History 297 Literature Review

Literature Review: Challenges Faced by Italian Americans in Adapting to American Society During the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century

Louise DeSalvo provides a powerful portrayal of her Italian immigrant heritage, “My father considers his past a burden, an obstacle that he overcame that is unconnected to whom he has chosen to become: an American,” to display the obstacles Italian Americans faced to be a part of American society during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. [1] Challenges creating a struggle for Italian Americans in adapting to American Society have been forced upon Italian Immigrants since their arrival. Italian American historiography concerning these challenges has changed over time to include more in depth concepts such as whiteness, transnationalism, identity, race and cultural barriers in later texts during the late 90’s. However, literature has only recently examined the relation of these broader themes to include how they provided challenges for Italian Americans in adapting to American society. Furthermore, historians have only recently addressed in depth themes that tie together to provide a clearer understanding of the challenges faced by Italian Americans when adapting to life in American society during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The concept of whiteness is the largest and most common theme in the field of Italian immigration. The concept of whiteness is an overarching challenge involving issues regarding race and color to arise for Italian Americans. Thomas Guglielmo examines this concept of whiteness in his book White on Arrival to show how whiteness constructed Italian Americans identity and race, as well as provided cultural barriers for Italian Americans within society. [2] He defines whiteness as a concept or set of standards that Americans created for immigrants to identify with to have acceptance within American society.[3] This concept of whiteness enforces that in order for Italians to be accepted into society they must identify as white, which requires them to get rid of their Italian culture and focus on white culture. Guglielmo shows how whiteness has created a divide between the distinction of color and race. He argues that Italians arrived white, but American society did not see them as white because they were immigrants.[4] Guglielmo states, “Italians are the color white and are racially Italian,”[5] which shows how Italian Americans were racialized upon arrival in order to meet American societies standards of whiteness. Being racialized as non-white created challenges for Italian Americans in developing their own identity outside of the whiteness society wanted Italians to become.

Thomas Guglielmo provides an in depth understanding of how whiteness affected how Italians developed their identity in America, however there are two shortcomings in his work. The first is that Guglielmo focuses solely on comparing Italian Immigrants to African American’s as being inferior to whites. This one sided comparison limits understanding if Italian Immigrants were also compared to other immigrant groups in terms of being inferior to whites. He should have included a comparison of Italian immigrants to other white immigrants such as Irish or Germans to provide an understanding of the relationship between Italian immigrants and white immigrant groups. This relationship can show similarities and differences of how different white immigrant groups were shaped by this concept of whiteness. The second shortcoming is how Guglielmo only focuses on Italian Americans in Chicago and not as a whole group in America. The focus on Italian Americans in Chicago limits the understanding of challenges faced by Italian immigrants as a whole group within the United States, because the focus is solely on those within Chicago. By looking at challenges faced by Italian Americans throughout the United States we develop a stronger image of how they were affected culturally as immigrants.

Thomas Guglielmo’s argument connects how whiteness and the distinction of race vs. color constructed the development of Italian Americans identity. Italian Americans were faced with this “moral choice”[6] of keeping their Italian culture or getting rid of it in order to be accepted by American society. It was a constant struggle for them to decide if they should keep their American identity or Italian identity because of American’s idealistic whiteness values. Are Italians White by Jennifer Guglielmo and Salvatore Salerno explores the connection of whiteness and the challenges it has brought in shaping Italian Americans identity in American society.[7] The discussion of why Italian Americans desired to conform to the concept of whiteness is the theme within these collections of essays. Jennifer Guglielmo and Salvatore Salerno discuss how the challenges forced by this concept of whiteness made conforming to it a desire for Italian Americans because of the struggles they were facing. They show the racism as, “Italians were not always white, and the loss of this memory is one of the tragedies of racism in American,” which depicts how Italian Americans color and race during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was an obstacle to overcome. [8] Jennifer Guglielmo and Salvatore Salerno depict that constant criticism of the Italian race as being inferior pushed Italians to conform to and identify as American societies idealistic white in order to further themselves through the pain and suffering of constant racism.

