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Articles by: John Gennari

  • Facts & Stories

    Investigating Afro-Italian Intersections in Popular Music

    In the American popular imagination, an Italian man was a bootblack, a ditch-digger, a dago, a wop, a stiletto-wielding bandit. Or a lover – like Rudolph Valentino, whose film roles as a fantasy Mediterranean lover made him Hollywood’s first male sex symbol. Or a singer – like Enrico Caruso, the product of a Naples slum, who became a household name, a global media celebrity, the first international pop star of the twentieth century. 

    Italian men, like black men, were feared, reviled, denigrated, and subjected to ritual violence; they were also, like Bert Williams, Buddy Bolden, Louis Armstrong and other black entertainers, progenitors of a new and exciting modern culture, a culture of physical expressiveness, fleshly desire, motion, and emotion that changed American middle-class culture by overturning the country’s Puritan and Victorian mores. 

    In 1920s New York, Anglo middle-class slummers went to Harlem for the racy cabaret culture; white bohemians settled in Greenwich Village, meanwhile, where their rebellion against Victorian asceticism included their intimacy with Italian immigrants, who were seen as the most exotic of the European ethnic groups: dark-haired, olive-skinned, and descendants of a Mediterranean culture steeped in mystery and sensuality.

    Passione and Melancolia

    Pellegrino D’Acierno writes of Neapolitan song as a “music of passione (the Italian equivalent of “soul”) and exacerbated melancolia (the Italian equivalent of “blues”). We find similarly explicit analogizing between African American and southern Italian music in some of the responses to the film Passione (2010), John Turturro’s ode to the music and people of Naples. “The music in Passione,” wrote New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, “combines sensual suavity with raw emotion, mixes heartbreak with ecstasy, acknowledges the hard realities of poverty and injustice and soars above them. I suspect that if artists like Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding or Aretha Franklin were to see this film, they would recognize their own art within it.” 

    Songs of yearning, of fleshly pleasure, of love and love lost, bilateral aggression and derision, betrayal and revenge; songs that speak frankly about the intrigue and anguish of personal intimacy – this is the domain of the blues, soul, and Neapolitan music alike. The art in each of these idioms is a ritual of confrontation and catharsis, a sharing of feelings so deep as to exceed the capacity of verbal language – hence the power of this music even among listeners who may not understand the lyrics. The Neapolitan term of art is la comunicativa, an act of communication that is contagiously expressive.

    Unexpected Intersections

    The history of Afro-Italian intersection in popular music from jazz to doo-wop, soul to hip-hop, is a deep and fascinating one rooted in analogous and sometimes shared vernacular cultural practices of orality and aurality, sounding and listening. 

    A voluminous scholarly literature on African American music, religion, literature, social history, and even politics has taught us to recognize spaces of sounding and listening such as family social events, Baptist and Pentecostal church services, street corners, and barbershops as a central—some would say defining—feature of black vernacular culture. Italian American culture has a similar claim to soundfulness not simply as a valued ethnic trait and badge of communal solidarity, but as a foundational dimension of group discourse and sociality. 

    Much as is the case in African American culture, the canonical spaces of Italian American life are fundamentally audible and aural spaces. Dinner tables, kitchens, delis, cafés, pizzerias, social clubs, barbershops, schoolyards, candy stores, street corners, front stoops—what Joseph Sciorra calls “a beguiling realm” of “landmarks on the mythic topography of the Italian imaginary,” all of them scaled adaptations of the Italian piazza—are spaces where Italian Americans literally create themselves as a social body through practices of sounding and listening. What makes this acoustic terrain so vivid and richly layered is the performativity that marks it. D’Acierno describes Italians and Italian Americans as a people with a feeling for scenes and spectacle: not just a deep appreciation for the visual, musical, and performing arts, but a disposition to dramatize and aestheticize interpersonal and public encounters, to make the everyday world a “work of total art.”

    From Caruso to Armstrong

    In the first decades of the twentieth-century, the music of southern Italy circulated in a Mediterranean/Atlantic orbit connecting the peninsula and its islands to Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and both South and North America. Naples and Palermo were cultural crossroads where European, African, and Arab music had intermixed for centuries; the migrants who passed through these port cities on their way to the New World participated in the process of intercultural synthesis that produced jazz, the tango, the rumba, and other new song forms and dance styles which in turn traveled from New Orleans, Buenos Aires, Havana and other cities back across the Atlantic. 

