Friday, September 26, 2014

Vito Marcantonio and the Art of Spaghetti Making

Virginia Foster Durr was born to southern aristocracy and grew up in Alabama without even knowing her confederate ways were confederate ways.

She attended Wellesley College and that exposure to the larger world awakened her dissenting nature.

She married an attorney named Clifford Durr.

According to a 1985 “New York Times” review of her autobiography “Outside the Magic Circle,” the pair became “the locally vilified champions in long battles from the New Deal through the arrival of the Freedom Riders.”

The choice to remain outside the magic circle of southern life led to their eventual insolvency and reduction to shabby gentility.

Along her heroic way, Durr made the acquaintance of Vito Marcantonio and, after a rough start, became the kind of friend, to he and his wife Miriam, that came to stay at their place on 116th Street in East Harlem.

Durr granted
interviews to the Oral Histories of the American South Project at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and these possess gem-like anecdotes for Marcantonio fans and scholars alike.

The rough start came at a meeting requested by Durr and allies in the National Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax who were trying, well, to get the poll tax abolished. They said they were backing a bill introduced by Rep. Joseph Clark Baldwin, a Republican from Manhattan's Silk Stocking District, in an effort to get conservative support. They asked Marc to withdraw his.

[From “Outside the Magic Circle”] 

“Oh my Lord, Vesuvius erupted! Whew! He sprang up and you never heard such a tirade in your life. 'I withdraw my bill and let that Park Avenue fancy pants...' He just raved on and on. He would not withdraw his bill. His bill was going to be the bill that got through and was going to be the bill that the House backed and, as far as we were concerned, we could just go and drown ourselves. He didn't care whether we supported him or not. Oh, he was mad, just furious."

She remembered that Marc, who successfully ran in the primaries of the Republican, Democratic and American Labor parties a few times, prevailed upon the Republican House leadership to go with his measure. 

“He even got Baldwin to withdraw his bill,” Durr recalled. “We were forced with the choice of supporting Marcantonio's bill or having no bill. We either had to eat crow or we had to get out of the business.

“We went to see Marcantonio again. He had won, so he was very nice to us this time. Any help that we could give him, he would be very glad to have. He was very pleasant. He had licked us good, too.”

She remembered how Marc legislated with joy. “He was one of the funniest people you've ever known in your life.”

It was typical of Marcantonio, Durr reminisced, to have Rep. Martin Dies, or some other reactionary rival, paged from the floor, mid-anticommunist rant, and come to the phone. Whoever was on the line would ask Dies if he knew where Vito was.

“He was a super politician,” she said. “The people in the House liked Marcantonio. They may have called him a Red, you know, and a Wop and all that, but they liked him.”

Her account of Miriam Marcantonio's life with the congressman's mother after he died is nothing short of harrowing for anyone with a heart, but at the opposite end of the emotional register, one of Durr's most charming stories involves the Italian-American passion for food:

“And you'd have him [over for] dinner,” she recounted. “I remember I had spaghetti. I thought since I was having Vito Marcantonio and his wife, who was this tall New England girl, that I would have spaghetti, you know, like somebody having me and having fried chicken. 

“Well, he was so funny, because I thought it was pretty good spaghetti. He ate it and he said, 'Now Virginia, that was fairly good spaghetti' – well I had a lot of other things too – 'it was a really good dinner on the whole,' he said, 'but that spaghetti was not as good as it should be.' He said, 'Now come out here and I will tell you how to cook spaghetti.'

Durr with Rosa Parks

“And, you know, he took an hour to tell me how to cook spaghetti: You boil a huge pot of water. It would have to be like a washtub practically, and you don't put a whole lot of spaghetti in it because it can't stick; it has to be all separate, and then you dip it out and then you immediately put butter on it or something to keep it from sticking.  

“And then the sauce, instead of being cooked as I had from four o'clock to six o'clock, had to be cooked two days to be real good Italian sauce. And he explained to me in detail exactly, putting the little bit of sugar with it...

“But he was such a human man, you know, and he really wanted me to learn how to make spaghetti since I was going to have spaghetti and he thought it was lousy.”

"Living the Revolution" by Jennifer Guglielmo

Oh, the ever-changing face of America!

Who among us can even envision a northern New Jersey clutching tight to New York via the tendrils of the garment and other departed industries, pocked with recently arrived anarchists from places like Avellino?

Jennifer Guglielmo's "Living the Revolution," assembles the research and words necessary to conjure that distant and disappeared time.

