversary of the Christoper Columbus “discovering” America, President Benjamin Harrison declared Columbus Day a one-time national celebration. It was an apology — an offer of reparations of sorts — for a white mob in New Orleans lynching 11 Italian immigrants. Reparations.

Like what BLM asks for George FLoyd.

That lynching incident had brought international rebuke.

Like George Floyd’s death.

“The proclamation a was a part of a wider effort after the lynching incident to placate Italy and ease diplomatic tensions over Italy” (“How the Italians Became White,” New York Times, Oct. 12, 2019)

Italian Americans, who had proudly celebrated their heritage through Columbus Day in New York City from as early as 1866, used that one-time holiday to push for a national holiday, which became an action in 1907.

Forty one years later.

Just as MLK Day became a national holiday in 1988, although it was first proposed in 1968 Immediately after King was assassinated.

Twenty years later.

So as we roll through October, and Indigenous People’s day lies over the horizon (with echoes of Columbus Day in its wake) I appreciate the education that I received on Italian-Americans in Vermont. I understand more deeply why Italian-Americans, having had to fight their way to full citizenship through reality of lynchings, unfair trials and racial profiling would have feelings about losing a day of tribute. I can see that Columbus Day was that day.

As the MLK holiday tried to be for Black people and as “Juneteenth” is becoming.

The young people have a term: “intersectionality.” It describes complex ways discrimination overlaps across various issues (race/class/sex/gender). I was struck by the way Italian-Americans have become white. It required compromises; parents pushing their American born children away from Italian culture and refusing to teach their children Italian. Adopting “Nordic white” beauty standards, and enduring “jokes” about swarthy complexions, hairy bodies, buxom shapes.

Like Black people have done.

I will enthusiastically support educating all on the legacies offered us by various ethnic groups. And if Italian Americans want an Italian-American Day, perhaps the birthday of Amerigo Vespucci would be a good date. March 9. I appreciate celebrating all people, but especially people whose histories of struggle and oppression resonate so clearly with my own.

Opeyemi Parham, M.D., is an African-American descendant of enslaved peoples, alive and thriving on unceded Abenaki lands in Vermont.

Greenfield Recorder

14 Hope Street
Greenfield, MA 01302-1367
Phone: (413) 772-0261
Fax: (413) 772-2906


Copyright © 2020 by Newspapers of Massachusetts, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy