Italian American Artists on Race, Ethnicity, and Ethnic Relations in Their Work

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Italian American artists, such as Madonna, Louise DeSalvo, Marianna De Marco Torgovnick, and Kym Ragusa have approached the topic of race intricately, personally, creatively, and analytically through their music and writings. Madonna took a creative route, using metaphors and symbolistic scenic imagery to call attention to racial injustice. Torgovnick approached her relationship with race by identifying the privilege and security she had being a part of an Italian neighborhood. In all of these artistic works, the universal theme of race and relation to race are addressed and further scrutinized.

In 1989, Madonna’s pop song,“Like a Prayer” was released. The song had suggestive lyrics, such as, “I’m down on my knees, I wanna take you there.” When the music video debuted, it sparked outrage and received tons of backlash from the general public. She was seen as shameful in the eyes of the Italian community. The music video showed Madonna wearing a dress deemed to be rather provocative, crosses burning, the portrayal of a black Jesus, stigmatas on her hands, the setting of a church, a black choir, and the main scene of the music video that speaks volume to the theme of racism and injustice. Madonna used “Like a Prayer” to make a creative statement during a time when racial injustice was very prominent and ignored.

Behind the lyrics, Madonna urges people to unite in order to fix social issues. She asks of people to not only take responsibility, but to take initiative in realizing and helping the problems. In one lyric she sings, “Life is a mystery, everyone must stand alone.” She sings of how it will take more than a prayer to fix these problems. There needs to be a physical initiative taken if anything will be solved. This idea is also exemplified in the burning of the crosses. There was less of a reliance on religion. That powerful scene didn’t go over well with the Italian community; seeing as religion, particularly catholicism, was highly prioritized in their lives. Madonna contrasted all of the ideals, traditions, and norms that Italian women were held to.

At one point of the music video, Madonna witnesses a white woman being murdered by a group of white men. A black man appears at the scene of the murder to try to save her, but instead ends up looking like the perpetrator in the woman’s murder. He is then sent to jail, where Madonna goes to give her statement of what she saw, and bails him out. The black man being instantly suspected for her murder can be compared to Jesus in that he is crucified for doing nothing wrong. Madonna uses historical accounts and images of Jesus to metaphorically explain how the innocence of black people are stripped and condemned. She identifies herself with the racial issue in the music video as another example of taking action.

Madonna continued to be a voice for the voiceless and embrace herself, without feeling the need to assimilate to the culture of that time. For her decisions, and the way she chose to present herself, she was not well received by people amongst the Italian community. This idea of non-conformity is also seen with Italian popstar, Lady Gaga. She also didn’t fit the traditional mold of a young Italian woman.

In Louise DeSalvo’s, Crazy in the Kitchen, DeSalvo offers up her knowledge through experience of what it means to be Italian. She uses food as a concept to assist in her storytelling. The book opens with this significance of DeSalvo’s grandmother’s bread. There is tedious routine and many superstitions tied to this bread. Her grandmother wears the same clothes as she makes the bread. Then she takes off her clothes. She then goes upstairs and lets the dough rise on the platform. Next, she dresses herself.

Then she places blankets besides the rising dough. She shapes her dough, then brings it upstairs to rise again. Lastly, she bakes it in the oven in the basement. Her grandmother’s almost formulaic routine allows to her to feel closer to her Italian roots. It is a form of what she is used to. It is a way in which she expresses her ethnicity. Her baking the bread in the oven downstairs reminds her of the communal oven she would often bake the bread in back in Italy. “My grandmother doesn’t mind going downstairs to bake her bread because in her village in Italy she had to bring her bread to a communal oven for baking when she collected enough flour to make a loaf of bread.”

Her grandmother keeps up with her baking routine and also consistently says the rosary before she goes to bed. She didn’t dissociate with her Italian roots when she came to America. DeSalvo’s mother doesn’t fully identify with her Italian heritage. She also welcomes her American side. Her mother chooses to not eat the grandmother’s bread due to the fear that she will “…stop being Italian American and she will become American American.” DeSalvo’s mother is more comfortable with relying on canned goods at convenience stores, seeing as though she cannot cook. Her mother isn’t as nitpicky with the ingredients she cooks with.

