Hope Matters, 1970–2020


Being Italian

“How dare Ali insult me like this!” Mother’s voice trembled as she stared at the “Happy Vacation” card from my wealthy cousin.

“That Alice! Only feels superior when she puts other people down. Or gets her daughter to.”

“Not at all, Mom.” I patted her back. “Everyone knows you get the best tan in the family.” Though by 1970, when I was twelve, I knew no one said stuff like what my cousin Ali had written.

In honor of her brother’s finally going away on vacation “down the Cape” rather than doing perpetual day trips in the greater Boston area, Aunt Alice-in-Wonderland (Father’s name for his airy, lace curtain Irish sister) sent our family a “vacation gift package” with suntan lotion, hot pink towels, and Neutrogena sunburn cream for Dad and me. Ali made a card for each of us. Dad’s and mine just said stuff like “Have fun!” and “Love the Cape!” with rough sketches of loopy blue waves and beaming suns. But Mother’s had a whole rhyme to it and two drawings.

On the outside—oh my toes curl just remembering it!—was a tan woman in a bathing suit with big brown curly hair lying on a pink towel, presumably one of the new ones, presumably Mother, even though her hair wasn’t that curly, had thinned a lot recently, and by then was mostly gray. Underneath, Ali wrote, “Sun yourself and get a tan!” And inside there was a drawing of a darker brown person with even bigger hair, and only wearing swimming trunks. I thought at first it was just a poor depiction of Mother on her stomach with a low-back-cut bathing suit and a head that turned like an owl’s. It seemed unfinished. The figure was just suspended, no scenery or towel at all. The caption read, “But don’t look like a colored man.”

Mother was in tears. “Why does it always come back to me being Italian, when I grew up in a decent part of Cambridge with plenty to eat while your father’s family didn’t have a GD pot to do you-know-what in that East Cambridge slum.”

“Don’t worry, Mom. It’s not about you being Italian at all.”

Of course, I saw the card as both racist and anti-Italian, but what good would it have done to admit this to my poor mother. I was also trying to convince myself that Ali didn’t intend to be prejudiced. Part of me still looked up to my blonde, beautiful, popular, teenage, suburban cousin. I knew it wasn’t acceptable to call Blacks “colored,” hadn’t been for as long as I could remember. But the nuns still said “colored,” and I vaguely accepted that they weren’t racist, just not really “of the world.” I persuaded myself that people in the suburbs were probably as out of it as nuns since they hardly ever saw anyone Black. I wanted to assume Ali didn’t know any better. It was less painful than the truth that my ritzy cousin was a repugnant piece of work to even come up with the idea that Italians could suddenly morph, unawares, into Blacks. Nasty to Italians. Vicious to Blacks.

Mrs. Ellis—the “British-pinko-commie-gowny-socialist-revolutionary,” according to Father—for whom I babysat, said you could never trust anyone from the ’burbs.

Being Black Irish

I’d repressed the “little black lie” Mother made me tell when I was five, right before I started kindergarten.

Quite suddenly, all those years ago, Mother began talking about eye color, shades of hair, and skin tone. She’d casually drop into the conversation something like “Your father’s complexion is fair. He’s got light brown hair. Blue eyes. Very white skin.” She explained how she was darker, with her brown eyes, deep brunette hair, her olive skin. Or words to that effect. It’s hard to remember what exactly someone said when you didn’t really understand its implications.

I concluded she meant that because St. Michael’s was an Irish parish, they didn’t like Italians. And I knew all about Irish and Italians not getting along from all the fights she and my father had where he accused her of being a dago and she called him a GD Irishman.

But I was completely flummoxed when she talked about “Black Irish.” She sat me down and spoke in hushed tones. “There’s one type of Irish that’s dark, Bridey. They’re called ‘Black Irish’ and are the lowest Irish class.” Not that I understood what “class” meant then. “So if anyone in school asks about your dark eyes and hair—including the nuns—you tell them you’re Black Irish. D’you hear! Never admit to being Italian. Luckily you’ve got all those Irish freckles.”

It didn’t sound very nice to be Black Irish, the way she sneered when she said it.

