Articles by: Anthony julian Tamburri

  • Op-Eds

    Cultural Philanthropy, A Private Affair

    In his ground-breaking essay, “Breaking the Silence: Strategic Imperatives for Italian American Culture,” Robert Viscusi championed an articulation of history that includes a collective purpose. While much progress has been made on numerous issues, many Italian American associations seem to work in a vacuum, moving forward alone on issues whereas, within groups working in unison, the community at large would benefit, thus encountering greater success in bringing forth a variety of projects that would contribute to an Italian/American agenda.

    What is – or, what should be – that rallying point around which the greater Italian/ American community might find some sense of commonality? Indeed, both African Americans and Jewish Americans have their one issue, as tragic as it may be, that coheres the group. I have in mind, of course, slavery and its dreadful sister of outright discrimination that has resulted from it, for the former; two millennia of diasporic existence and the more recent horrific holocaust, for the latter. What then can we identify as that cohesive force for Italian Americans? Can we look to something as immigration, that timespan 1880 to 1924, those forty-four years that have now become an historical marker for contemporary Italian Americans? There may indeed be specific tragedies that come to mind: the 1891 New Orleans lynching, for which we hold the dubious distinction of having been victims of the largest group lynching. One might even underscore historical discrimination, dating back to the nineteenth century and culminating, to date, in something like The Sopranos.

    Though valid points of discussion, these last two examples do not constitute, in an encompassing manner, that one issue that can unite the Italian/American community in the same way in which other groups cohere. We might thus ponder what is that allencompassing issue that unites, for instance, Hispanic Americans. In addition to a strong sense of belonging they may have with regard to their culture(s), it may very well be the migratory experience, a sense of not belonging to the host country, that coheres Hispanics.

    Surely, I do not want to be naïve in thinking that Hispanics from any and all Latin countries have an equal sense of allegiance to the “old country.” Nor do I want to imply that all Hispanics have an automatic sense of belonging to that group comprised of Hispanics/Latinos, as categorized in the United States. Nevertheless, we would not err in perceiving a certain sense of commonality that has its origins in the migratory experience insofar as they perceive themselves as outsiders, and, as such, hold on to their culture of origins. This combination of difference and cultural specificity – based in part on the migratory experience – surely figures as a cohering agent.

    A similar formula might prove valid for Italian Americans. Immigration can figure as that cohesive agent, however tenuous. A strong sense of commonality is that necessary ingredient for the community to progress, for the study of all things Italian/American to become part and parcel of the dominant culture, as it is for other United States hyphenated groups.

    All of this is dependent on an Italian/American commitment (impegno) to the appreciation of our culture. This entails an active participation in cultural activities of all sorts; it requires that Italian/American groups make a concerted effort to go beyond those one or two activities they have identified as their own, and make attempts to expand their agenda to include a new, more encompassing form of cultural integration.

    All of this, as we shall see, is dependent on a combination of cultural awareness and appreciation: namely a new sense of the Italian/American self that ultimately leads to an appropriation of one’s cultural legacy.

    A concerted conversation (i.e., coming together) on cultural philanthropy among/by Italian Americans is, I would submit, something necessary to bring to the table. The concept has yet to be discussed beyond those few occasions among a small number of individuals. We need only turn to (1) names on libraries, colleges of arts and humanities, and privately endowed professorships, (2) the lack of a free-standing museum, and (3) graduate programs in Italian Americana for us to realize how far behind we are in cultural appreciation.

    Education is the only way we can change people’s minds. Italian Americans must step up to the plate and support grand projects such as an Italian/American museum, endowed professorships and centers, and other entities and/or institutions dedicated to imparting knowledge of our history and culture. This ultimately brings us to the dire need of private, cultural philanthropy; there is a lack of Italian/American names on (1) college and university libraries, (2) colleges of arts and humanities, and (3) endowed professorships, just to name a few areas.

    Less than a dozen names comes to mind when discussing private, cultural philanthropy vis-à-vis Italian and Italian/American studies: Baroness Mariuccia Zerilli-Marimò’s donation in perpetuity for the Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò at New York University; the Joseph and Elda Coccia Institute for the Italian Experience in America (Montclair State); the Charles and Joan Alberto Italian Studies Institute (Seton Hall); the Joseph M. and Geraldine C. La Motta Chair in Italian Studies (Seton Hall); the Valente Family Italian Studies Library (Seton Hall), a collection of Italian books second to none; the George L. Graziadio Center for Italian Studies and its George L. Graziadio Chair of Italian Studies at California State University Long Beach; the Amelia V. Gallucci-Cirio chair at Fitchburg State College; the Esposito Visiting Faculty Fellowship at UMass Dartmouth; the Dr. Neil Euliano Chair in Italian Studies at the University of Central Florida; and, dulcis in fundo, the Westchester Italian Cultural Center.