Some of this reviewer's antecedent's hailed from Avellino and the revelation in Guglielmo's book goes a long way toward explaining his own anarcho-syndicalist tendencies.

And explanation is necessary, because the Italian-American milieu in which he grew up was far from revolutionary. Uncles and aunts in Brooklyn and Queens loathed John Lindsay in favor of a hack named Mario Procaccino. When a black family moved into the neighborhood, a call of alarm went out.

To be Italian-American in mid-century New York was to be conservative, closed-minded and to wont for a liberal, higher education (generally speaking).

"Living the Revolution," goes a long way toward explaining how that happened: Italian-Americans desperately clinging to their classification as "white" by federal authorities; their frantic efforts to establish "American-ness" while the U.S. made war on Mussolini's Italy; the devastating impact of the Palmer Raids on the anarchist culture that took root in the tri-state area among Italian immigrant women.

Later on, according to this book, Italian and Italian-American women became active in the the union movement, although their efforts to gain power were often thwarted and their contributions to the Ladies Garment Workers and other syndicates undervalued.

Guglielmo's book recuperates the ladies' names and actions, making great strides in combating the widely-held notion that they were somehow not militant. This appears to be the primary task she set out for herself in penning this text.

"Living the Revolution," sets the record straight. It's a work of historical scholarship and, from time-to-time, bogs down in minutiae, however necessary. Sometimes, the task at hand causes the author to wander far from the focus of her discussion and into the 19th-century uprisings in southern Italy or the writings of Antonio Gramsci.

In the end, it all ties together and Guglielmo's passion for the subject ultimately drives the narrative and should win over those who come to her story with a healthy curiosity.

"Living" is a feminist tract. It pulls from the rich filigree of events, that make up the first half of the 20th century, the prevailing policies, traditions and mores of patriarchy and white supremacy.

It dramatizes how these things weighed upon the activist women and illuminated the creativity they employed in combating them.

"Living the Revolution," not only rescues the names and profiles of some worthwhile people otherwise condemned to anonymity, it helps explain how we got where we are as a nation today, the good and the bad alike.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Sixty Years Later, Marc Remembered.

"Be it known the Council of the City of New York is proud to honor the inspiring life and indelible legacy of the Honorable Vito Marcantonio for his outstanding service and enduring contributions to our city and nation upon the 60th Anniversary of his death on this the 9th day of August in the year 2014."

And with this recitation did New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito rescue Rep. Vito Marcantonio (ALP) from an anonymity that has blanketed the six decades since he burned across the political firmament.

On the 60th anniversary of his death, Marc did not lay alone beneath the grass and leafy trees at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, an ungrateful and indifferent metropolis clanking around him.

Instead, some 60 people organized, poked and prodded by the Vito Marcantonio Forum, gathered to pay homage and renew recent efforts to revive a reputation that was grand even in Gotham.

The crowd was peppered with public officials courageous enough to break the long-standing silence about Marcantonio's contribution to the well-being of New York's poorest, face the public and acclaim America's most successful radical congressman.
New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito

Said Vito Marcantonio Forum member David Giglio, “It's like we've opened up the dam of silence.”

Speaker Mark-Viverito promised to get a street in East Harlem named after Marcantonio.

Said Madame Speaker: “We all know that, too often, it is the brave and those who stand up for their ideals that are overlooked in the history books.”

The speaker recalled how her mentor, East Harlem housing attorney Gloria Quiñones, “sat me down and really wanted me to know about Marcantonio and the progressive legacy he embodied.”

Mark-Viverito discussed the crucial cover Marc gave those in the movement for Puerto Rican independence, “at a time when it was difficult to do that. He was our congressman. He was our ally. He was our voice.”

She said the life-long East Harlemite was the embodiment of a true New Yorker who, “grew up in a progressive community of Italians, Irish, Jewish, Black, Puerto Rican, and Caribbean immigrants who made East Harlem their home. It is no mistake he became a leader of his times and his community, which continues to be a microcosm of New York, as well as the rest of the nation.” 

New York State Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez (D)reflected, “I would not have had the opportunity to serve the community I love, in this way, were it not for Vito Marcantonio.”

Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez.
The congressman was beloved in his community, said Rodriguez, for the way he put its people first, regardless of race, class or ethnicity.

“At that time,” the assemblyman stated, “it was revolutionary, the concept that he could be a civil rights leader for African-Americans in the '30s and '40s - an Italian-American from Harlem - that is impressive.”