“Why do I have to lie?”

“The other kids’ll pick on you.” She poked my shoulder. “And your teachers won’t call on you if they know you have Italian blood in you.”

Of course, I didn’t realize it then, but maintaining my identity as Black Irish became an odd form of White passing.

Being American

“In 1941,” Mother spoke in that tone which always indicated a family secret was about to be revealed, “Italians were seen, I don’t know, as dangerous in this country because Italy was our enemy in the War. And to show our loyalty, we all had to stop speaking Italian.”

You used to speak Italian?” Thinking of my mother as bilingual made her so much more interesting. We’d started French that year and I was terrible at it.

“Shh!” Mother whispered, as if, even then, in 1970, it could be risky if the news got out. “When my father first told us we could only speak English, my sisters and I laughed.” She shuddered. “We’d spoken Italian and English all our lives. Often interchangeably.”

“So why—”

“Papa yelled, ‘Listen, you foolish girls, this is life and death.’ Nana had us sit around the dining room table and hold hands. Then she called to a woman who appeared from the kitchen. Nana told us she was a strega who’d help us forget our Italian. You know what a strega is, right?”

I shook my head. Mom sighed. Tomie dePaola’s Strega Nona—which was exactly the kind of children’s book the Ellises would’ve bought for their kids and I’d have read to them when I babysat—and thus understood that a strega is an Italian witch—wouldn’t come out for another five years. When I eventually learned that Strega Nona was banned from many children’s libraries in the US for its positive portrayal of magic and witchcraft, I wondered if it was also banned because it was about Italians. But that was much later.

“The strega—old and rather frightening with all her black veils—joined us at the table,” said Mother, now wide-eyed. “She chanted slowly in a language I didn’t recognize, eventually going faster and faster till we were all dizzy. Then she nodded and left.”

It’s funny how well I remember this bizarre story, which Mother only told me once. I think it’s what eventually motivated me to learn to speak Italian.

“After the witch left, Papa poured us each a small glass of wine, saying, ‘Here’s to being Americans and only speaking English.’ And we tried to say something in Italian, but—do you believe it?—none of us could remember a single word. Not Anna. Not Maria. Not Nana. Not me. Italian was gone from our minds and tongues. Just like that.”

I shook my head. “I’m finding all this pretty hard to believe, Mom.”

I turned to walk away, but she grabbed my shoulder. “There’s so much more to it with all the talk of ‘enemy aliens’ and then Paolo’s death, which must never be mentioned. Never!” she hissed.

“Who’s Paolo?”

“I can’t say any more. We’re not supposed to breathe a word. It’s so much more than a family secret. It’s an Italian secret. You’ll have to talk to Uncle A. On the q.t., of course.”

Being an enemy alien

“Mother told me this strange story of a witch,” I explained to Uncle A, “who got them all to forget how to speak Italian.”

“I don’t know about any witch. More of a witch hunt. I was in California then. But we all got the message pretty damn quick after Pearl Harbor. ‘Don’t speak the enemy’s language. Speak American!’ And so we did, except when we wrote home to family in Italy.”

Uncle A lit one of his Toscanello short cigars (“my only extravagance”) that perfumed the air with anise. I wondered if he’d get me an Italian soda.

“Over half a million Italians living in the US became the ‘enemy’ because Italy was. Same with the Japanese, only everyone knows about them.” He paused for a puff. “They made us carry around ‘enemy alien’ cards saying where we were from and a lot of other bullshit. They actually thought Italians were a different race from regular White Americans. Plus, Paolo and I weren’t citizens, so we got arrested plenty o’ times.”

“Who’s Paolo?” I asked again. Uncle A put down his cigar to wipe his eyes. “Paolo was my brother who ended up in an internment camp in Fort Missoula with a thousand other Italians. Interned for two damn years. Came home with frostbite. But without his mind.”

I realized there’d be no soda.

“One night, he got up and walked out into the Pacific and that was that.” Uncle A stopped abruptly.

Few people back in 1970 knew much of anything about the arrest of Italian Americans. Of course, now it’s in Wikipedia.

