Samuele F. S. Pardini. In the Name of the Mother: Italian Americans, African Americans and Modernity from Booker T. Washington to Bruce Springsteen. Dartmouth College Press, 2017.
If there is one thing that we learned from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, it is that the way others see or do not see us (the latter being a way of seeing too) is just as, if not more important than the way we define ourselves. We are never what and who we think we are. (2)
In this simple yet powerful statement, Samuele Pardini sets out his aim to explore the historical as well as cultural processes of identity formation by considering creative encounters between Italian Americans and African Americans. In an ambitious interdisciplinary examination of film, poetry, fiction, and popular music, which covers numerous writers, directors, and musicians spanning the twentieth century, the author considers the different ways in which writers and artists fed off one another in their shared condition of non-whiteness to subvert and destabilize the foundations of American modernity. Indeed, as much as this book is about Italian Americans and African Americans, it is also a critical examination of the hegemonic workings of whiteness, a central pillar in the architecture of American modernity. The book centres on the “invisible blackness” of Italian Americans, which creates a mutuality and shared status, but importantly, converges in the figure of the proletarian Italian mother, in whom Pardini finds the most ardent challenge to the restrictions of American whiteness.
In the Name of the Mother thus seeks to undermine the limiting framework that simply places blackness in direct opposition to whiteness, a discourse that has dominated the critique of American modernity’s exclusionary power. In order to complicate this picture, Pardini draws on the concept of the Italian American’s “invisible blackness,” a trait that reflects the racial, ethnic, and class-based complexity of America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but that also provides an alternative challenge to the assimilative power of American modernity. For African American male writers in particular, this “invisible blackness” allowed them to unsettle “the all-inclusive notion of white ethnicity and Eurocentrism” and, at the same time, to “enact representational strategies of appropriation and subversion in order to build a version of the black male self during Jim Crow that would have been otherwise unavailable” (80-81). Pardini explores this concept through the work of African American writers who invest in Italian Americans to deconstruct the intertwined forces of American modernity and whiteness.
In James Weldon Johnson’s The Biography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) for instance, the author considers the protagonist’s “Italian-looking complexion” to underline his ambiguous racial status but also to equate Italians with non-whiteness (84). Thus, black and Italian Americans share a non-white status, but importantly the “invisible blackness” of Italian Americans allows black writers the possibility to cross racial and cultural terrain without the limiting effects of a colour-based definition of race. When looking at the main character of Nick Romano in Willard Motley’s Knock on Any Door (1947)—described as “a black man in Italian guise”—Pardini goes on to examine how his unclear racial status allows him the capital to reject white respectability and, thus, integration on the terms of the dominant white hegemony (120). The author goes even further in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956). Far from being “a raceless novel,” Pardini argues persuasively that Baldwin’s use of the Italian bartender Giovanni represents “a way to question the whiteness of Christian liberal humanism and its organic interdependence with a capitalist system of social relations, beginning with two of its interconnected pillars, heterosexuality and masculinity” (126). Thus, what this “invisible blackness” allows is a hybridity of identity that transcends the polarizing identity politics of traditional racial discourse.
In the final chapter, entitled “The Dago and the Darky,” the author delves into the field of popular music by exploring the relationships of celebrated icons Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr, and that of Bruce Springsteen with his saxophonist Clarence Clemons. These men, he argues, consciously orchestrated their performances to unpick American whiteness and demonstrate the mutuality of non-whiteness shared by Italian and African Americans. Pardini examines some fascinating and underappreciated writings by Sinatra in which, for example, he identified the ways Italian and African Americans shared their experiences on non-whiteness and reminded his readers that “everybody in the United States is a foreigner” (224). This mutuality manifested itself in the strong friendship with Davis, vividly represented in the duo’s live performance of “Me and My Shadow” on The Frank Sinatra Show in 1958 (228). Pardini explores live performance again when it comes to the manner in which Clemons was often presented to audiences during Springsteen’s live shows, which is interpreted as an expression of “The Boss’s” recognition of the crucial role of blackness in American life and culture. Consequently, this reciprocity is not simply something that existed within the realm of literary works but was also performed on stage and on the television screens in front of millions of Americans.
Pardini’s focus on Springsteen is motivated not only by his status as an artist but importantly by his Italian descent, represented by his Italian mother. And here is revealed the book’s central focus on the role of the Italian proletarian mother, who Pardini argues stood in strongest contrast to the codes of whiteness. Beginning with Booker T. Washington’s intriguing travels to Southern Italy in The Man Farthest Down (1912) (which also subverts the traditional immigration narrative of east to west and foregrounds the transatlantic), in which the author discovers that it is Sicilian women, not men, that are “farthest down,” and also considering characters such as Fortunata Mancuso in the 2006 movie Nuovomondo (Golden Door in the US), Pardini suggests that it was Italian mothers who provided the sternest means of challenging and undoing the interrelated structures of patriarchal modernity. This is in contrast to Italian American men, such as the characters of Dominic in Michael DeCapite’s novel Maria (1943) or even Michael Corleone in the movie The Godfather: Part II, who either willingly or by pressure attempt to divest themselves of their Italianness in the oppressive narrative of assimilation into the elusive “melting pot.” Indeed, the iconic figure of the Italian gangster is unpicked to present Michael Corleone’s character in opposition to that of his father, Vito, who Pardini defines as a “mother-based gangster” (138).
This resistance to American modernity finds its strongest expression through the “Maria” trope in Italian American literature, the motherly figure who “exposes, resists, and subverts the conceptual foundations and material conditions of twentieth-century America” (174). Indeed, from the rejection of assimilation on the terms of patriarchal whiteness embodied by Fortunata Mancuso, to the liberty of thought expressed by women in the works of John Fante and DeCapite, but also represented in Sterling Brown’s “Harlem Happiness” (1935) and the works of many others, the Italian American mother highlights the possibilities of an alternative modernity which is multi-ethnic, inclusive, and working-class (196-97). She is, in other words, the mother-based antidote to the hegemony of the white and “father-centred nation” (9). The result of her gender-based rejection of whiteness, utilitarian Protestantism, and patriarchy, is for Pardini the exclusion of the Italian American novel from the national literary canon.
In many ways In the Name of the Mother is a powerful work that unsettles a number of scholarly, literary, cultural, and racial conventions. Firstly, Pardini carefully and explicitly unmasks a working-class and multi-ethnic heroine that turns American modernity on its head and proposes a radical and optimistic alternative. Secondly, the author persuades with his sensitive but critical handling of various forms of texts, from famous to lesser known writers, popular film and music. While for some the arbitrary character of the discussed texts, writers, and singers may be problematic, I would argue they represent opportunities for scholars of African American and Italian American history and culture to further destabilize the binarism of racial discourse by exploring not only deconstructions of whiteness but constructions of non-whiteness and by appreciating the complex hybridity of American culture. As Pardini claims at the start, it is this endeavour which will helps us to “better understand ourselves and, consequently, gain a deeper understanding of the country we inhabit and the world around us” (19). Importantly, however, it is also worth noting that the book is extremely timely. As Ta-Nehisi Coates recently argued in his description of Donald Trump as “America’s first white President,” we are at a time when distinct and problematic notions of whiteness are more explicitly aligned with mainstream conceptions of American identity. It is in this context that In the Name of the Mother is both a subversive and extremely welcome work.
Ta-Nehisi Coates. “The First White President: the foundation of Donald Trump’s presidency is the negation of Barack Obama’s legacy.” The Atlantic, Oct. 2017, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/10/the-first-white-president-ta-nehisi-coates/537909/. Accessed 12 Feb. 2019.
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