Rodriguez closed his remarks by presenting a proclamation “commemorating Marcantonio's accomplishments, life and legacy."

Actor and writer Roberto Ragone read from Marcantonio's speeches against militarism and the arms race, including this passage from June 1950, when he stood up to cast the sole vote against American intervention in the Korean War:  

Roberto Ragone.
“After all, Mr. Chairman, you live only once; and it is best to live one's life with one's conscience rather than to temporize or accept with silence those things which one believes to be against the interests of one's people and one nation."

Lulu Lolo read Gil Fagiani's “Litany of San Vito.”

LuLu LoLo
Actor Troy Hodges revived singer Paul Robeson's parting words to Marcantonio. Frank Marcantonio suggested that perhaps there's something in the family blood, for he had followed the path blazed by Marc without knowing much about him.

Professor Gerald Meyer of Hostos Community College also spoke of the man whose light he has carried through the dark years.

Professor Gerald Meyer
"The Bronx Chronicle" dedicated ink to the happening in its bailiwick. Reporter Kathleen Canzoniero wrote, “Marcantonio defended Italian-Americans against discrimination during World War II and advocated for African-Americans civil rights, especially in making lynching a federal crime. During his political career in the House of Representatives, he sponsored five bills calling for Puerto Rico's independence. A staunch and vocal activist, Marcantonio was against both the Cold War and Korean War. He tragically died from a heart attack in 1954 at the age of 51.”

Inspired by the event and others resuscitating Marcantonio's work “Bronx River Sancofa” blogger Morgan Powell took his readers on a walk of Marcantonio's East Harlem, pointing out the brick-and-mortar structures through which the congressman's presence asserts itself still.

Noting that Marc's childhood birthplace at 325 East 112th Street was razed, so that room might be made for the Thomas Jefferson Houses, Powell wrote, “Perhaps it's fitting that low-cost modern housing for the masses – which he and La Guardia advocated – would succeed his own former address."

The event was also covered in New York's Italian-language daily, “Oggi,” which observed, and we quote:

"Marcantonio è stato senza ombra di dubbio uno de piú combattivi sostenitori dell classe operaia del XX secolo durante i suoi 14 anni di Congresso e uno dei politici piú radicali di sinistra, continuamente rieletto per sei mandati.”

Marc's graveside memorial was given a boost prior to Aug. 9, with an interview of Powell and Ragone on "BronxNet."

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz declared the anniversary “Vito Marcantonio Day,” and so on.

All of which is to say that the Vito Marcantonio Forum, with its multi-media campaign to put flesh and bones on a decimated reputation through events combining political discussion, theatrical play and poetry has piqued the interest of local thinkers and doers, while launching a process for restoring Marcantonio's work and thought to their rightful place in New York politics, past and present.

Book Report: "Christ in Concrete" by Pietro di Donato

"Christ in Concrete" is both paean and prayer to the old immigrant Italian industrial worker.

Like the laborers it depicts, "Concrete" lurches towards moments of joy without ever breaking through the unrelenting misery that is very much author Pietro di Donato's message.

This is working class literature of the 1930s where the great unwashed are brought into finer relief, their desperate situations the fodder for heart-wrenching plot.

In vogue during its Depression heyday, this kind of literature, even done as well as it is here, faced structural barriers to mass acceptance later. The disadvantaged are always the disadvantaged and their most uplifting stories still register as grim.

In "Concrete," the tenement dwellers of New York's lower East Side are not necessarily unhappy. Di Donato portrays them as stout of heart, quick to aid their fellows, and adept at grabbing a rare laugh when presented with the chance.

But they are maimed or ground to dust and the novel's pessimistic conclusion is that the game is rigged against them poor WOPS. And it is. They are "Christ in Concrete," dependent on work that literally kills them.

There is not a lot of workerist rhetoric to this book. It is less Marx, more Biblical justice and Christian plea. Merely an adept portrayal of the construction worker's life in the great Gotham of skyscrapers and cold bitter bluster.

Stories of work itself.

Di Donato, a bricklayer by trade, mined prosaic music from the mundane task:

"He reached the trowel down into the mortar. Slice down toward him, edgewise twist in quick short circle and scoop up away from him. The trowel came up half-covered with mortar - but how heavy! He dropped it back into the tub and worked the trowel back and forth in the mortar just as he had seen the bricklayers do. The feel of flexible steel trowel in pliant warm plush soon-to-be-stone. The wet rub of mortar on tender skin, the fleshy sense of Job."

