It’s Columbus Day, an American bank holiday commemorating the day Christopher Columbus “discovered” the United States despite there already being a nation of people here.
Traditionally we think of this day as when America became white. But nearly 400 years after Columbus, a large wave of Italians would arrive on American shores, and they would not be considered as such. The period between 1880-1920, known as “The Great Arrival,” when at least three million Italians immigrated to the United States, created an era in which southern Italians had to become white.
There were two races in America then: black and white. Italians were thrust into a country where being one and not the other meant the difference between finding economic success, safety and acceptance.
Like the Irish, another immigrant group that arrived in the United States during this time, Italians were not perceived as white. They were, as historians James Barrett and David Roediger call them, “inbetween people.“ But once Italians gained an awareness of what whiteness could bring them, they embraced it, the authors say.
There is proof Italians didn’t always see themselves as white. In the 1880s, Italian immigrants occupied the East Harlem section of Manhattan. There still stands Church of Our Lady Mount Carmel on 116th street, one block from the East River, a vestige of that time. A giant festa took place in the neighborhood on the streets surrounding the church, to honor and celebrate the Madonna, an important figure for Italians.
But what started out as a party that drew “immigrants from all over southern Italy” became an important plot point in how Italians learned to navigate the shifting lines of race in America.
The following selection from Roediger’s book Colored White tell the story of how a neighborhood rejected what they believed to be a black stain on their path to whiteness.
The festa surrounding the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel there had its roots in devotions begun by immigrants from Pollo, near Naples, in the 1880s. The celebration in the Virgin’s honor, so brilliantly described in the work of Robert Orsi, became the “central communal event” in Italian Harlem, “drawing immigrants from all over southern Italy.” As Italian Americans…who were “finally well-off enough to get out” left the neighborhood (and often their parents) after World War II, ties of ethnicity and family became still more bound up with rituals of return to the festa. According to Orsi, the Puerto Ricans who transformed the area into Spanish Harlem had to be imagined as pushing out the Italians who left. Because of their “proximity” to Italian Americans in color, language, and (for a time, around Marcantonio) politics, Puerto Ricans represented a particular threat to the security of Italian American whiteness. One strategy in policing the line between Italian Americans and Puerto Ricans was to keep the latter unwelcome at the festa to the Madonna of 115th street. Indeed, Orsi adds, this racial imperative was so strong that the darker, but less “proximate” and therefore less threatening, Haitians could be included in the festa and could been be considered not so “black” as the Puerto Ricans. St. Ann’s Parish in East Harlem featured, in the image of San Benedetto (or “Il Moro,” as he was known in southern Italy), perhaps the most dramatic statue of a Black Italian saint in the United States. The son of slaves brought to Sicily from Ethiopia in the sixteenth century, Benedetto’s feast day was marked early in the century with some African Americans included in the Harlem festivities. Indeed, his transplantation to New York City suggests the possibility of a road not taken toward an egalitarian pan-Latin challenge to the hyper-whiteness of holiness. Italian Americans more typically took a road to white identity, and in many cases, to the suburbs. Puerto Rican worshippers inherited the statue, although a few Italian Americans persist in the parish. Elsewhere, San Benedetto became known as St. Benedict the Black, the patron saint of African Americans.