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.