He explained its soul-deadening effects:

"These men were the hardness that bruise Paul many times. They were the bodies to whom he would joined in bondage to Job. Job would be a brick labyrinth that would suck him in deeper and deeper, and there would be no going back. Life would never be a dear music, a festival, a gift of Nature. Life would be the torque of Wall's battle that distorted straight limbs beneath weight in heat and rain and cold."

This is turn-of-the-20th century immigrant milieu. It is life in the tenement, its Italians, Swedes, Jews, and blacks heaped upon one another with their only commonality a severe lack of resources.

"Christ in Concrete" provides a global view that concentrates as much on the women and children at home as it does the men at the construction site.

In "Living the Revolution," an academic study of radical Italian women in the same New York "Concrete" mixes, Jennifer Guglielmo notes that southern Italian women responded to patriarchal dominance in society by "crafting their own cultural expression," including magic, sorcery, divination, or dancing the "tarantella."

These pre-feminist strategies are dramatized in storytelling by di Donato through the tarantella-dancing Annunziata, or when she and Paul visit "The Cripple," a tenement-bound medium to the netherworld.

Di Donato wrote the heck out of this story. The translation is a kind of direct transposing of the words as ordered in Italian which successfully marks the book with a distinctive prose style.

The now-departed author (1911-1992) committed one falsity in wrapping up his heartfelt condemnation of capital exploitation:

"No poet would be there to intone meter of soul's sentence to stone, no artist upon scaffold to paint the vinegary sweat of Christian in correspondence with red brick and gray mortar, no composer attuned to the screaming movement of Job and voiceless cry in overalls."

Not true, for with each additional word he wrote, di Donato did a little more to erase the veracity of that sentence.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Commemorating the 60th Anniversary of Vito Marcantonio's Death

Those who remember, and believe in, the life's work of Rep. Vito Marcantonio (ALP) will gather at his grave-site Aug. 9, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of his death.
The Vito Marcantonio Forum is convening all those who share their fondness for the radical politician at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx for the second year running.

The group was formed on Oct. 11, 2011 and has made great strides in bringing the almost forgotten congressman from East Harlem back into public consciousness and contemporary political debate.

The 1 p.m. event (rain date Aug. 16) will feature remarks by professor and author of “Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician,” Gerald Meyer. Actor and writer Roberto Ragone will dramatize a Marcantonio speech, and actor Troy Hodges will interpret Paul Robeson's eulogy to the progressive lion.

Marcantonio died of cardiac arrest in the stairwell of the City Hall Park subway station on Aug. 9, 1954. He had launched, in February of the same year, the Good Neighbors Party, and unofficially announced his plans for a run at his old congressional seat in July. He was heading to city hall with election-related business when he expired in a rainstorm.

Marcantonio was just 51 years of age.
In his piece, “Italian Harlem's Biggest Funeral: A Community Pays Its Last Respects to Vito Marcantonio,” professor Meyer wrote, that on the day following his death, “in Giordano's funeral parlor from 12:30 until 11:30 that night and the following day from 9 a.m. until 11 p.m., a procession of openly weeping people passed by the bier at a rate of one thousand per hour.”
The Constituency

Windows of tenements and stores hung out black wreathes and black-bordered signs which read: “We Mourn Our Loss.”

The day of his funeral, Aug. 12, police blocked off First Avenue at East 115th Street to permit passage of a funeral procession in excess of 100 vehicles led by fifteen, flower-laden coaches. 

It was estimated that 10,000 lined the streets of East Harlem. 

“Everything, except perhaps its enormous scope and extravagant expression, of loss resembled the typical funeral of a prominent son of a traditional Italian-American community,” wrote Meyer. “Funerals represented the most important ritual moments for this community, the situation around which the community reassembled and reassured itself. It constituted the ultimate assertion of the Italian way of life as transported to America. Italian Harlem gave Marc its most spectacular funeral because he was their most loyal son, it's most fervent defender.”

The multiracial/multi-ethnic character of the crowd of mourners was reflected in the composition of the honorary pall bearers.

They included: Marc's boyhood friends, (Frank Maurelli and Vincent Velella); leaders of Italian Harlem (Leonard Covello and Joseph Baccia); Puerto Rican leaders (Manuel Medina and Gilbert Concepcion de Gracia); African-American leaders (Andronica Jacobs and W.E.B. DuBois; communist leaders (Ben Gold and John Abt); famous leftist (former Minnesota Gov.) Elmer Benson and Corliss Lamont.
From the "New York Times"

Many nonItalians participated in the solemn proceedings, proof, Meyer stated, of Marc's record as a congressman, which was focused on helping those in need, regardless of race, ethnicity or economic station.

