Friday, December 30, 2016

The Garden of History: Viewing Sacco and Vanzetti Through a Lens of Trumpery



It's a New Year. I hope 2017 is not the year in which we say goodbye to the two century-plus long experiment in American democracy. Or, equally as worrying, the beginning of a political breakdown that will lead to social decay and widespread suffering. Unless we already that year in 2016.
            My novel "Suosso's Lane" was begun before a time of Trumpery -- here's an actual dictionary definition: "trumpery: showy but worthless" -- but set in an era with chillingly contemporary resonances.
            Back in 1920, the year the Sacco-Vanzetti case began, the America of almost a century ago was experiencing a period of heavy immigration and growing hostility toward immigrants. What is seldom remembered today is that fear and anger was expressed toward white-skinned people who came to the US from Southern and Eastern Europe -- Italians, Poles, Russians, Greeks, Serbs, Turks, Portuguese, and others. The single largest immigrant nationality then was Italian.
            It's hard to imagine Americans getting upset over people with Italian ancestry today -- take it up with Andrew Cuomo or Bill DiBlasio -- but prejudice against 'the Italians' was a major reason why a Massachusetts jury convicted two Italian immigrants of murder in 1920 after a bigoted trial offering absurdly thin evidence of their guilt.
            It's worth remembering the term "wop," a pejorative for Italian, stands for "without papers." When the young Joe DiMaggio began playing baseball for the Yankees, the other players commonly referred to him as "the wop."
            The pejorative term presumes a foreign national has not entered the country through legal channels. This was certainly the case for some immigrants during the peak period for European immigration, 1880-1920, though millions entered through legal channels in New York and other ports of entry.
            Today, people are branded "illegal" if they cross the border to enter this country by means that people in trouble or in need have always taken -- any way they can.
            They come in especially large numbers when economics are good here and bad elsewhere -- as was especially true for the Italians of Sacco and Vanzetti's time.
            But people from the rest of the world have always come to this country without legal permission. If those of us born in the United States were to trace our origins, I suspect a great percentage of us would find someone in our line entering the American mix without a stamp from Ellis Island, or its equivalent.
            Let's remember in particular that the USA was born in New England, that New England grew from the Pilgrim and Boston Puritan colonies, and that these English colonists who staked their claim to these new homes sought no permissions from the indigenous population and basically took what they wanted of the land and other resources they found here. An enormous number of Americans claim "Mayflower" or Pilgrim ancestry.
            Good on you. Yes, that means you're Americans. But you were never "legal." We the people of the United States of America were never legal.
            So a political movement whose appeal and power base thrills to the notion of building a wall strikes me as fundamentally hypocritical.
            Our unique history as a people, a citizenry, also means that there has never been any such thing as an American "nationality."
            If you try to picture "an American," what does he or she look like? You can't do it. You can only picture a group. The Americans have always been a picture of diversity.