How “Black Lives Matter” Helped Me Embrace Myself

The title of this article might shock some, especially anyone who has seen me and doesn’t really know me.  To most of the world, I would be identified as a Caucasian woman, someone who came from the land of bologna and white bread…that’s not where I came from, however. When I am in predominately African-American southern churches or in churches that I, myself cover (which encompass 19 of the 21 ministries I cover), I am sure that many wonder how I got there or what I am doing there.  The people who don’t know me never knew, and because I don’t talk a lot about my personal life, most don’t know the ins and outs of how I became a woman associated with white culture that recognizes the relevance and importance in the work of Black Lives Matter.

I am definitely a lesson in the fact that looks can be deceiving.  Don’t let the blonde hair and white skin fool you.  Behind these gray eyes is a predominately second-generation Italian-American who was raised on butter and pastina, tomato sauce, and pasta in its many varied forms.  I’ve been told I look just like my grandmother, whose immigrant family hailed from Calabria, the region of Italy closest to Sicily while still attached to the land (the tip of the boot, you might say).  I don’t know what my father’s ancestry was; he didn’t know himself, and it wasn’t something he ever talked about.  My dad really didn’t have any family and they seemed distant in terms of who we were as people.  As far as I have always been concerned, I was Italian.  We ate Italian food; we were Catholic and we went to mass; I went to the feast of San Giuseppe every year, where they read the mass in Italian; and I heard about my Italian relatives.

There was something different about me, however. I knew other Italians; I didn’t look like them.  Now as an adult I understand that is because I have a form of albinism that affects about one out of every 25,000 people.  I didn’t know this all those years ago, and had I known it, I think it would have probably caused me to feel very isolated and like an outcast.  When I was young, people assumed I was Irish, because I had a dark, red color hair that in the right light almost looked like it had shades of brown in it and blue eyes (that have faded since due to the albinism).  As I got older and my hair got darker, I don’t think anyone thought much about it anymore, except that I did seem to be awfully pale for an Italian, as they used to say (I have since learned there are Italians of every shade, not just dark).  The people who knew me knew I was Italian, but we didn’t think too much about it, for one simple reason that I recognize in hindsight: being Italian had, by that point in time, become a part of being white.

When I was growing up, Italian culture as I grew up with and as I now understand it to be was quickly fading.  It wasn’t lost on me that most of the people at mass on the feast of San Giuseppe were well into their sixties and seventies, and there weren’t many younger people there.  Most of the people who considered themselves to be Italian and Catholic were older people; in fact, the priest they brought in for the service in Italian was well into his seventies when I was in high school.  For the most part, however, Italians of my generation and those after me did not identify as Italian.  In the pursuit to assimilate into American culture and to become Americans, Italians in this country often gave up their own heritages, language, customs, and identity to fit in better with white society.

When I was in junior high, in some class of mine they made us do a family history project where we had to research the countries where our families were from and create family trees.  They had us go on a “virtual fieldtrip” to Ellis Island where we watched a tour of Ellis Island on television.  My mother thought it was stupid because it was so sanitized, as was much of the history that we learned as children.  So she took it upon herself to make sure I learned about Italian culture…so I learned about Italian-American culture.  We started with a book by Richard Gambino, called Blood of My Blood: A History Of Italians In America, which talked about the intricacies of Italian culture in American history and the reality that Italians were not welcome in this country.  Without getting into many of the specifics here, the book revealed that Italians were often classified along with or lower than the blacks, even banned from entering the United States under ordinance of Franklin D. Roosevelt during his presidency.  Italian-American history is full of persecutions and lynchings, including the largest lynching in American history, perpetrated against Italians in New Orleans.

It’s a part of our history that has been lost; it’s not taught, it’s not embraced, and that is all because the immigrants wanted so much to be accepted, nobody got out there and pushed the fact that “Italian lives matter.”  Instead, the beatings and lynchings beat down the immigrant populations so far that they intermarried, changed their names from the original languages (first as well as last), and lost their own identities to fit in with a larger culture.  Now, in many ways, our culture and our history is gone.

As an adult, I am an Italian-American woman who has spent a good part of her adulthood in the south, among African-American congregations.  I have very few Caucasian friends, and being down in the south, I have almost no Italian culture around me.  I have to go far and wide to find good Italian sausage and the best Italian restaurant I can find is in my own kitchen, where my mother and I spend days arguing over who is going to make what, and when.  I don’t mind where I am, however.  When I lived in predominately Caucasian communities, people expected me to be “white” and they did not hold a lot of respect or interest for Italian culture.  It never bothered me or made me want to be anything other than what I am, but it definitely proved what happened to Italians throughout history.

If we don’t fight to preserve who we are, we will lose it. That is what I have learned through my own life.  It is also the essence of why Black Lives Matter is important.

The past few months and the different incidents of brutality and violence that have occurred have made me think a lot about life and about the messages that we are given in society, even from a young age, about race.  We don’t live in a colorless society, no matter how much people might want to try to erase matters of race from our histories and realities.  I was never aware how supremacist-oriented the education we receive in our schools was until all this started and I started thinking about it one day.  We skip from ice ages and Neanderthal man to Europe and Charlemagne and the great and mighty Europe strikes forth to save the world from itself.  We learn little about ancient Africa, Asia, even Latin American cultures except for the association that what they did was heathenistic and ungodly.  They are quick to equate these ancient civilizations with child sacrifice or ritualistic violence, and we are told that civilization came to these places when Europeans came into power and colonized them.  We learn little about European civilizations, save Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Germany.  It is as if southwest Europe doesn’t even exist in a modern context, and eastern European countries cased to have relevance prior to the soviet bloc.  Ancient civilizations such as Egypt and Greece aren’t taught in a way that connect them to modern societies and save trade or colonization, modern-day Africa and Asia don’t exist, either.  I wouldn’t say I had racist teachers (at least that I knew of), but it’s not even on account of them.  Rather, it is the way they were taught, our texts were taught, and we were taught, as if the history we embraced was completely factual, rather than seeing it from the perspective that history has long been written by the victors, rather than those who lived through it.

When I go to fill out a form, it is expected that the box I check is “Caucasian.” There is no box on an American form for what I am or that accurately represents my race from a cultural perspective.  Had I been younger and realized all this, I wouldn’t have known who I was or where I fit in.  To me now, it does not matter, but it makes me wonder how many other people, how many other cultures have been lost as people try to fit in somewhere that wants to swallow them up and make it so they do not any longer exist.

History is important. Culture is important.  I do not believe God asks us to stop embracing where we come from to be a part of His people.  Isn’t that a part of the concept that every nation, every people shall call upon the Lord?

Society may tell us that certain lives matter more than others.  If I let society tell me who I am, then they are telling me my life doesn’t matter, either.  But I do matter. Every life that has been lost due to brutality or violence matters.  They matter whether the powers that be want them to, or not.

And, as we work on, their memories will remain.

(c) 2016 Lee Ann B.  Marino.  All rights reserved.


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