W.E.B. DuBois eulogized Marcantonio as, “one of the clearest thinkers in Congress” and “a politician in the finest sense of the mutilated word. He was not a capitalist and not a communist. He wanted Americans to have the right to live as they saw fit. He believed in socialism as exemplified by the New Deal. He believed in severe control of predatory wealth which rides roughshod over the poor. In this era of national cowardice, here were not many of his courage.”

His lifelong friend and barber Luigi Albarelli mourned, “Your name will ever remain in the story of the great martyrs who fought for the cause of justice. Your life has been a mission. Your life was ever dedicated to lighten the load of the people who were in need. You lived fearlessly and courageously with affection in your heart for the common man. You were a man of the people and the people love you. A rivederci!

In the “New York Times,” one Joseph Louchheim wrote a letter-to-the-editor proclaiming, “Marcantonio, to put it mildly, was not a statesman, but as a Congressional Representative few, if any, could match his knowledge of his district and his loyal, whole-hearted, conscientiousness.”

New York “Power Broker” Robert Moses wrote Marcantonio's wife Miriam: “Mary and I were both very fond of Marc and so were our girls. We all agreed that he was one of the kindest people we had ever met and, while his philosophy was quite beyond us, we will still miss him.”

In the U.S. House of Representatives Rep. Herman Eberharter (D-Penn.) joined a choir of congressional mourners in observing that, “Of his many attributes, what impressed me most in my personal contacts with him was his true concern for the oppressed, for those who were among the less fortunate, his ever-ready sympathy for the poor and downtrodden. I believe that he was possessed of a good heart and a pure soul, and our memory of him, as we saw him in action on the floor of this House will be to many of us an inspiration, for without doubt he possessed exceptional ability coupled with immense strength of character...”
Marcantonio was denied burial in a Catholic cemetery by Cardinal Francis Spellman. Meyer asserted that a mixture of Red Scare and prejudices against Italian Catholics held by those in the primarily Irish hierarchy was behind Spellman's decision.

“It was as if the community had regressed to the years between 1884 to 1919,” Meyer wrote, “when in Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which they had built with their own hands, the pastors had relegated services in Italian and the Madonna to the basement – the church inferior.” (la chiesa inferiore).

The Italian Catholics responded to Spellman in the way they did to many such slights, by going their own way.

“Catholic lay people tried to repair some of the damage done to Marcantonio,” wrote Meyer. “Hundreds of mass cards filled the funeral home and several societies affiliated with Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church hired autos for use during the funeral procession. Dorothy Day in the Catholic Worker movement's monthly wrote an extended obituary that declared Marcantonio would be remembered because, in the words of the psalms, “he understood concerning the needy and poor.”

The Vito Marcantonio Forum event is only the latest effort to credit the barber Albarelli's words, holding symposia on the congressman's relationship with the Puerto Rican people, his contribution to left-wing political thought and action, highlighting the work of his mentor Leonard Covello, and much more.

Please join the Forum in the Bronx on Aug. 9, and help keep Marc's name, “in the story of the great martyrs who fought for the cause of justice.”

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

"An Italian Wife" by Ann Hood

Ann Hood's melting pot-boiler "An Italian Wife" revisits the fast-assimilating arc of Italian immigrant families over decades, but makes the return trip worth the while.

The multi-generational family saga is not new to literature. Nor are literary works tracing the integration of Italian-Americans into New World life uncommon. Gay Talese's "Unto the Sons," comes to mind.

In, "An Italian Wife," Hood traces the lineage of an Italian woman who emigrates from Conca Campania to the United States and has a lot of children whose offspring coil roots into American soil.

This series of loosely bound vignettes is of mostly feminine perspective. There are stories about Josephine, her daughters, their daughters and then one more generation of daughters; from Josephine to her great-grandchildren.

The book could also be entitled, "Unto the Daughters," the feminine counter to Talese's patriarchal reconstruction.

The ladies here considered are linked by bloodline, but little else. Their disparate life trajectories in the U.S. as different as their homeland is from their mother country. The lack of bonding amongst the Rimaldi women is reflected in the fragmented narrative, not a weakness here, rather an honest literary reporting of what has transpired. The Rimaldi women did not cohere into one big family epic, rather a series of short and varied renderings.

