Saturday, August 13, 2016

What Is Race? Part One: Conversations With My Mother


Is it ethnicity? 

Is it skin color?

Is it bloodline? 

Is it national origin

Is it family heritage? 

Is it a choice?



Race and racial classification became so blatant in the United States during the early 20th Century that dark-skinned Italians were classified as a different race from light-skinned Italians. 


Italian immigrants with light skin were generally from northern Italy and were thought by American society to be and also thought themselves to be more closely associated racially to the French and Germans than to their dark-skinned southern Italian brethren. And there was a class difference between southern and northern Italians. 














"Are they white?" I asked my mother about the people who operated the corner store a little ways from where we lived when I was a little girl.


"They think they are," she said. "And they are trying to convince the rest of us that they are so the real white people won't treat them so bad."
The real white people? Who are they?"

"The ones who have been here long enough to convince everybody that they are white."


"What? That's not true! My friends aren't trying to convince me they're white! They're my friends!"

"Do they go to school with you?"

Italian Immigrant Farmers, 1910
"No."

"Have you every been inside their house, other than to use the telephone?"

"No."

"Well, then," she said. "They are not your friends! And they do not treat you like a friend! They treat you the same way rich people where they come from treated them before they left that place!"

The difference in the way people were treated back then and still today was based not only on the to tone of their complexion, but on economic class and high rates of poverty among some Southern Italians, hence, their reason for wholesale immigration to America in the first place.

"Once those people are here, they clamber for their children to reach the upper class," she said. "And they are not going to let your little black tail get in their way!"

The southerners came to American as a poor class looking for opportunity. Northern Italians were generally coming with money. So, the class difference that began with color was punctuated with a dollar bill. In order to earn passage to America, many Southern Italians who came with few financial resources were forced to indenture themselves and their families directly from Italy to work on plantations, landing them in the Mississippi Delta and other parts of the Deep South, arriving in the after slaves had been emancipated. 

This was a time when farm laborers were scarce with African Americans abandoning plantations for freedom in the cities. Many people have no knowledge of the history of Italians in Mississippi


Although many Italian immigrants came through New York's Ellis Island, many were indentured from that location into the American Deep South where farm workers were needed or they were recruited into slave-like conditions on large farms with overseers in the nearby Garden State of New Jersey or the large berry farms of Delaware and Massachusetts, many farms running very similarly as the southern plantation had before emancipation. 

Unlike white-skin northern Italian immigrants, allowed opportunities to create wealth once they arrived in America, dark-skinned southern Italians were treated as second-class alongside the Negro, the Mexican, the Indian and any other dark-skinned person and forced to work at hard physical labor until they could moved out of farm work.

In some cases dark-skinned people were legally classified as "colored" to make it more difficult for them to assimilate into mainstream communities. Therefore, for several generations, they remained in separate communities, churches, schools and families. This was particularly true in the Jim Crow south where the white ruling class used dark skin as a mark of inferiority and a convenient excuse to perpetuate discrimination and segregation onto another group.

"How do you know all this stuff?" I asked my mother. "Are you making it up?"


"I don't have to make up the truth," she said. "These are well-known facts."


She was right, of course. And when I grew up and understood the world better, I learned the truth for myself. People are not always the way they seem and it is not their fault sometimes. We are a product of our environment and our history. It takes great effort, investigation, study and experience to get past that.

"You watch what happens when you get about 12 years old," she said. 

"What will happen?"

"I don't want you mixing with them any more than their folks want them mixing with you."

"How do you know they want to mix with me?"

"Believe me, they're having the same conversations as ours," she said. "Although there's been a lot of  mixing going on for a very long time now."

Encyclopedia of African American SocietyGerald D. Jaynes
In the Encyclopedia of African American Society, Gerald D. Jaynes, editor of the two-volume reference and professor economics and African American Studies at Yale University, wrote on page 455, "In the rural South dark-skinned immigrants from Sicily often worked as sharecroppers or laborers on plantations alongside African Americans and they were treated similarly by employers." 

In Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past by David R. Roediger, one Italian immigrant interviewed by a Louisiana scholar remembered the early twentieth century as a time when "he and his family had been badly mistreated by a French plantation owner near New Roads, Louisiana, where he and his family were made to live among the Negroes and were treated in the same manner."

Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past by David R. Roediger
David R. Roediger 
Colored White:
Transcending the Racial Past
In fact, when I was growing in Texas in the 1950s and 1960s, there were many second and third generation Italians whose families had managed to escape the farms, save money and open stores in black neighborhoods. By this time, although many of the parents had darker complexions than mine, they had begun the process of gene bleaching their offspring.

By pairing with fair-skinned Italians, and marrying into white families, their children were lighter-skinned than them, a practice long practiced in some African American and other ethnic groups with dark skin going all the way back to the plantation and early America. Because lighter skin had a better chance for better treatment and success in the United States, it was a common practice. Everybody knew that! 

Chicago Soup Kitchen Opened by Al Capone 1931
Wikipedia, Creative Commons License
During the Great Depression, Native-born, former slave and immigrant families who were already entangled in tenant farm agreements were further victimized by the crashed economy and unable to pay their farm debts so they could leave the sharecropping system. Many ran away, leaving in the dead of night with their few belongings. Finding work in other locations, however, was impossible at that time with hungry people filing into cities looking for free food, public relief and charity handouts. 

Jobs had become scarce for all workers and especially for Italians and other recent immigrants, who were customarily subjected to increased discrimination and bigotry in times of economic distress. So, like former slaves, some unfortunate farm workers, including Italian and white sharecroppers, stayed on plantations where they could get a meal, even though, the meal cost them their freedom and held them in virtual slavery by the dishonest bookkeeping of farm owners who operated in the same fashion as before the Civil War. The difference was the workers were not exactly slaves; they were in debt to the farm store, a predicament also shared by a large number of poor white families who owned no land. 

Immigrants, who earned their way off of plantations, got jobs or opened businesses in Vicksburg, and sent their children to Catholic school where they could learn English and get an education. Most of these immigrants, unwelcome to reside in white neighborhoods and send their children to white public schools, lived among middle-class African Americans and sent their children to Catholic schools that also enrolled black students. The Delta's dominant class considered immigrants undesirable for assimilation because of immigrants' dark complexion, foreignness of their customs and former cotton-picker status, regardless of the white racial classification these immigrants may have claimed. 

My Italian friends and I, and they were and still are my dear friends, took a respite from each other around the time of puberty, encouraged by parents on both sides. We did not resume our friendship until we were all adults with spouses and children when the danger of mixing had passed. My mother was right, after all.

Be sure to read other conversations with my mother:


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    Bigmama Didn’t Shop  At Woolworth’s  Sunny Nash

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Sunny Nash author of bigmama didn't shop at woolworth's
Sunny Nash
Sunny Nash is an author, producer, photographer and leading writer on U.S. race relations. She writes books, blogs, articles and reviews, and produces media and images on U.S. history and contemporary American topics, ranging from Jim Crow laws to social media networking. Sunny Nash is the author of Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's (Texas A&M University Press), about life with her part-Comanche grandmother during the Civil Rights Movement.

Sunny Nash’s book is recognized by the Association of American University Presses as essential for understanding U.S. race relations. Nash's book is also listed in the Bibliographic Guide for black studies at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York; and recommended for Native American collections by the Miami-Dade Public Library System in Florida. Nash uses her book to write articles and blogs on race relations in America through topics relating to her life--from music, film, early radio and television, entertainment, social media, Internet technology, publishing, journalism, sports, education, employment, the military, fashion, performing arts, literature, women's issues, adolescence and childhood, equal rights, social and political movements--past and present—to today's post-racism.

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Sunny Nash – Race Relations in America

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