DeSalvo also identifies her family’s relation to their ethnicity by using examples in her life that support the idea of bella figura. She speaks of her mother’s embarrassment of DeSalvo’s grandmother, and how it affects her imagine and how she appears to be by others. “We can hear my mother in the living room complaining about how, if she ever wanted to, she could never have a friend for tea in the afternoon, with my grandmother walking around the house in her underwear.”

DeSalvo also tells the story of how her grandfather preferred to be buried in his one and only nice suit, even though he was a working man who couldn’t afford many materialistic items. “My grandfather didn’t want to imagine himself going to the other side in a damaged suit. That would have made a bad impression, would have brought disgrace to his family.” The idea of having to be seemingly perfect plays into how her family identified with their Italian culture.

In “On Being White, Female, and Born in Bensonhurst,” Torgovnick writes about growing up in a neighborhood full of other other Italian families. Some of those families have lived in the same neighborhood for years, like her parents. Generations of Italians move in and out keeping the continuous cycle of only Italian families going. There is a strong sense of campanilismo within this neighborhood. They all relate to one another due to their origins and shared culture. There’s a presence of unity and familiarity within the community. Bensonhurst’s provincialism places an “ancestral claim” on her neighborhood. It’s their territory. Anyone who is not Italian is not welcomed. Torgovnick speaks of the murder of a black man who was walking through her neighborhood.

“I might have felt outrage, I might have felt guilt or shame, I might have despised the people among whom I grew up; in a way I felt all four emotions when I heard the news. I expect that there were many people in Bensonhurst itself who felt the same rush of emotions. But mostly I felt that, given the setup, this was the only way things could have happened.”

Anyone who wasn’t a part of the neighborhood posed as a threat to the neighborhood. Torgovnick’s identity is largely defined by her association with her neighborhood. She believed what the neighborhood stood for. Her preservation of her culture in her neighborhood was more of a priority than the tragedy of the situation. Her neighborhood is essentially what makes her the Italian girl she is. Her neighborhood, and its structure is the life she is accustomed to.

In “SANGU DU SANGU MEU: Growing up Black and Italian in a time of White Flight,” Kym Ragusa writes about how she struggled to find her footing in both her black and Italian culture. Ragusa felt rejected from her father who didn’t claim her as his own when she was younger.

“This denial was my legacy, with each side of the family vehemently refusing their own history, rejecting their own experiences of racial/ethnic discrimination and economic struggle in exchange for silence.”

When she moved to the other side of town she was a target because of her skin color. She became a victim of bullying, only seen for her black side. Her Italian side was negated. People in the neighborhood didn’t feel comfortable living near her and her family. She speaks of how white flight affected the neighborhood. She could never settle down and feel a real sense of home where she could comfortably associate herself with her mixed culture.

Many Italian American artists struggled with, assimilated, prioritized, or stood apart from their Italian culture. Through their art, they expressed their identify as being either a part of, or not claiming their ethnicity. Some artists experienced privileges and grew up with traditions as if it were second nature to them. Others felt like they had to earn their way in or prove themselves to their culture.

Work Cited

  1. Madonna. “Madonna – Like A Prayer (Official Music Video).” YouTube, YouTube, 26 Oct. 2009, www.youtube.com/watch?v=79fzeNUqQbQ.
  2. “Like A Prayer Lyrics – Madonna.” Genius Lyrics, geniuslyrics.net/madonna/like-a-prayer/.
  3. DeSalvo, Louise A. Crazy in the Kitchen: Food, Feuds, and Forgiveness in an Italian American Family. Bloomsbury, 2005.
  4. De Marco Torgovnick, Marianna. “On Being White, Female, and Born in Bensonhurst”. Torgovnick, Marianna De Marco. Crossing Ocean Parkway. University of Chicago Press, 1996.
  5. Ragusa, Kym. “SANGU DU SANGU MEU: Growing up Black and Italian in a Time of White Flight”.
  6. Guglielmo, Jennifer, and Salvatore Salerno. Are Italians White?: How Race Is Made in America. Routledge, 2003.

Cite this paper

Italian American Artists on Race, Ethnicity, and Ethnic Relations in Their Work. (2021, Jan 25). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/italian-american-artists-on-race-ethnicity-and-ethnic-relations-in-their-work/

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