There are scant threads making intermittent appearances, that pack punch and a reminder that "The Italian Wife," is a family saga.

Again, the story has been told. The clash between the old-country folk and their children born in America. The disdain for Nonna's sharp cheese smelling purse, the cool kid's embarrassment at a neighborhood filled with plastic Madonna's on every other lawn.

But Hood's book tells it anew and different very well. Her timeline runs from the 1870s to that terrifying and liberating decade, the 1970s, so that later editions of the Rimaldi clan are radical departures from anything those before them could have conjured.

The country is infamously adrift and its youth are enjoying, with reckless abandon, the behavioral turf carved out by their '60s forebears, with recreational drugs, casual sex and other horrors that ended American civilization, as predicted.

The last Rimaldis are wild kids and their Italian-ness is reduced to a matter of lifestyle choice. Some will identify with their past, others will drift into rootless cosmopolitanism.

These last will represent the death knell for the close-knit Italian-American community as it thrived for a century and a half on these shores, and a good place for Hood to close the circle on a process of forgetting and belonging, and make her story a true story.

"An Italian Wife" is evocative of many places, pleasures, remembrances and regrets universal to all. It is particular in its study of the loss of Italian roots by succeeding generations of immigrant families, and is engaging in its painful portrayal of the limitations placed upon women of a certain ethnicity and class.

It is a lovely book.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Leonard Covello

The Vito Marcantonio Forum (VMF) is having a book party, dramatic reading and discussion of Leonard Covello's "The Heart is The Teacher on February 22 at the Mulberry Street Branch of the New York Public Library.

The occasion is a reissuing of the book by the John D. Calandra Institute. 

Professor Gerald Meyer wrote the afterword and will speak on the reform educator's pedagogical relevance in today's multi-cultural society.

LuLu LoLo will dramatize passages from the book. Roberto Ragone will "take on Vito Marcantonio's perspective as the seven-time elected congressman from East Harlem was a close friend to Covello," according to a VMF flyer for the event.  

The branch library is located at 10 Jersey Street, corner of Mulberry and Prince streets. The event will begin at 2 p.m. and run approximately two hours.

Below are reviews of the "The Heart is the Teacher" and "Leonard Covello and the Making of Benjamin Franklin High School."

"The Heart is the Teacher" reads as clear-headed and purposeful as the man it describes.

Its string of anecdotes are rendered in a straight-ahead, clean prose, chronologically scripted from educator Leonard Covello's earliest days in the Italian village of Avigliano, to his retirement from the New York City school system.

It is a narrative which deals only in the essential and does the good job of conveying his ideas.

"The Heart," does a marvelous mapping of the disconnect endured by those who left pre-industrial, rural Italy to settle in urban ghettoes like Manhattan's Lower East Side or East Harlem.

There is much pathos in Covello's story. His mother expired from depression born of that chasm between old world and new, which she could not find it in herself to bridge. "Cara Mamma!" he cries
to the reader when recounting her departure.

Similarly, his first love died in the opening phases of their well-suited marriage.

And, of course, as an educator, he bore certain students' failures as fully as he permitted the success of others to fill his sails with wind.

The early chapters fully divulge the difficulties of the Italian-American experience: the gulf between foreign-born parents and their United States-born children; the gap between success Italian-style, via family loyalty, and the American promise of independent self-realization.

And "The Heart..." is also a possible prescription for a particular kind of American success. Covello did not become a wealthy industrialist, but his academic commitment, first as a student and later as teacher, carved out a significant niche as intellectual and policy wonk.

Himself the subject of certain books on education, Covello's approach was hardly rocket science. Socialist of bent, his approach to kids was strictly old school:

"A child," he wrote, "cannot be left to his own devices. He must have discipline, must be given responsibilities. He is a part of the family and the community and must be made to feel from the beginning that he has a duty toward that family and that community."

The start of World War II stunted his efforts at making Benjamin Franklin High School an engine for change in the surrounding East Harlem neighborhood. It convinced him that such violence, however far away, fed his young charges with the same unfortunate inclinations.

Covello's autobiography is terribly understated so that it suffers somewhat from a lack of drama, although his life was hardly devoid of it. But through the narrative's calmness, the reader may be sensing the affect the educator had on those he spent his life trying to help.

