Beyond the Basement: A Manifesto for Italian American Studies

by Fred Gardaphé

When Niccolò Machiavelli penned his masterpiece, The Prince, Italy was a land divided and besieged by many foreign forces. In his last chapter, "An Exhortation to free Italy from the Hands of the Barbarians," he calls for new weapons and formations to be used in warding off intruders and to prepare for new leadership of Italy. In many ways, the current state of Italian American culture is in similar straights. We need new tools and new alliances to bring a sense of unification to our culture so that we can ward off the siege of total assimilation.

A culture is based on shared traditions created over time which are reenacted regularly so that they become rituals. These traditions are transmitted through words and actions. In America, we often speak of Italian Americans having two languages, but do we have two cultures? What happened when Italian immigrant culture shifted from dialects into English is the work of a life time to figure out. The question we face today is what do we need to do to preserve a cultural identity, one that will not only work for us today, but one that will insure that our culture will persevere over time.

But before we can answer that question, we need to ask just what is it that needs to be preserved: our language, our folk traditions, our history? We then need to determine just where this should be preserved: in our homes, our churches, our schools, our cultural centers? And finally how should we preserve these: through language courses for our children, Italian/American programs in our grade schools, high schools and colleges, or a greater Italian/American presence in our mainstream institutions?

For many years, Italian/American culture has been preserved in the homes, and over the years, more likely than not, in the basement, where grandpa made wine, where grandma had a second kitchen, and now where we store our material legacies and memories. Outside celebrations such as religious feste became the most important public presentation of Italian American culture, but these annual events were never frequent enough to protect Italian American culture from the regular mass media bombardment of negative stereotypes.

The earliest Italian American organizations were mutual benefit societies, which helped workers and their families get through tough financial times. As Italian Americans improved their economic standing in the United States, those mutual aid societies gave way to insurance clubs and civic organizations that were preoccupied with fighting defamation. And while the efforts have, for the most part, paid off, Italian Americans have fallen far behind in other areas.

Where Italian Americans have never organized as a cultural group is in the mainstream institutions of education and government. The public programs that might have taught Italian Americans the value of their own culture and subsequently fortified future generations, the public programs that would have challenged media-made impressions, were never created. We have kept our heads in our basements where Italian American culture is safe inside family celebrations.

Now is the time to move beyond the basements of yesterday and out into the streets of today. The romance and tragedy of early 20th century immigration can no longer serve as models for identity. The key to creating a meaningful sense of Italian/American culture that means something to today’s youth is to first insure that they have access to histories, of their families and of their communities, then we must provide them with historical and contemporary models in the areas of arts, business, and education, that they can study, emulate and transcend. We have created scholarships for higher education, but we have done little to help those applicants understand what it means to be Italian American once they enter those institutions.

There are projects underway across the country to address these issues. The Italian American Cultural Foundation Inc., of Cleveland, Ohio, is a not-for-profit corporation which purchases books by and about Italian Americans and donates them to high school and college libraries. Students are encouraged to read a book and respond with book reports or essays. The IACF has also recently raised the funds to endow a program in Italian American Studies at John Carroll University in the name of Cleveland’s Archbishop Pilla. UNICO has successfully raised endowments for chairs in Italian history at the University of Connecticut, Seton Hall and with the help of OSIA at California State University at Long Beach.

These are the type of steps that we need to take at local and national levels, and they need to be shaped by raising questions and finding the resources to answer those questions. We need to unite our leaders in all areas, perhaps even have a national meeting to set an agenda and create a Risorgimento of Italian American culture. With the use of new technology, this need not be difficult. This action is important to everyone’s cultural survival. We can’t sit back and let the memories of immigrants and the portrayals of our culture by outsiders continue to define our culture.