I headed directly for Mrs. Ellis’s. “What do you know about Italian internment in the US during World War II?”

“I know about the Japanese, but I’ve never heard anything about Italians,” said Mrs. Ellis.

“My uncle just told me Italians were put in camps, and his brother killed himself when he got back from one of them. But I’ve never read anything like that in a history book.”

Mrs. Ellis began to scribble on the back of an old envelope. “It’s not that I don’t know some things about Italians. Go to the library and look up the electrocution of Sacco and Vanzetti in the twenties and the worldwide outcry it caused. And the New Orleans lynching of Italians in the late nineteenth century.” It wasn’t until 2019 that a New Orleans mayor openly acknowledged and apologized for those lynchings.

Being black Italian

Many books in the library mentioned Sacco and Vanzetti. More discussed anti-Italian sentiment back then: fear that we were anarchists, criminals, mafia, or, as Uncle A had said, a different race.

“So do you think my being Italian is a little like being Black?” I asked Mrs. Ellis. She gave me one of her looks, and I felt instantly ridiculous. Who could have predicted that research into “whiteness” thirty years later would eventually give my question the significance I was unaware of then.

When I got home, Father was asleep on the couch watching a Red Sox game, so I had time alone with Mother in the kitchen.

“Why aren’t we taught about Italian internment in school?” I asked so loudly I woke Father up just in time for him to see a Red Sox home run with the bases loaded. He cheered before falling back to sleep.

It would be almost twenty years before an exhibit with original newspaper cuttings, letters, and pictures established how America’s treatment of Italians had been suppressed. By the new millennium there was a book, Una Storia Segreta, which has never gone out of print. Used, it’s only ten bucks on Amazon. Imagine, just ten dollars for all the verification of how Italians were treated in World War II, proof I was so desperate for in 1970.

Being radical

Increasingly Mrs. Ellis had been paying me for babysitting in “lessons in radicalization” rather than cash. She even promised to take me to a protest march. And on April 25, 1970, there I was, waiting with a lot of other people for a march to begin. The atmosphere was tense and in no way gave off the peace and love vibe I was expecting. But I didn’t mind the feeling. I didn’t care if the group was small. I was just thrilled to be part of a protest.

“Everyone is exhausted and still in shock about how out of control things got in Harvard Square not two weeks ago.” Mrs. Ellis spoke confidently into the microphone of the Cambridge People’s Chronicle about why today’s march turnout was so sparse. “No one is proud that the messages of the huge protest in Boston were overshadowed by the rioting, looting, and fires on the night of April fifteenth in Cambridge. If a hundred thousand could march peacefully in Boston, then today we’ll show that a thousand can return to orderly protest in Harvard Square.”

When they asked her about the ban against protesting that was in place, she just smiled and said, “What ban?” Then she walked away.

Father had instituted a ban of his own at home against my learning anything about April fifteenth: no TV news, no newspapers, and “No going down the Square, missy, to see the senseless destruction caused by lefty lunatics.” Imagine a time before the Internet when someone could keep you in the dark about something so serious that had happened right in your own city?

At twelve, I’d never witnessed violence and looting in person, and by actively keeping the news from me, Father unwittingly helped me to romanticize it all. I imagined that breaking store windows, looting, even setting small fires was “sticking it to the man,” the man, in my estimation then, being the establishment, men in general, and my father in particular.

Mrs. Ellis put me in charge of selling armbands. She and I had silkscreened thousands of them a while ago, and she always took them to rallies. Eventually my best friend Agnes turned up. She wasn’t really interested in the Vietnam War, racial equality, or feminism, but said the march was less boring than staying home, and she imagined she might meet a nice guy or two.

Once we started to walk, I imagined my long hair, tie-dye T-shirt, armband, and Levi’s bell bottoms made me look like a seasoned protestor. Then I heard people singing “The Times, They Are A-Changin’.” Covered in goose bumps, I belted out the lyrics. Agnes walked silently, chipping her nail polish. I poked her. “Don’t push it, Bridey. At least I came. You know how I feel about peace songs and all this folksy stuff. I was at least expecting ‘Eve of Destruction.’”