    The growing phonograph record and music publishing industries commercialized this process and quickened its cultural impact. Caruso’s “Core ‘ngrato” was composed and recorded in New York, then returned to Italy to enter the canzone napoletana canon and serve over the next century as a symbol of authentic italianità. 

    In New Orleans, a teenager named Louis Armstrong went to work in Henry Matranga’s honky-tonk saloon; there, among Sicilians and blacks, he first heard Caruso on record. This helps account for the operatic bravura of Armstrong’s trumpet style, his red hot high-register pyrotechnics, and his cagy habit of sneaking opera sound bites into his solos (the so-called “Rigoletto break” in his 1927 recording “New Orleans Stomp,” the quotation of “Vesti la giubba” in his 1930 and 1932 recordings of “Tiger Rag”). Armstrong knew a lot of opera aside from his Caruso favorites, but it was from Caruso, above all, jazz critic Ben Ratliff provocatively suggests, that Armstrong absorbed the “long tones and flowing annunciatory statements” that the trumpeter used “to change the jerky, staccato nature of early jazz.”


    A must Read:

    Flavor and Soul: Italian America at its African American Edge

    John Gennari

    University of Chicago Press 

    Pag. 269 $30

    In the United States, African American and Italian cultures have been intertwined for more than a hundred years. From as early as nineteenth-century African American opera star Thomas Bowers—“The Colored Mario”—all the way to hip-hop entrepreneur Puff Daddy dubbing himself “the Black Sinatra,” the affinity between black and Italian cultures runs deep and wide. Once you start looking, you’ll find these connections everywhere. Sinatra croons bel canto over the limousine swing of the Count Basie band. Snoop Dogg deftly tosses off the line “I’m Lucky Luciano ’bout to sing soprano.” Like the Brooklyn pizzeria and candy store in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever, or the basketball sidelines where Italian American coaches Rick Pitino and John Calipari mix it up with their African American players, black/Italian connections are a thing to behold— and to investigate. In Flavor and Soul, John Gennari spotlights this affinity, calling it “the edge”—now smooth, sometimes serrated—between Italian American and African American culture. He argues that the edge is a space of mutual emulation and suspicion, a joyous cultural meeting sometimes darkened by violent collision. Through studies of music and sound, film and media, sports and foodways, Gennari shows how an Afro-Italian sensibility has nourished and vitalized American culture writ large, even as Italian Americans and African Americans have fought each other for urban space, recognition of overlapping histories of suffering and exclusion, and political and personal rispetto. Thus, Flavor and Soul is a cultural contact zone—a piazza where people express deep feelings of joy and pleasure, wariness and distrust, amity and enmity. And it is only at such cultural edges, Gennari argues, that America can come to truly understand its racial and ethnic dynamics. 

    *John Gennari is Associate Professor of English and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies, University of Vermont. This excerpt from his Flavor and Soul is printed with permission from the University of Chicago Press. 

  • Multi ethnic kids
    Our multi-ethnic kids (photo: DPH, State of Connecticut)

    Keeping America Great

    We live in Vermont, bluest state in the nation, in the part of the state – greater Burlington -- that is home to Bernie Sanders and that voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton against Trump. The local political culture often defies national patterns. Here, Bernie gets attacked from the left as a war criminal and corporate lackey. The newly elected Republican governor has distanced himself from Trump and vowed to resist the administration’s refugee and immigration ban. So too have a number of other state officials, including Burlington’s chief of police, citing his sworn duty to defend and uphold the U.S. Constitution. Chief Brandon del Pozo, a former New York City cop reared in Bensonhurst, is Jewish and Cuban but commonly mistaken for Italian. At an inauguration day teach-in at the University of Vermont, chief del Pozo highlighted his efforts to diversify his department through targeted recruiting in the city’s immigrant neighborhoods. He has a particular candidate in mind, a young Somali man with a good feel for the streets, a mature and steady temperament, and a passion for service to the community.

    Feeling at home in multi-ethnic Burlington, VT

    Much of the ethnic and national diversity that exists in Burlington comes from its refugee resettlement populations of Vietnamese, Bosnians, Bhutanese, Congolese, Rwandans, Sudanese, Somalis, and others. UVM and several other area colleges add a modest number of U.S. people of color and foreign nationals to the demographic mix. The same progressive attitude and missionary impulse behind Burlington’s officially welcoming posture toward refugees might also explain its high incidence of international and interracial adoption; remarkably, in spite of being one of the country’s whitest states, Vermont has the highest percentage of multi-racial families in the nation. My own family promotes local diversity in several of these ways. My wife, Emily Bernard, is African American. We adopted our daughters, Giulia and Isabella, in Ethiopia ten years ago. My teaching and scholarship focus on ethnic and racial edges and contact zones, especially the intersections and overlaps between Italian American and African American culture. Emily, also a UVM professor, is a noted Harlem Renaissance scholar and writes beautifully about interracial friendship.