"Leonard Covello and the Making of Benjamin Franklin High School: Education As If Citizenship Mattered" dissects American society's move away from the public commons and towards the individualistic principles and private sphere championed in the conservative canon, through the experience of one man at one New York City high school.

The authors Michael Johanek and John Puckett recap their effort with the closing question: "How does Covello's theory and practice of community school speak meaningfully to the problem of American's hastening retreat from the public sphere?"

"Leonard Covello and the Making of Benjamin Franklin High School" is a tough academic slog covering the first days of the community school movement, as envisioned by the education theorist John Dewey, and the way it dovetailed with the early 20th Century reform movement in the United States.

It discusses, in adequate detail, certain preliminary thrusts at integrating a school's efforts into the goals of the surrounding community, and their varying degrees of success.

But mostly, and as the title suggests, the book returns to Leonard Covello, an Italian immigrant convinced of education's value to any newcomer's development, and his efforts at applying community school principles in the well-defined terminus of East Harlem, New York City.

The book demonstrates the verity of Emerson's platitude that, "An institution is the shadow of one man," by tracing Covello's efforts at opening a school for the underserved area, teaching Italian to the children of immigrants from Italy, and grooming enough students to generate at least one formidable star -- Vito Marcantonio.

Marcantonio gave Covello the nickname by which two generations of high school boys would come to know him - "Pop."

More importantly, he helped his old mentor construct a new public high school on the banks of the East River, secured countless employees from the Depression-era Works Projects Administration to staff it, and stood guard when the experiment came in for conservative attacks.

The meat of the book covers the very specific work Covello and his team did implicating Franklin into the troubled neighborhood's affairs.

These included a sociological mapping of immigrant focal points, exhaustive surveys of area businesses, clean-up campaigns, storefront community centers, communal gardens, parades, dances, and conferences on racial tolerance crucial in a neighborhood where Italians, Puerto Ricans, Blacks, and slivers of other groups cohabitated uneasily.

The book makes clear that putting these ideas in play turned out to be a lot harder in practice than they were to write about in theory.

There is admiration for Covello and his dream, but no whitewashing of his shortcomings nor the fact that the Franklin experiment was largely over even before he retired in 1956.

There is fair analysis of the political winds buffeting attempts at improving East Harlem through the direction of a scholastic hub.

As the progressive '30s gave way to the World War, the ensuing conservative era, and Marcantonio's unseating in Congress, the very idea of "community school" carried the unpopular baggage of socialism and Covello's wings were clipped accordingly.

Finally, the authors draw conclusions about how the failure speaks to education in America today and suggest the circumstances of Covello's time prevailed over principles which were not only sound, but of enduring value.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Vito Marcantonio and Pete Seeger: Allies Through Art

A Young Pete Seeger.
Marcantonio is the best,
but I wouldn't give a nickel
for all the rest
all the rest
all the rest
I wouldn't give a nickel for
all the rest

Washington Breakdown” Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger's long life and death remind us that the progressive vision of Rep. Vito Marcantonio – one of a caring and generous government financed by taxes on our wealthiest individuals and corporations – was not formed in some too-distant time of black-and-white images filled with men wearing suits and fedoras.

It was just yesterday, or at least the day before (Seeger was 94).

The man who sang at President Barack Obama's first inauguration in 2008, was singing for Marcantonio back in the 1940s, and singing about him as well.

The verse at top is culled from an Almanac Singers track entitled, “Washington Breakdown,” (listen here) which is sung solo by a banjo-slinging Seeger.

It's an anti-war song, anti-World War II. At the time of its recording, the American left, led by Marcantonio, was dead-set against getting into another massacre like the one that had occurred in Europe two decades earlier.

Franklin D. Listen to me
You ain't gonna send me across the sea.
'Cross the sea, 'cross the sea
you ain't gonna send me
across the sea

That would change once Hitler attacked the Soviet Union and broke the nonaggression pact between them. Marcantonio did an oft-criticized about-face and became instrumental in passing legislation organizing and directing the effort to defeat Fascism in the House of Representatives.

Seeger and the musical combos he worked with such as the aforementioned Almanac Singers, or The Weavers, did not waiver in their activism once the war was over.

Seeger himself was only a short way along a path pocked with political activism and marvelous songs to sell it.

In “Reflections: Seeger and Me,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman recalled:

And in 1948, when we were still in mourning for Franklin Roosevelt and charging Truman with encouraging a cold war, even my apolitical mother got political, taking me to Philadelphia to the Progressive Party convention that nominated former vice president Henry Wallace for president.