“Maybe later,” I said. Screw Agnes. I looked around at the women of all ages—some older than my mother—at the Black and White people walking side by side—some holding hands—all for the same causes. I was buoyant with optimism. Serious change was about to happen. My life would be so different from the older generation, particularly from my parents’.

By the time we got to “We Shall Overcome,” Ag pointed out a group of guys with long hair and beards and scoffed that none of them looked like boyfriend material. I wondered if they were SDS or an SDS splinter group. One of them smiled at me and held out a joint they were smoking. I wanted to take it so badly, but was afraid, especially in front of Agnes, so I smiled and shook my head.

Some cops were gathered on the next corner, and I wondered then if thirty years earlier they’d have stopped me because I was part Italian, asked for my enemy alien card, and arrested me if it was past curfew. I registered, really for the first time, the fear on Uncle A’s face when he talked about being put in jail. Feeling suddenly like an enemy alien myself, I experienced a deep kinship with every Black person I saw, and for a while, I tried to imagine being Black myself. “Sun yourself and get a tan…”

Then I saw a cop cuff a Black teenager who was wearing a gorgeous dashiki. Some other Black guys stepped out of the march to support him. I went over and stood with them. Suddenly more cops surrounded our little group. The cops pulled out their billy clubs.

“Who the fuck are you?” a cop asked me.

“An enemy alien,” I screamed. “And I’m Black Irish.”

He laughed. At me. “You’re an alien all right. Out with the big kids today, are we? Go home and play with your dollies and remember what color you are the next time you come out.”

I ran back into the march, trying not to cry.

That’s when I noticed the camera crew and saw Agnes. I called out to her. “Look, Ag! The march is being filmed!” But Agnes had already spotted them and was sashaying toward the camera. She turned her head to smile at me. Annoyed at her frivolity, I looked back in the direction of that cop and sang more loudly. Her hamming it up made the whole march less serious.

When we reached the Common, one of the SDS guys was on a makeshift stage and had already started speaking. “A new day is coming when our generation will take over because of our ideals of peace and equality.” He condemned “white skin privilege.” Urged the crowd to “reject the entrenched power structure. Fight systemic oppression.” I thrilled at every second of it, knowing we were on the verge of something, and I was part of it, particularly with my family background.

Being a bloody guinea anarchist

I told my parents Agnes and I were at the library all day. But that lie didn’t last long. The camera had been from Channel 7. And Agnes and I were on the six o’clock news. “Get the hell in here,” Father screamed. “Look at this! The proof of where you really were!” He gesticulated wildly to the television.

It was me, caught unawares, head upraised, singing at the top of my lungs, extending my arms. Then Agnes, smiling and batting her eyes.

There was a banging at our door. It was Agnes herself. “Have you seen the news! We’re famous!”

“Thank Christ your name’s Flaherty,” Father yelled. “The last thing we need is anyone thinking my daughter’s a bloody guinea anarchist!” Then he looked at Mother. “Did you put her up to this?”

“Don’t worry, Dad. She knew nothing about it. And I’m sure that everyone saw me as Black Irish.”

“Well, it’s a damn good thing.”

Being hopeful, 1970

As I climbed into bed that night, I tried to forget the scene with the cops and the condition the Square was in. And my parents. I was connected to all those people at the march, Black and White, young and old, because we shared common beliefs that war was wrong, particularly Vietnam, and that all people were equal, Black and White, Vietnamese and Italian, men and women. And I was filled with hope, knowing that soon the war would be over and America would become the land of equality we’d been taught it already was.

Being falsely optimistic, 1970–

But, as everyone knows, there was no new age.

The expectations raised were never fulfilled. Why did we betray ourselves? While some laws changed, racial discrimination never really did—in education, housing, health care, income, or safety. Occupy increased our awareness of social and economic injustices, but it certainly didn’t make them go away.

When the Vietnam War finally ended in 1975, my two cousins who’d made it home alive never “recovered.” Over half a million vets had PTSD, more than in World War II. I eventually realized that was probably what Paolo had suffered from. But as disastrous as Vietnam was, the US hardly stopped intervening in other countries around the world where it has little to no cultural understanding. No one in the ’70s who imagined we’d learned lessons from Vietnam could have anticipated the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.