Jennifer Guglielmo and Salvatore Salerno’s Are Italian’s White contributes to the field by showing how the racial challenges from the concept of whiteness pushed Italian Americans to conform to American society. However, these scholars do not address the relationships of experiences faced by Italian Americans and other immigrant groups who share this struggle of identifying as white. Immigrant groups who share the color white with Italians include Irish and Germans. Historians fail to incorporate a comparison of similar ethnic groups and how their experiences may relate in dealing with the concept of whiteness.

Peter G. Vellon’s book A Great Conspiracy Against Our Race discusses how the racism the concept of whiteness brought created challenges for Italian Americans in developing their identity in this dominant white culture society.[9] By examining the Italian Immigrant Press, Vellon displays the challenges created by the racism of this concept of whiteness as Italians being, “unintelligent due to lack of literacy in Italy, lazy workers, and violent due to their race.”[10] He also shows how being seen as racially “dark white” created this idealistic approach that in order to assimilate into American society Italians had to become white. [11] This displays how Italians were racially seen as unintelligent because of their lack of literacy in Italy, violent due to racial stereotype of Italians as criminals, and lazy because they are seen as using violence in strikes to get what they want. These racial views toward Italians forced their Italian American identity to be different than their actual identity. By forcing Italian Americans to choose being white or Italian even though they are the color white, blurred their distinction of who they were racially and what their identity was in American society.

Peter Vellon’s A Great Conspiracy Against Our Race focus on how the Italian Immigrant Press addresses the challenges created over time by the concept of whiteness. However, Vellon ends his examination of the Italian Immigrant Press in 1920 even though immigration legislation played a huge role in terms of creating challenges for Italian Americans 1920’s. By not focusing on Italian Immigrant Press during the 1920’s we see a lack of examining how whiteness affected Italian immigration into the United States and how it created racism and even more challenges because Italians were not seen as white.

The overarching theme of whiteness within Italian American historiography is connected to the theme of identity because of how whiteness shapes Italian Americans identity. However, identity as itself is a huge theme mentioned within Italian American literature because of how it provided challenges of adapting to American society for Italians. Also the theme of identity discusses transnationalistic approaches in understanding the challenges faced by Italian Americans as well as the constant battle between the American and Italian identity. Furthermore, Thomas Guglielmo, Jennifer Guglielmo, Salvatore Salerno and Vellon use this overarching theme of whiteness to show how it constructed challenges for Italian Americans in developing their own identity through this constant battle of what their race and color was.

From Sicily to Elizabeth Street by Donna R. Gabaccia discusses the challenges faced by Italian Americans that shaped their identity from transnationalistic approach.[12] Gabaccia examines the relationship of environment and human social behavior in how it created challenges for Italian Americans when adapting to American society. She does this by comparing housing and social life of Sicilians in Sicily to those who immigrated into America. By looking at Sicily from a transnationalistic approach and at migration studies you will see that it was primarily a rural, agricultural based town rather where New York was industrial based and overly crowded. She shows how the crowdedness of New York City created the stereotype of criminality as well as caused family breakdown and social disorganization for Italian Americans. Grouped houses based on race made it hard for Italian Americans to develop a sense of identity because of being forced to associate only with others within their race. Since Italians were housed in close quarters this stereotype of criminality grew because of housing being close to other groups such as the Irish and African Americans. By being forced to live in housing that is constricted upon race created a struggle for Italian Americans to develop an identity outside of being Italian.

Donna R. Gabaccia contributes to the field through her transnationalistic approach by focusing on living for Italian Americans to show the social challenges faced within Italian American communities. However, Gabaccia lacks examination of the role racism and the concept of whiteness had on Italian Immigrant identities. Since Gabaccia focuses on the social challenges faced within the change of housing for Sicilian immigrants, her lack in discussing racism and concept of whiteness takes away from understanding the difficulties faced by Italian immigrants within their communities. Gabaccia should have examined how racism and whiteness shaped Italians identity within their living communities in order to provide a more in depth understanding of each challenge Italian Americans faced.

