Thursday, September 3, 2015

"I Vote My Conscience" : A Primer of Primary Importance

Scholarship on Rep. Vito Marcantonio starts, and probably ends, with I Vote My Conscience.

In her introduction to the book, editor Annette T. Rubinstein wrote that Marcantonio, "set himself the job of interpreting the unrealized possibilities of democracy for his neighbors, and of helping them to achieve the dignity in security they deserved and needed."

Rubinstein set for herself the task of assembling the congressman's work in a way that would demonstrate his achievements in pursuit of that goal.  

Although organized in a reference style, Rubinstein successfully wove series of speeches like strands throughout the text, tracing Marc's advocacy of a broad, yet consistent, set of issues over all his years in the House of Representatives.

A Veritable Laundry List

From the 74th Congress to the 81st session – Marcantonio's last – matters of unemployment, Puerto Rico, Italy and Italian-Americans, civil and voting rights, the Fair Employment Practices Committee, anti-racism, anti-Fascism, pro-slum clearance, the Works Progress Administration all made annual appearances in his speeches. 

Most prominent was the radical's staunch advocacy of labor, and by labor, we are talking about union labor.

His proclamation against Taft-Hartley, the bill that removed the labor movement's incisors, is typical of his pronouncements on strikes, workplace safety, factory floor rights, and collective bargaining.

"What is your justification for this legislation?" he challenged his House colleagues on April 15, 1947, "Oh, you say you are going to give certain rights, a new bill of rights to the American worker. What are you giving him? You are giving him the right to be free, freeing him from unionization, freeing him from his hard-earned protection, freeing him from his union, his only defense against exploitation. You are making him free to be exploited."

Over the years Marcantonio's primarily Italian constituency was joined in his coalition with a new wave of Puerto Rican immigrants.

Unable to separate the problems of these Spanish-speaking immigrants in New York City from the conditions that drove them off their tropical isle, Marcantonio soon became Puerto Rico's spokesman in Congress.

And so, I Vote My Conscience contains a special section apart, “Puerto Rico and It's People.”

Having discussed the island's plight with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Marcantonio was dismayed at the president's ignorance of Puerto Rican affairs under his purview. He had every reason to suspect the affliction was national in scope.

The Puerto Rican speeches in I Vote My Conscience see Marcantonio in professorial form, delivering didactic addresses, primers on the island's history under the yoke of what the good congressman considered U.S. imperialism. 

Early in his first term as congressman, Marcantonio introduced a bill calling for Puerto Rico's independence from the U.S., an oft-repeated act in year to come. During the Depression, he fought for unemployment relief on the island, a minimum wage. He gave a speech, "Five Years of Tyranny," that led to the recall of the island's federally-appointed governor, Blanton Winship.

Editor, Editor

Dr. Rubinstein's choices can't help but give a foundational shape to Marcantonio's work and influence the direction of future scholarship. 

She spent a year on I Vote My Conscience, which she called a “partial political autobiography,” for in her compilation Marcantonio tells his story, not in hindsight, but as an actor in the moment. 

Here is Marcantonio on different stages, all stages really: in the nation's historical crucibles, and in the final grinding hours of the legislative mill, ennobling the cynical sausage-making with democratic sentiment. 
I Vote My Conscience is live drama, a political script. 
The 500-page volume boasts more than 150 excerpts of the radical congressman's speeches – mostly to the House – radio addresses and courtroom arguments defending communists during the Red Scare.

Its disparate store of speeches, letters, magazine articles, radio addresses and passionate rants from the House Well ultimately piece together the whole story of a remarkable political career without engaging in traditional narrative.

“In the most general terms possible, this book documents what one brilliant and determined leftist could accomplish,” wrote Gerald Meyer, author of Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician.

The speeches are organized into chapters corresponding with Marcantonio's seven terms in Congress from 1935-1950.

Lionel Berman, who worked with Marcantonio on his last political project, the Good Neighbor Party, wrote descriptions for the index of speeches fronting each congressional session: “Protest against a 'charity wage scale' for the unemployed;” “Against a bill to remove rent controls;” “A radio address setting the record straight on hours, wages and profits in wartime.”

With the discourses organized chronologically rather than by topic, these thumbnail sketches guide the reader/researcher through the broad spectrum of issues Marcantonio addressed as representative of a small, but irrepressible corner of Manhattan.

