On March 14, 1891, 11 Italian Americans were lynched by a mob of thousands of (presumably Anglo- and Franco-American) men in the streets of New Orleans. The mob had forced their way into a jail and removed the victims after they’d been acquitted of involvement in the murder of the town’s police chief. The evidence against the 11 men was slim to nonexistent. One of the rioters (who didn’t testify) had said that the dying man’s words implicated “the dagos”. That, plus the smoldering hatred in the city for the town’s Italian-American minority (most of them of Sicilian origin) was all it took to set off the powderkeg.
I am marking this grim event today on what is ostensibly a show biz blog because it is more than relevant to what we do here. It came to me recently, when I participated in the Marx Brothers Council’s Podcast about Chico Marx. One of us (maybe me, maybe someone else, I can’t remember) had proffered the notion that perhaps Italian-Americans are as accepting as they have always seemed to be of Chico’s stereotyped character because they hadn’t undergone the same amount of prejudice in the U.S. as some more obvious or better known groups. And of course that’s not true, not even a little. Unfortunately the rebuttal didn’t occur to me until the show was done. There’s this gruesome event in New Orleans, But that wasn’t the only example. In 1899, another three Italian men were lynched in Louisiana for serving black customers in their stores. Nor were the sentiments limited to that region or to the 19th century. Sacco and Vanzetti were railroaded and executed in Massachusetts 30 years after the New Orleans atrocity. And in 1933, the KKK held an anti-Italian rally in Vineland, New Jersey.
By the mid and late 20th century, after America had come to revere too many Italian-American sports and entertainment figures to calculate (I’d also add scholars, scientists, and so forth but America doesn’t worship those), overt violence against them ceased. But derogatrory nicknames were still being used when I was a kid in the 1970s. “Guinea” was the most frequently employed one where I grew up, an ancient slur that implies that darker skinned Southern Europeans are related to the people of West Africa. And Italians are still stereotyped in our entertainment. Which brings up the other event that precipitated this essay. I was watching Green Book a few months ago. Irrespective of how many awards it won, that flick’s got a carload of problems. One of them is that, in a movie that’s supposed to be about overcoming stereotypes and prejudice, the Italian characters are all depicted as a bunch of goombahs from the Fugeddaboutit School of Dramatic Arts, with a Scandinavian playing the Italian-American lead.
Listen: like the Farrelly Brothers, I am from Rhode Island, which has the highest percentage of Italian people of any state in the Union. You think I haven’t spent HOURS of my life talking in a comical Italian voice? In fact, I did ALL the funny accents. Are you kidding? It was a STAPLE of American comedy. You know what was just getting started at around the same time as that New Orleans lynching? The vaudeville circuits. And as readers of this blog and my books well know, stereotype was the stock in trade in vaudeville, silent film and beyond. Especially in those days, a century and more ago, every comedian carried around a personal repertoire of ethnic specialties: blackface, Hebrew, Irish, Italian, etc. Same with Tin Pan Alley songwriters, who cranked out tunes with lyrics full of stereotypes, sometimes comical, sometimes sentimental. There was some complaint, but mostly audiences ate it up.
I think they did so because the immigration (and Great Migration) spigots were turned on, and suddenly all of these disparate and unfamiliar groups were thrust together for the first time. It was a wary process. These groups observed each other from across cultural gulfs. They encountered different voices, different vocabularies, even different body language. These new folkways had the attraction of novelty…and vaudeville was all about novelty. Vaudevillians became fascinated by the various cultural differences, but in a manner that was more like an infatuation than real love.
Puppy love is symptomatic of immaturity, arrested development. The cultural equivalent is valuing tradition over positive growth. And long after vaudeville was gone, radio, films and television perpetuated comedy traditions, including ethnic stereotype. Sometimes the stereotypes grew subtler or more muted, but they remained in place pretty stubbornly. As a performer and as a writer, stereotype was part and parcel of my own work for years. It was a knee-jerk thing. Stock voices came to me reflexively. Old friends will tell you. I spent a lot of time on the other side of where the line is now. Later, I told myself I was “examining” stereotypes, or sending them up, though when I really thought about it, I couldn’t say exactly how. A few years ago, a collaborator queried me about some choices I made in a play. I got defensive, exploded, called him a nasty name, and we didn’t speak for years. My reaction of course was a tell. That reaction always is. The explosion, the defensiveness, the doubling down — it’s always an unwitting admission of guilt on some level.
A few years ago I erected a sort of mental electric fence to keep myself from the compulsion of doing ethnic lampoon. It’s not as hard as I would have thought. One reason, far from saintly, is that I’m just sick of it. I used to groan and hold my nose when Robin Williams went there all the time, with the black guy voice, the Indian guy voice, the queer voice. I got to thinking about why that is, why it now strikes me that way. Yes, it is disrespectful of the people being depicted, making them the butt of everyone else’s merrmiment. Not just because it is rude and insulting but also because it is facile and lazy, which is ultimately, also a form of disrespect. Stereotype is like a kind of shorthand. You haven’t troubled to create a three dimensional portrait, you’ve pulled out some stock inventory. It’s like when you were a kid and had a pat way of drawing Snoopy, and you always did it the same way. You’re presenting scarecrows instead of sculptures representing real people, who are diverse and complex.
Worse (and the reason I bring up something as seemingly light as ethnic comedy in a rumination that commenced with a lynching), is that stereotype is part of our architecure of callousness. Dehumanization enables cruelty. It is the first step on a staircase that takes you down to the dungeon. Stereotype maintains the gulfs that separate us. Taking the trouble to really learn about people and know them, bridges those gulfs. And that’s really where we ought to be at in the 21st century. The concept of difference is no longer new to us, or at least it shouldn’t be. It is what we DO in America. The most interesting and richest stuff that came out of vaudeville, to me, anyway, the stuff of lasting importance, was the cross-fertilization that took place. African Americans took German marches and syncopated them, creating ragtime and then jazz. Irish and African American dance forms merged to form tap. People of every conceivable identity performed together onstage and interacted and got to know each other and made a new thing that had all of them in it. Not doing that as a culture looks like January 6 or the murder of George Floyd, both of which are flashbacks to that day in New Orleans, and many another day like it. And, as I write this, and the internet is flutter with strife over seemingly frivolous matters like Dr, Seuss, The Muppets, Mr. Potato Head, and Warner Brothers cartoons, consider the possibility that these aren’t little things, these aren’t molehills. They are the tips of icebergs.
On a VERY related topic, please join me Wednesday, for my talk on the Irish on vaudeville.