And women didn’t become equal. Not economically. Not in terms of power. Or even just respect. We still live in a rape culture. Even with the successes of the #MeToo movement. Even with over five million people walking worldwide in the Women’s Marches of 2017. One of the largest marches in US history and still change didn’t really happen.

Being hopeful, 2020

But fifty years later, in 2020, during a pandemic, I and so many of us felt that old optimism and confidence in America again, the sense we were once more on a cusp of something, but this time, it was all going to work. People of every color, every gender, every sexuality filled the streets and risked catching Covid in cities all over America to protest the killing of George Floyd. Now that we all had phones, police brutality could be filmed. Recorded. Shown on national TV. And punished. “Defund the police” was taking hold. Changes in police violence would have to occur. Black Lives Matter, begun in 2013, was, according to the New York Times, the “largest movement in US history” by June 2020. The #MeToo movement was officially recognized as “global” by the Washington Post the month before.

Fifty years older, but reinvigorated, I marched in NYC, joining so many around the country. Changing my damp mask seven or eight times as I sweat out bottle after bottle of water, I felt safe marching with thousands of other protesters. Despite Covid.

I still feel elated when I think of that map of the US circulating on the Internet then, the one with the dots for every place there was a BLM march. The map would gradually flash the location of one dot after another, then the number of people who marched there. How could anyone not believe that change was coming?

Being falsely optimistic, 2020–

But barely had the “summer of racial reconning” ended (you may have already forgotten that’s what it was called) when authorities, not only in Minneapolis, where Floyd was murdered, but all over the country, began backtracking on commitments to defund or restructure the police. By 2021, support for BLM among White Americans fell alarmingly. We are on the brink of losing our rights to an abortion, which we’ve only had since 1973. Biden won’t cancel student debt. Republicans won’t stop filibustering. Global warming is out of control. The Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica is cracking. Gerrymandering threatens our right to vote. Evictions are rising. Child tax credits expiring. Over 800,000 are dead in the US alone from Covid. New variants keep evolving while anti-vaxxers promote ivermectin or bleach. Millions of “Stop the Steal” Americans still believe Trump won in 2020. Our democracy is in serious danger. I’d like to believe the right is so angry because they see that actual social change is coming, but I’m feeling pretty skittish about hope these days.

Oh America, I’m running out of time. And so are you.

How could we have gotten so close, again. And then just let it slip away, again. I don’t want to lose faith in you, and though raised Catholic, I don’t really believe in signs. But George, oh George Floyd, oh Daunte Wright, oh Paolo, oh MLK, oh Andre Hill, oh Breonna Taylor, oh Sacco and Vanzetti, oh Nadine Gordimer, oh Uncle A, oh Atatiana Jefferson, oh JFK, oh James Baldwin, oh Gwendolyn Brooks, oh Mom, oh Toni Morrison, oh RBG, oh Ida Wells, oh Joan Didion, oh Desmond Tutu, oh bell hooks, I could really use a sign right about now.


Kathleen Zamboni McCormick is Professor Emerita of Literature and Pedagogy at SUNY Purchase. Her creative work has appeared in Moon City Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Madison Review, Euphony, South Carolina Review, Italian Americana, Paterson Literary Review, Superstition Review, Kestrel, armarolla, and many others. Her novel, Dodging Satan: My Irish/Italian Sometimes Awesome but Mostly Creepy Childhood was shortlisted for the 2020 Rubery Award and won the 2017 Foreword Reviews Gold Medal in Humor. “Hope Matters: 1970-2020” is one of the stories Zamboni McCormick is adapting for her next novel, which focuses on social class and abuse. You can read more of her work at kathleenzmccormick.com.

Edward Michael Supranowicz is the grandson of Irish and Russian/Ukrainian immigrants. He grew up on a small farm in Appalachia.  He has a grad background in painting and printmaking. Some of his artwork has recently or will soon appear in Fish Food, Streetlight, Another Chicago Magazine, The Door Is a Jar, The Phoenix, and The Harvard Advocate. Edward is also a published poet.