Peter Vellon’s A Great Conspiracy Against Our Race discusses both the concept of whiteness and the challenges faced by Italian Americans when constructing their identity.[13] Vellon states, “Italians were identified as being savage and dark,”[14] to describe the harsh identity Americans saw Italians as. The Italian Immigrant Press newspapers were often written to show how Italians were not African American because American society portrayed them as being inferior to whites. This is similar comparison to how Americans portray African Americans as inferior due to their color. By considering Italians as “dark white”[15] allowed Italian Americans to racially be associated with African Americans, which affected their development of their own identity. Italian Americans were often seen as poor laborers who used violence through strikes to get what they wanted. Italians were often seen as criminals because of the development of the mafia, which created Italian American identity as being violent criminals. Italians uses the immigrant press to reshape their identity as being able to fit into society and were more than what Americans considered them to be such as savage criminals and lazy laborers. Furthermore, examining the challenges faced by Italian Americans is a significant part of research for historians because those difficulties constructed Italian Americans identity.

The overarching focus on the cultural barriers faced by Italian Americans during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century is a another big theme within Italian American literature. The focus within these cultural barriers is on how communities and stereotypes provided challenges for Italian Americans in adapting to society. These cultural challenges are created from the concept of whiteness set forth by American society and how it constructed race and identity for Italian Americans. The anti-Italianism was due to the large-scale immigration of Italians from southern Italy and Sicily. Italian immigrants were viewed as foreigners with lack of education and literacy that competed with earlier immigrant groups for low paying jobs. Thus creating hostility towards Italian immigrants who immigrated during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.[16] Italians were seen as criminals who used violence for achievement in American society. Thomas Guglielmo’s White on Arrival examines the cultural stereotype involving the mafia portraying Italian Americans as criminals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.[17] Al Capone, who was of Italian heritage created this public imagination that all Italians were in the mafia. Guglielmo discusses how Capone mass scale crimes in cities such as Chicago and New York influenced the way Americans saw Italians. Italians were seen as “ruthless and violent, these men are nonetheless often seen to maintain their own personal brand of honor and decency.”[18] This shows how Italians were seen as savages within American society because of one group that accounted for a small percentage of all Italian Immigrants from southern Italy and Sicily in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The stigma type criminals such as Al Capone set forth created an unwanted cultural identity for Italian Americans, which has carried into modern society. Being stereotyped as criminals influenced how society acted towards Italian Americans as well as dictated the jobs and standard of living they received in American society.

The standard of living in Italian communities created cultural barriers for Italian Americans in constructing their identity. Gardaphe’s Italian Signs, American Streets discusses how solely Italian ethnic communities created challenges for Italian Americans in developing their identity. Ethnic communities such as “Little Italy” were isolated, forcing Italians to only associate with others who were of Italian heritage.[19] This isolation made it difficult for Italians to break out and develop their own American identity outside of their Italian identity. Italian Americans were seen culturally as ignorant of the law and how to act in society because most were illiterate due to lack of formal education in southern Italy and Sicily. However, by being isolated with only other Italians made it hard for Italian Americans to develop the skills such as literacy to adapt into American Society.

Gardaphe contributes to the field by providing a powerful depiction of the isolation created through Italian ethnic communities. Since Gardaphe grew up in “Little Italy” his connection adds to the field because of his realistic perspective on the cultural barriers within Italian communities. However, Gardaphe primarily focuses on the isolation and lack of benefits within Italian communities. He should have discusses cultural barriers such as, racism as well as how Italians identity was shaped within these isolated communities. This discussion would have given a well-rounded understanding of the challenges faced by Italian Americans within these ethnic communities. By looking at the relationships of cultural barriers within isolated Italian communities and their affects on Italian Americans lives would have strengthened Gardaphe’s argument on how Italian ethnic communities were isolated.

The Italians of Greenwich Village by Donald Tricarico examines the ethnic neighborhood of Greenwich Village in New York City, which is said to be “an artifact of Italian immigrant experience.” [20] Greenwich village is another artifact of an Italian community that was sufficed to complete isolation. Tricarico examines how ethnic communities made it hard to break out of cultural stereotypes of which for Italians involved being seen as uneducated, lazy, and violent criminals who used this to achieve what they wanted. Ethnic communities also made it hard for Italian Americans to receive jobs because they were always grouped together instead of being seen as separate identities. This overarching concept of whiteness created cultural barriers such as racist stereotypes and isolated communities because of this idealism that must Italians identify with white culture in order to fit into American society. Furthermore, the cultural barriers set forth by the concept of whiteness created hardships for Italian Americans to overcome in order to develop their own identity that allowed them to fit into American society.