Sorting Through a Sea

I Vote My Conscience brings to light Marc's bright moments and begins the unearthing of a buried legend; moments Rubinstein fished from a sea of information the congressman crammed into the public record, depicting his radical rhetoric as action.

Meyer recounts that Dr. Rubinstein got her inspiration for the book title upon identifying like phrases from speeches in Marcantonio's first and last terms.

The first came on May 14, 1936, in support of his vote for a bill to prevent family-farm foreclosures, he affirmed that although, “I have no farmers in my district...I shall vote my conscience on this bill.”

The second came in 1950, before casting the sole vote in opposition to the country's entering the Korean War, Marcantonio told his colleagues:

“It is best to live one's life with one's conscience than to temporize or accept with silence those things which one believes to be against the interests of one's people and one's nation.”

Both speeches are found in I Vote My Conscience.

The book was launched by the now-gone Vito Marcantonio Memorial on July 4, 1956, less than two years after the congressman's untimely death.

Marcantonio' wife, Miriam Sanders, served as the memorial's honorary chair and Arthur Schutzer, long-time executive secretary of the American Labor Party, was secretary.

Others members included: Educator Leo Covello; David Freedman, a legal associate of Marc's; a New York Daily News photographer by the name of Bill Price; Louise Berman, a campaign supporter; and her husband, the aforementioned Lionel.

The team was rounded out by Virginia Rosen, a researcher of the congressman's; Robert Rusch, a friend and political associate; and the aforementioned Rubinstein who was, perhaps, the best candidate from Marc's inner circle to edit I Vote My Conscience

A Friend In Deed

Rubinstein worked with Marcantonio for years. A member of the Communist Party, the better portion of her political work came, nonetheless, as officeholder, activist and candidate for the American Labor Party (ALP) during his Marc's reign as state chairman.

She was ALP chairwoman for the fifth assembly district south and ran on the party ticket for both the State House and U.S. Congress.

Rubinstein was eventually blacklisted, her career as a high school principal destroyed. She began anew, eventually writing a storehouse-worth of literary criticism from a Marxist perspective for "Jewish Currents," "Science & Society," "Monthly Review," "New Masses," and "Mainstream." 

She wrote, too, books of criticism, the crowning achievement of which is, The Great Tradition in English Literature from Shakespeare to Shaw.

This background informed the shape she gave to I Vote My Conscience.  

It was Rubinstein's choice to include Marcantonio's April 27, 1944 exchange with the Texan Hatton Sumners (D) over the southern practice of poll taxing.

Marc wanted onto Sumner's Judiciary Committee. Sumner told him no poll tax bill to the House floor. Marc took it to the floor. Sumner accused him of inflaming insurrection in the South:

Said Marc:

“I think we all have a very good idea of the poll tax,” he told the House. “[A]nd we all have knowledge of the white primary law, which deprives people of their democratic rights. That condition certainly does not make for better racial relations.” 

In selecting Marc's October 24, 1945, “Objection to Congressman Rankin's reference to Congressman [Emanuel] Cellar as a 'Jewish Gentleman,'” Rubinstein honors him not just as a principled man, but as stalwart friend:

With Paul Robeson at the Lucky Corner (from "I Vote My Conscience.")
“When you single out a person by his race, color, or creed, particularly when you are engaged on the opposite side of a debate from him, you are not doing that for the purpose of merely pointing out that the gentleman's race happens to be Jewish or that the gentleman happens to be a Negro. You are baiting that gentleman. You are baiting him because of his race or because of his color or because of his creed. You are seeking to subject him either to discrimination or hate.”

A Soaring Saxaphone

Through I Vote My Conscience, we know that Marcantonio, in the twilight of his congressional career [May 10, 1950] still found his desk on the House floor a sufficient bullhorn to give the voiceless their say:

“I know a lot of people are annoyed and disgusted that Marcantonio should be repeatedly offering these civil-right amendments, but I am going to keep on offering them as long as I am here and until we win this fight; because I conscientiously believe, and it has been my guiding political philosophy, that no white man is free in America as long as the Negro is subjected to discrimination and Jim Crow and segregation.”

And so on.

Five thousand copies of I Vote My Conscience were printed: 2,000 cloth, 250 “deluxe editions (slip-cased); and 2,750 of a “union edition,” that is, paperbacks.

The book was, at first, ignored and later, like its subject, forgotten. Its publication was the Vito Marcantonio Memorial's most significant and lasting accomplishment.