That's when I got involved campaigning for the first time and my efforts included Wallace and the incumbent, left-wing congressman from upper Manhattan, Vito Marcantonio, who won his seat as a Republican and switched to the American Labor Party (ALP). And it was during one of the rallies for Marcantonio on the streets of East Harlem that I sang on the back of a flatbed truck with Seeger and others, although I do not remember the songs.”

The relationship was more than a passing one, for Seeger's engagement with the radical congressman would "Marc" him for life.
"The Weavers" sing at a Marcantonio event.

One year later, the successful brand of street corner, retail politics Marcantonio and the ALP excelled at would change the course of Seeger's career. Boutique marketing did not a congressman elect.

In his biography, “How Can I Keep from Singing? The Ballad of Pete Seeger,” David King Dunaway recounts...

Another incident motivated Seeger, one he later spoke of as a crossroads in his life. One afternoon in 1949, Irwin Silber had been called by the left-wing ALP, who wanted to set up a benefit concert with Richard Dyer-Bennett – a singer of traditional ballots.

Perhaps I can help you get him,” Irwin had answered. “But in case he can't make it, how about Pete doing the concert?”

Oh we know Pete,” the caller from the ALP had replied. “He's sung on our sound truck for years. We need someone who can bring a mass audience. We need to raise money.”

On hearing this, Seeger got really angry. He remembered long winter nights when he had sung outside for the ALP: “Here I was, trying to follow what I thought was a tactical, strategic course, and yet Dick Dyer-Bennett – who was making a career in a traditional fashion – was of more use than me.

That taught me something.”

It was a story he'd tell hundreds of times. For years he had avoided commercial bookings, content with local, progressive audiences. "If it takes a “name” to bring in a large crowd," Seeger figured, "that's what I'll have."
For Seeger, the lesson was clear.

I decided to stop congratulating myself on not going commercial."

Easier said than done. Dunaway writes:

Trying their talent in the marketplace tempted Ronnie and Fred; furthermore, Seeger's point about political isolation was brutally driven home when The Weavers did campaign for an ALP candidate, Vito Marcantonio (probably the closest the Communist Party had in Congress). They went out on an open sound truck. Gordon Friesen from Almanac days ran the affair well, but the crowds didn't respond. The Weavers sang their left-wing repertoire and songs made up for the occasion. From a nearby window, tomatoes started splottering the unprotected truck. Seeger looked up anxiously: “What do we do now?”

Be glad they're not bricks,” Gordon answered with a grim smile.

Contained in the Marcantonio Papers collection housed at the main branch of the New York Public Library, is a 1949 radio commercial for Marcantonio's mayoral bid.

In those days, brevity, flash edits, and product or personal acronyms were not the standard
selling techniques they are today.

The spot runs about five minutes and features a guitar-playing folky more or less rapping the praises of East Harlem's San Vito.

Step over, step over, step up everybody
I want you to meet a man I know
I want you to meet a man I know
candidate for Congress
Vito Marcantonio!

Documentation accompanying the cassette recording does not identify the performer, but any review of the existing literature at least, would suggest it is Seeger or one of what John Sayles termed his “hootenanny” cohorts.

In a 1949 piece published in “Harper's” magazine, Richard Rovere wrote,

When he mingles with the Bohemian intellectuals who are his friends, [Marcantonio] looks like an earnest young law student wearied by hours over Blackstone, but eager nonetheless for every word that is said. In ordinary conversation he talks in the reasonably clear and precise accents of a New Yorker who has tried to cultivate a good speaking voice.

Marcantonio biographer Gerald Meyer suggests the congressman was more apt to be playing cards with neighborhood pals in any of East Harlem's countless social clubs than whooping it up with the jazz crowd in some uptown viper room.

Fair enough, though Marcantonio did have alliances in the demimonde. Writer Howard Fast was a friend and collaborator. Dashiell Hammett chaired his mayoral campaign fundraising committee. He cosigned petitions with Dorothy Parker, took bear hugs from Paul Robeson and associated with Puerto Rican poet Clemente Soto Velez.

Marc was even hip enough to call on Frank Sinatra to sing when tensions between blacks and Italians heightened at Benjamin Franklin High School.

Marcantonio may have been a homeboy who never left the streets he was raised on and departed the country just once. But he was also a New Yorker, a Manhattanite and cosmopolite and it is through the story of Pete Seeger's life that we can conjure the profile of a congressman attuned to the popular culture of his time.