    While the above tends more toward Italian than Italian/American Studies, the majority of these programs does include Italian Americana as a field of intellectual inquiry. But these are just the beginning. Italian/American Studies has progressed magnificently over the past thirty years at the college level. There are numerous programs or parts thereof at both the undergraduate and graduate levels nationwide. Indeed, for this to filter down to the public school system (where it is most needed in order to create future thinkers in this regard), access to Italian/American Studies for more graduate students needs greater facilitation. This, simply, will not happen through public funding alone. There needs to be a significant articulation between the academic world and those of Italian America who can readily underwrite any and all of the above-mentioned entities, centers, and institutes. This includes graduate fellowships so that those in history, sociology, literature, cinema, and the like can dedicate themselves fulltime to earning their degrees, and not be distracted by having to work parttime.

    Because many of us have had to follow this second path, it does not mean our children and grandchildren should do the same. Anzi!

    It is a great challenge that lies ahead, but it is surely a feasible accomplishment: The ten above-mentioned centers and professorships are proof positive. We thus need to talk, talk, and talk in order to do, do, and do…

    Alla riscossa! 


  • Op-Eds

    Too Italian, or Not Italian Enough?

    What exactly does it mean to be “too Italian”? This one seemingly innocent phrase to the ethnically insensitive – and indeed it follows a series of analogues already used for Senator Barak Obama – raises a series of thoughts too numerous to list and discuss adequately in this venue. Nevertheless, in an article a week or so ago, published by the New York Times, James Barron (“They Kind of Knew It Wouldn’t Work”) quoted a certain “retired jewelry designer who was having her nails done in Howard Beach, Queens,” who, as Barron continued, “never believed that Mr. Giuliani had a real chance nationally” because he was, she continued, “too New York, too Italian, and he had too many wives.” Leaving aside the former mayor’s love life (multiple marriages) and his place of geo-cultural formation (New York), what is most disturbing is the reference to his ethnicity. What exactly does “too Italian” mean? How does being of any ethnic origin disqualify someone tout court from any office — local, state, or national? Woe to s/he who would dare use the same expression, substituting instead, as Louisa Del Giudice has also pointed out in a letter to the NYTimes (which has yet to appear), the adjectives “African American,” “Hispanic,” “Jewish.” And what about the forum that publishes such a phrase, without any contextualization that calls into question its use? Have we resorted back to the thinking of those days of yester-yore, specifically that pre-World War II period when certain social thought processes found it legitimate to marginalize, to say the least, those who were not part of the mainstream? Or, as some claim today, Italian Americans remain the one ethnic group anyone can insult with immunity? I shudder at the thought that such thinking might have been imparted to a later generation.

    “What’s all the fuss?” (or some other expression filled with expletive deletives) has its origins in what we used to hear, when, forty and fifity years ago, we felt uncomfortable at being called “black-eyed guinea friends,” and did not know, as a child, how to respond to our non-Italian/American friend’s mother. It’s what makes our conservative brethren go wild when they see the various movies and TV shows that represent Italian Americans as Mafiosi; and some variation thereof is what we also experience when we discuss Italian Americans as non-white.

    The debate within the Italian/American community about representation in the media, with specific regard to cultural productions such as The Sopranos, is split, to be sure. There are those who have and continue to deplore the series, on the one hand; then there are those, on the other hand, who have always praised it. Then, to the surprise of others still, there are those who have changed their position one hundred and eighty degrees. I have in mind, in this regard, the anti-Sopranos elderly gentleman whose daughter is an actress. After his initial abhorrence at her having accepted a part in the series, he eventually saw the program through a different lens, as his daughter was now part of the cast. He realized, as he stated, that once he literally sat down and watched the show, it was actually a great drama; a program about relationships, family (blood ties, that is), and other relevant and interesting things that concern the human condition. Well, then…, what was all the fuss about after all? Rhetorical question, to be sure. It is completely understandable that Italian Americans would be split on this issue, precisely because we are, as an ethnic community, split down the middle not only on this but also on a number of other hot-button issues.

    All of the above is to underscore the fact that we remain split within our own community about such issues, as well as the quasi pressure cooker of media representation. Of course, The Sopranos was only the latest (Do we still expect to see that NBC program Mafia Wives?) in a plethora of images that have their celluloid origins as far back as 1904, when one first saw on screen the “swarthy, stiletto-carrying, oversexed” Italian, as the adjectives, still today, seem to be used. Of course, now there are those other phrases, those seemingly innocuous, cute expressions that, I guess, are to sum it all up.

    I know of at least two people who wrote letters, which, now more than a week or so later, have yet to appear. How many other Italian Americans thought it was worth their time to send off their thoughts? Or, how many other Italian Americans thought it was not worth their time to send off a letter, Or, yet again, how many Italian Americans thought it was cute to call Giuliani, regardless of our political persuasion, “too Italian”? Or, as I asked above, what responsibility does a news medium have toward the reporting of such statements without pointing out their offensive charge?