Before finally folding its tent, the promotion and distribution of I Vote My Conscience became the sole remaining purpose of the Marcantonio Memorial, and its major source of income.

In 1973, An effort by Francesco Cordasco, a professor at Montclair State College led to a republishing of I Vote My Conscience under a different title, Vito Marcantonio: Debates, Speeches, and Writings 1935-1950, published by August M. Kelley Publishers, Clifton N.J. 1973. 

The Pirate Edition

Although Cordasco and his publisher credit the original title and claim the new edition was produced “By Arrangement with The Vito Marcantonio Memorial,” Professor Meyer asserts that it was actually “pirated” and printed without the permission of Ms. Rubenstein, “something she would have gladly given.”

In any case, it's an attractive cloth-covered, hardbound book with a separately copyrighted foreword by Mr. Cordasco, which Meyer conceded “has a few interesting and insightful sentences about Marc...”

In 2002, the second printing of I Vote My Conscience was done under the auspices of the Calandra Institute at Queens College. The printing job went awry, limiting circulation prospects. 

The photo reproductions are poor, but the text maintains the same value no matter the paper's rag content. Copies of the misbegotten, but sole surviving, edition are available from the Vito Marcantonio Forum book shop for a trifle at $10.  

This last edition of I Vote My Conscience contains an updated introduction and biography of Ms. Rubinstein by Gerald Meyer, a letter from Marc to Senator Bilbo, sharp exchanges between the Italian and the southern gents who ran the House, and still other extras that make this sample selection a “complete works” of a unique and nontraditional kind.

Sandlot Baseball Central Park

His figure could have been cut out and pasted into the scene. But he belongs, this guy in a suit not afraid to get dirty. As perfect a metaphor for the political life of Vito Marcantonio as might be captured. The broad-shouldered ballplayers towering over his slight frame will not mistake him for some lightweight politician. Not with this throw. Marc grew up on the streets of East Harlem. He plays to win. The face is wrenched with exertion. Maybe he imagines the catcher's mitt as Mississippi John Rankin's head. The congressman's form has him doing what he should, bringing his throwing shoulder forward so that his chest fronts home plate. His release point is true; is that place at the top of his motion where a small orb of luminescent energy is ready to burst forth like some superhero's fireball. His left hand seemingly upholds his entire body, sustaining energy in motion on four fingertips. He is with black men in a time when black men are being lynched at a fairly brisk pace around the country. They play baseball in their own black leagues, because the white leagues won't have them. Marc would help change that with a call for congressional hearings on racial discrimination in major league baseball. He was not just around for the photograph, which depicts an Italian, showing off his chops at the signature American game, surrounded by what appear to be Cubans. This is Marcantonio's multi-colored counter-narrative to received American history, a story in which he was at ease and at play.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

"Thieves in the Family," Maria Lisella

Maria Lisella, vice president of the Vito Marcantonio Forum, was recently named Poet Laureate for the Borough of Queens, New York City.

Shortly thereafter, Lisella was
interviewed by Anthony Julian Tamburri, dean, Calandra Institute, Queens College, City University of New York.

Tamburri noted that Lisella is the first Italian-American and only the second woman named to the Queens poet laureate's post. It is worth noting the author of Thieves in the Family, was not appointed, rather won a competition.

In the interview, Lisella tells Tamburri she, “always had a fascination for language, of which poetry is a more natural expression based on breath, talking and sound.”

She says much the same, verse-wise in, “How ever did you know” from Thieves:


“My lips form words

my ears hear whispers
of phonetic harmony,
accents, my favorite vowels
while riding trains past
the Postojna caves in the snow,
lacy edges of the Adriatic.”

This predilection as practice is found in “Bats,” eight pages later:


Italian word for bat that sounds
like the sounds they make when they fly
in black formations over our heads
almost invisible, always audible.”

“Comfort Zone” represents a “how-to” find those sounds:


“She shadows people's sounds

in bars, restaurants,
charts their courses
across crowded rooms.

Peopled subway cars, a mine

of foreign bodies violating
the eighteen-inch comfort zone,
flesh pressed against flesh,
against steel, poles protect.
Conversations spoken nose to nose
erupt and simmer.

She sneaks up behind them

a Mata Hari of the spoken word.
Non-sequiturs seep into her pen,
appear on her pages,
compel her to scribble,
stealing strangers' whispers.”