    For me, Burlington felt like home just as soon as my wife and I moved here in 2001. I grew up a morning’s drive away in a small town in western Massachusetts, close enough so that when we moved into our first Vermont house, my parents came up to help me put in tomato plants, stock our refrigerator with salami and cheese, and roll a few batches of fresh pasta.  New England whiteness is deeply familiar to me—both the ethnic working-class tradespeople who remind me of the construction workers, plumbers, electricians, and welders (my father’s trade) on both sides of my family, and the WASP elites, like the Berkshire gentry whose draperies were sown by my mother, a skill she’d honed as a teenager working in a northern New Jersey textile factory with fellow Italian American women. Familiar, too, is the texture and rhythm of everyday life:  the weather, the sports rivalries, the beers, the sound of radio and TV broadcasters’ voices.

    Leave or stay?

    Emily grew up in black middle-class Nashville nursing a romantic vision of this region: the New England of fiery Puritan preachers and righteous abolitionists, the literary culture of Melville, Hawthorne, James, and Wharton. She loves old farmhouses and churches and has a special fascination with the region’s oldest cemeteries – those beautifully morbid tombstones sticking out from weeds just off the side of the road, so much more organic than the over-cultivated, ornately gated spaces of the New South. And yet, for all of her Yankee Gothic romanticism, Emily struggles mightily to claim this place as her own, to feel that she belongs here. Like many of our non-white friends, colleagues, and students, she is both invisible and over-visible. When we visit her brothers in Brooklyn, or just walk the streets in Montreal (90 miles north of Burlington), Emily is noticeably more relaxed, looser, freer. 

    Rare is the week that passes without Emily telling me that we need to think about moving to a place with more people of color and a deep history of multi-racialism (however messy), not just a fashionable rhetoric of “diversity.” Equally rare is the week when Emily doesn’t redouble her commitment to staying and fighting for a better Vermont. “Can I make a home here?” Emily writes in her forthcoming book, Black is the Body. “Every day for the last fifteen years, the question has tagged along with me. My daughters’ bus driver and I trade book recommendations in the morning as the girls clomp up the stairs to their seats: Stay. In the parking lot of the grocery store, a white man with a slick bald head looks at me, my license plate, and then shakes his head in disgust. Leave.” 

    Much of our daily life – as colleagues in UVM’s program in Critical Race and Ethnic Studies, mentors to students of color and their white allies, parents actively involved in our children’s elementary school, members of our Lutheran church’s social justice committee and of an informal social group of multi-racial families – involves engaging with people who are the face of a new and changing Vermont. One of the reasons “stay” continues to win out is the bracing example of the newest Americans in our community, especially the younger generation, our daughter’s age and older, who are proud to be Vermonters and insist that Vermonters recognize them as their own.

    Keeping America Great

    We’ve found special inspiration in “Muslim Girls Making Change,” a group of local high school students who perform social justice-themed spoken word slam poetry in venues across the state and have won both national and international acclaim. These are vibrant, academically serious young women, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out a decade from now that one of them had graduated from medical school and joined the thousands of Muslim doctors (and the more than 10,000 licensed physicians in the U.S. who graduated from medical school in the seven countries named in the president’s travel ban) who work in underserved areas of our country. They are also American teenage girls, and when they visited our home last fall they spent the evening gabbing with Giulia and Isabella about the excellence of Snapchat and Taylor Swift and the deficiencies of the local malls.

    As the Trump administration now moves quickly—if with stunning incompetence—to enact its Islamophobic agenda, I still don’t know how to answer the question my daughters posed on that dreaded morning last November. But I do know this: in defiance of Trump and everything he and his supporters believe and stand for, here in Vermont it is our Muslim neighbors who are keeping America great and making us feel right at home.


    * John Gennari is an American Studies-trained U.S. cultural historian at the University of Vermont. He specializes in different aspects of race and ethnic studies and Italian American cultural studies. Dr. Gennari has written several books and essays, including his forthcoming Flavor and Soul: Italian America at its African American Edge (University of Chicago Press, April 2017).