Tricarico contributes to the field with his depiction of Greenwich Village as a historical artifact for Italian American immigrants. However, Tricarico limited examination of the cultural barriers within ethnic communities by focusing solely on Greenwich Village. This focus is on one community and should have at least included a comparison to Italian ethnic communities in other large cities such as, Chicago or even in rural cities. If scholars compared Greenwich Village to other Italian ethnic communities across the United States there would be a greater understanding of the cultural barriers faced by Italian Americans.

In conclusion, Italian American literature reflects on the relationship of the common themes of whiteness, identity, race, transnationalism, class, and cultural barriers to display a clearer understanding of the hardships faced by Italian Americans during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These themes display a relationship in which each one connects or influences the other. Italian American historiography has grown since the late 1970’s into present day as a field to incorporate a better explanation of these themes and how their relationships created challenges for Italian Americans in adapting to American society. Furthermore, historiography has only recently addressed in depth themes that tie together to provide a clearer understanding of the challenges faced by Italian Americans when adapting to life in American society during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

 

Bibliography

Briggs, John W. An Italian Passage: Immigrants to Three American Cities, 1890-1930.

New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978.

 

Eula, Michael J. Between Peasant and Urban Villager: Italian Americans of New Jersey

and New York, 1880-1980; The Structures of Counter Discourse. New York: Lang, 1993.

 

Gabaccia, Donna R. From Sicily to Elizabeth Street: Housing and Social Change Among

Italian Immigrants, 1880-1930. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984.

 

Gardaphe, Fred L. Italian Signs, American Streets: The Evolution of Italian American

Narrative. Duke University Press, 1996.

 

Guglielmo, Jennifer and Salvatore Salerno, eds., Are Italians White?: How Race is Made in

America. New York Routledge, 2003.

Guglielmo, Thomas A. White on Arrival: Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago,

1890-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

 

Richards, David A. J. Italian American: The Racializing of an Ethnic Identity. New

York: New York University Press, 1999.

 

Tomasi, Silvano M and Madeline H. Engel, eds., The Italian Experience in the United States.

New York: Center for Migration Studies, 1977.

 

Tricarico, Donald. The Italians of Greenwich Village: The Social Structure and

Transformation of an Ethnic Community. Staten Island, NY: Center for Migration

Studies of New York, 1984.

 

Vellon, Peter G. A Great Conspiracy Against Our Race: Italian Immigrant Newspapers

and the Construction of Whiteness in the Early 20th Century. New York University Press, 2014.

 

[1] Jennifer Guglielmo and Salvatore Salerno, eds., Are Italians White?: How Race is Made in America (New York Routledge, 2003), 17.

[2] Thomas Guglielmo, White on Arrival: Italians, Race, Color and Power in Chicago, 1890-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[3] Thomas Guglielmo, White on Arrival, 8.

[4] Thomas Guglielmo, White on Arrival, 3.

[5] Thomas Guglielmo, White on Arrival, 4.

[6] Thomas Guglielmo, White on Arrival, 12.

[7] Jennifer Guglielmo and Salvatore Salerno, Are Italians White?, 4.

[8] Jennifer Guglielmo and Salvatore Salerno, Are Italians White?, 1.

[9] Peter G. Vellon, A Great Conspiracy Against Our Race: Italian Immigrant Newspapers and the Construction of Whiteness in the Early 20th Century (New York: University Press, 2014).

[10] Ibid., 5.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Donna R. Gabaccia, From Sicily to Elizabeth Street: Housing and Social Change Among Italian Immigrants, 1880-1930 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984).

[13] Peter Vellon, A Great Conspiracy Against Our Race, 11.

[14] Peter Vellon, A Great Conspiracy Against Our Race, 12.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Fred L. Gardaphe, Italian Signs, American Streets: The Evolution of Italian American Narrative (Duke University Press, 1996).

[17] Thomas Guglielmo, White on Arrival, 128.

[18] Thomas Guglielmo, White on Arrival, 130.

[19] Fred Gardaphe, Italian Signs, American Streets, 122.

[20] Donald Tricarico, The Italians of Greenwich Village: The Social Structure and Transformation of an Ethnic Community (Staten Island, NY: Center for Migration Studies of New York, 1984).