Lisella told Tamburri that the study of African-American poets such as Langston Hughes gave her a sense of the outsider's voice, a voice she could relate to: “I was not totally American, not really Italian, but I had this otherness, and that poetry really spoke to me.”

Her verse confronts her otherness – or some other little Italian girl's otherness – in “No Earrings for Tina” :


“I was seven when I realized

none of the girls in school wore pierced earrings.

My mother, insisted,

said it was buona fortuna for girls to start off life with a piece

                 of gold in their ears.

She didn't understand this was America,
where only the zingare wore gold in their ears and told
American girls never put holes in their ears.”

Later, Tina throws her earrings out the window of the elevated train, breaking with a piece of her rootedness, anxious to become an American girl.

Thieves in the Family looks outward, considers the otherness of others than the storyteller. Understands.

Of “Las Andeanas en Astoria,” the poet laureate writes:


“Built low to the ground

like squat mountain climbers,
their bodies are silent.
Cartwheels squeak,
high-pitched notes rattle.
Gray squirrels scatter
in black branches above.
If these women were back home
trudging wheelbarrows
across the Mita del Mundo at noon,
they would not cast a shadow.”

Tamburri observed how Lisella's work is shot-through with depictions of class, expressions of gender and ethnic remembrance.

“I learned from the feminist movement,” she said, “not to be ashamed of where you came from. Understand that the private skills you learned from your grandmother and mother – negotiating – could be used publicly; that these skills were transferable. That helped me learn how to write about it in poetry.”

“Empty Chairs”


In the name of the father

and of the son, but what of
the daughters, sisters, and mothers?

It's an Italian woman's trick
to look just so, ears sealed.

Like a bitter clerk

you tally your inventory of grievances.

Your discontent starts

with the women of this house.”

“I Listen” strikes more optimistic notes, blends food-making, the affect of industrial apparel sewing upon a certain class of woman, and the hierarchy that reigns in the New World echo of the southern Italian cortile.


“I see them in a heaven steaming with kitchen vapors.

Zi' Catuzza rolling her napkin into cigarillos
repeating her mantra, 'No man is good enough for any woman.'
She had a bad husband I tell myself.
Zia Raffaela presses vanilla pizzelle
Cugina Lisabetta beats an octopus into submission,
cooks it pink, sprinkled with olive oil, lemon, oregano.

I hear laughter among them, I am

on the other side of the curtains one of them sewed--
it matches the tableclothes, the aprons made
of remnants gathered from the sweatshop floor.
Forbidden to banter, I am invisible, but I see them.”

Maria Lisella
Maria's work in the recuperation of Vito Marcantonio's legacy, she said, “is an expression of my progressive politics and my consciousness about community. Italians are often seen as just taking care of home just being centered around the self and family.”



“Uncle Joe is flanked

by garish fans of gladiolas
in Neopolitan reds, Sicilian magenta
My non-Italian sister-in-law
calls them 'Italian flowers.'

My mother's Manhattan cousins

a sub-tribe of the larger tribe –
huddle, live together, eat together,
never leave W. 4th St., never marry.
One sneezes and they all catch cold.”

Said Lisella: “I didn't grow up with parents like that. My parents were very active.”

One of her parents may have been like the humble chevalier depicted in “Romance.”

“I stand beneath

the Eiffel Tower's black steel netting
knowing my father's French past

kept him one step beyond

the surly brood of Italian men
filing into the parlor on Sundays.

A WWII vet, he taught the Senegalese, Algerians,
tutored me in an ethical landscape
of honor, loyalty – old fashioned words.

He and his friends Yves, Viggo, Rolanda

never belied their resistance days,
ordinary heroics in a living room in Queens.”

Introverted and personal, Thieves in the Family simultaneously covers a geography wide as the world tracked Lisella as a travel journalist, poetry pad in tow.

Havana, makes an appearance as do Venice, Palermo, Dubrovnic, the Algarve, The Bronx, and Rome where the “Lovestruck” Bernini sculptures:


“assuming their positions

on pedestals
in time to gape
at us studying them.
They've returned breathless
from a Bacchanalian feast,
careful not to stain
their marble bodies with blood rich wine.”

To wander the world is to walk with the Gods.

Wherever she has gone, and even when she has been home, Lisella has made it her particular craft to seek out and listen to exotic voices, “stealing strangers' whispers” for the benefit of her readers.