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.