    The seemingly lack of response, and the coincidental silence from the community, can only call more attention to the greater need of an increase in awareness within the Italian/American community as well as the development of an Italian/American “narrative,” as Robert Viscusi so keenly put it close to twenty years ago.

  • Op-Eds

    From the “Funk of Disappointment” to the F[l]unking of the Academy

    A friend recently asked me why I had not reacted to the by now infamous (tongue set firmly in cheek) NY Times article by Ian Fisher; my response was that if I had responded to Fischer’s piece I would have also FELT compelled to respond to Zucconi’s piece that appeared a day or so later in la Repubblica. Zucconi, for those of you who did not see his article, basically impugned that the US was in no better shape than Italy. Indeed, there is much to be said about what Zucconi retorts: to be sure, the US is going through some trying times with a war quasi out of control; deficits are surely out of control; the dollar could not be weaker, which, among many things, has helped sky rocket the price of oil; as well as other things he listed. Nevertheless, I would be at a loss to place on equal levels the woes of Italy with those of the United States, especially considering what was listed in Fisher’s NY Times article. Overall, Judith Harris’s blog here on i-Italy has, for all practical purposes, hit the nail on the head. Her decades-long residence has clearly sharpened her sensitivity to the Italian “tenore di vita,” which has afforded her the keen insight to be able to engage in a level-headed comparison between these two different but intriguing countries.

    In going tit for tat with what’s wrong not only in Italy but also in the US, what Zucconi did not mention was that—as Fisher underscored—“[m]any of the brightest, like the poorest a century ago, leave Italy.” This not-so-new but only recent, openly discussed phenomenon of “brain drain,” which Italy seems to have tried to half-heartedly counter at one point, is such an ironic mimicry of what occurred with “the poorest a century ago,” as Fisher so rightfully stated (For instance, a northern Italian university offered two of my former Ph.D. students a three-year contract, with no guarantee of a possibility of renewal, for them to return to Italy and, consequently, not vie for both long-term and tenure-track positions they eventually earned and currently hold here in the United States). But, it is not only this above-mentioned “brain drain” of the young professionals who are going abroad that threatens intellectual development on a national level; one must also, I would contend, look to the stunting of professional growth from within.

    In fact, within academia in Italy, promotion seems to be, for all practical purposes, based much less on meritocracy and much more on “raccomandazione,” which does not translate cleanly into the English word, “recommendation”—the former referring more to “connections,” the latter referencing support for “professional prowess.” In the United States, as is usually the case, one readily enters academia at the assistant professorial level with clear expectations of promotion through the ranks within a certain time frame (usually six years), provided s/he responds to the requirements of the system. This is not the case in Italy, where one may readily remain at the entry level, albeit with some semblance of what we call tenure, with little hope of promotion in rank within a timely fashion. The difference in performance is that in the US one may steadily move forward to the associate professor level with a publication record of a half dozen articles and one authored book. In Italy, conversely, one remains at the entry-level rank while moving forward with a production record of most likely a dozen or so articles and one or two authored books; and the prospects of promotion remain tied to those inexplicable forces under the rubric of “raccomandazione.”

    Now, dear reader, don’t get me wrong! Connections are also in vogue here in the US: “my teaching assistant,” “my child,” “my cousin,” etc. are phrases I have heard in the various administrative positions I have held over the past seventeen years. But, while there may be a goodly number of individuals who also engage in such activity in the US with some success, we do have a system of checks and balances that, to an Italian mind-set, would seem not only foreign (pun intended) but, I would suspect, inimical. I have in mind the basic hiring process that any federally funded college/university must follow. The filling in of grids, the tallying of the ethnic/racial/gender composition of the pool of applicants, the submission of such information to a higher power within the university—i.e., the affirmative action officer—are all part of an even greater procedure that attempts to keep the system honest, so to speak, as best it can. In Italy, there is the “concorso” (the competition), which is often on a national level. It consists of a written exam, an oral exam, if the committee approves of the written part, after which the committee decides on the so-called winner. With specific regard to the university, the “concorso” is in effect at a local level (Caveat lector: This is the situation as I write; a reform is now being implemented, which was passed by the Berlusconi government and should transform the “concorso” into a national competition), and the regulations differ according to the level in play, as follows: for the position of “ricercatore” (lit., researcher, equal to our assistant professor level), one must pass written and oral exams; for the position of “associato” (equal to our associate professor level), there is first an evaluation of one’s credentials followed by a “lesson” conducted in front of the examining committee, for which the candidate has a twenty-four hour notice of the lesson’s subject matter s/he is to present; for the position of “ordinario” (equal to our full professor level) there is only an evaluation of one’s credentials. It is in within this process that the Italian concept and/or practice of the “raccomandazione” has much more valence than our own “recommendation,” trumping to some extent the desired impersonality of meritocracy.

    Potentially there are two losers in all of this, the Italian university system and the job candidate. However, there are also two potential winners, the Italian job candidate and the non-Italian university system that accepts him/her.