On Being Grafted: about the author
I am a grafted person. I come from six Italians who immigrated between 1905 and 1910: two from Basilicata (Ferrandina), two from Calabria (Longobucco) and two from Campania (Naples), who all settled in New York and New Jersey, and then converged in Brooklyn where my parents met as children in the 30’s. I was born in Staten Island (considered the countryside in 1961, before the Verrazano Bridge connected the island) but was raised in Connecticut, west and east of the Connecticut River.
Many of the articles in this series will explore aspects of the experience as an Italian American whose ethnicity was both central to my identity, yet was minimized and isolated in Mystic, a small New England historic whaling town.
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For decades I tried to describe a shadow, a negative space. I sought its source and words to describe it. At age 32 a black colleague gave me James Baldwin’s, Price of the Ticket, and it all broke open. Baldwin compassionately included the immigrant experience, explaining that being American required a price, a cost to assimilate to Whiteness, and only some got that ticket (especially Irish, Italians, Jews), while blacks could not, but many tried. That price might include your name, your language and most assuredly your culture.
Race: White; Complexion, Dark.
This is what was penned on various papers
my immigrant grandparents carried.
I do not equate willing immigration with forced servitude, but Baldwin’s words named the shadow for me. I began to understand that becoming White was a choice, which included being cut off from Italian culture. In my family it equated to speaking only English in the home, naming their children American names, and many other (micro) erasures. Whiteness was a pursuit; it was essential to survive.
But it left me adrift, without much information or experience that connected me to my origins. My grandparents and most of my aunts, uncles, and cousins lived hours away. There were few big Italian meals together, and I heard more Yiddish than Italian phrases in my household, the remnants from parents childhood in Brooklyn. So in the midst of Mystic, a town with deep Anglo roots, something in me felt wrong, out of place, disconnected.
Now, I call it a graft; I am a grafted person.