WILLA v2 - An Ethnic Passage: An Italian-American Woman in Academia

Volume 2
Fall 1993

An Ethnic Passage: An Italian-American Woman in Academia

by Maryann S. Feola

At my Ph.D. commencement, I spoke with Gerry, the candidate in the next seat, about being there. We had never met before, but we discovered that we had a lot in common. Both of us had been students in the same program and were encouraged by the department head to complete the necessary requirements and move on. Along the way we had each lost a husband. Gerry's husband had gotten sick and died; mine had turned indifferent and left. And though we never spoke about being minority candidates, we tacitly agreed that given my Italian surname and her Caribbean complexion, it was a minor miracle that we were there. Gerry had regrets about not inviting an aunt who ridiculed her "fancy thinking." I nodded and thought about what several of my Catholic relatives would think when I explained that the subject of my dissertation, a seventeenth century Quaker writer, had started out as a regicide, joined a radical Puritan religious sect, and ended up a pacifist who spent most of his final years in jail. In my mind, I saw my great-grandfather Orazio who had died shortly after my tenth birthday pleased that I could legitimately write "Dr." before my name, reminding my parents how he had prophesied that my brazen questions would lead to no good.

During the course of our discussion, Gerry and I speculated that the commencement ceremony might serve to exorcise the ghosts that had made long and painful the entry into academe. We talked about the emotional price we had paid for personal growth and about both loving and hating the distance that stood between our new lives and the past. But once the voice from the stage made us aware that we should be silent, my thoughts turned inward and I recalled my odyssey to self-realization past the Scylla and Charybdis of an Italian-American girlhood.

Growing up Italian-American in 1950's Brooklyn, I was taught to fear authority and follow tradition. I was reminded that thinking clearly and reserving judgment were desirable, but they ranked second to possessing "common sense." Both at home and at school I heard that questioning and criticism were the tell-tale signs of a "doubting Thomas." Speaking your mind was understandable; challenging the status quo, however, was not. Now with almost three decades between my entry into grammar school and my completion of graduate school, I thought about how I came to a profession and a lifestyle that turned upside down the lessons of my childhood.

I remembered that when I was growing up there was no doubt in my mind that I was anything but Italian. The basis of that identification had little to do with the fact that most of my family had left the impoverished rural villages that surrounded Naples some fifty years earlier: it was simply who I was. It was assumed that I would become a housewife -- if I lucked out, a doctor's or lawyer's wife. I was encouraged to mind my tongue and remain close to the church and traditions that secured salvation. In other words, inquiry, esoterica, and independence were tribal taboos that evoked earnest and frequent "God forbids" from the family who sought to protect me from "all the wrong things" I seemed to love.

Like many other Italian-Americans, our family life centered around the homes of my grandparents. We lived upstairs from my father's parents; everyone else lived close by. Around dining room tables that were loaded with fruit, nuts, and wine, my grandparents told story after story about relatives or paesani -- people from their native villages -- who suffered, or, who on occasion, had caused some suffering in Italy. They emphasized how these people had struggled against the forces of fate and had managed to survive. Everyone thanked God at the end of a story, refilled their wine glasses, and glanced over to give their mischievous children dirty looks that were invariably followed by expressions of love.

At these gatherings my great-grandfather presided as master story teller. He told endless stories about Italy, stories that colored my imagination with the romantic image of another time and another place. The Italy he invented with his facts and fiction sowed the seeds of my cultural imagination and defined the borders of my parochial world.

His warm-hearted chatter and the ease with which he could instigate an argument between my grandparents shaped my interest in well-informed, eccentric characters. He was my earliest encounter with the old world thinking that I now sit in libraries and research. If he knew me today, I believe he would consider me as shameless as the radical writers I study, but he would brag about my work to anyone who would listen.

Great-grandpa, an incessant teacher, was particularly eager to instruct my young mother and her sisters-in-law in the fine art of rearing Italian children. Never invited to begin a lecture, he nonetheless came prepared with the power of myth and the burden of history and a walking stick which he tapped to emphasize essential points. He told these Italian-American mothers that their children must learn respect. We must learn to be careful with our money, especially it came from him. The boys should follow his example and become successful in this country. The girls, of course, must learn to keep spotless homes and know their place. They should also be taught to stop asking so many questions and only speak when spoken to. We must remain close as a family and be wary of the Americans -- that is, any one who is not Italian.

Our left-handedness concerned him deeply. Fortunately, neither my mother nor any of my aunts ever tied our left thumbs to our adjoining fingers as he suggested. Believing that left-handedness was an invitation to evil spirits, he saw us as likely candidates for disaster. When he was a young man, two of his children died of an epidemic that ravaged the ship which was bringing them to a better life in America. He had to warn future generations not to tempt fate.

Why were these guidelines so important to my great-grandfather? How were they influenced by the transition from old world to new? How did they shape my future?

Today, as a teacher at a multi-cultural university, I am fascinated with how immigrant families transplant their roots in America. I wonder how my students are reconciling new ideas and new ways of communicating with their family traditions? What will they gain? What will they lose? Like me, will their movement away from the traditions of the past make them feel like strangers?

Memories of my girlhood daydreams and adventures are mixed with images of those numerous great aunts dressed in black warning me not to forget who I was. My interests, dress, and plans for the future might stem from personal taste; however, they must not break with the traditions that offered security. How I loved the spidery handwriting in the letters of my Neapolitan relatives thanking my Grandma Mamie for her generous packages. My grandmother happily translated these letters for me and filled in the details of my impoverished relatives' lives. These letters, while they may have fueled my romantic imagination and transported me to an exotic world, also reminded me of sorrow and humility not-too-far removed.

To most of my parents' generation, success meant having a job. A college diploma was respectable, but they feared it would undermine the traditions of the past, or worse still, family closeness. Like them, my family admired academic learning, but they were also suspicious of it. In Southern Italy higher education had had no place in their rustic culture, and in Brooklyn the fancy ways and polished language of college-educated Americans made them uncomfortable. As for me, going to college was a mixed bag of intellectual excitement and nostalgia, for the ideas and traditions that I cherished were slipping away.

The Catholic grammar school I attended, suitably named for the Biblical John who created the image of the apocalypse, had a reputation that encouraged my parents to pay tuition they could hardly afford. The priests who managed parish affairs were Italians, but the ethnicity of the nuns was a mystery since their surnames had been erased. Ironically, these women, my first teachers, had assumed the names, but not the patience, of saints.

In the 1950's, ecumenical thinking was a thing of the future. With the McCarthy hearings in progress, we were told the difference between good guys and bad guys, who would be saved and who would be damned. Then our classrooms were orderly and quiet. Today elementary education gets kids to arrive at generalizations that apply across sex roles and cultures. Then we learned by rote our teachers' assumptions. When my son Mathew was eight years old, I noticed that his view of the world was expanding. When I was his age, I was reprimanded for questioning why St. Isaac Jacques continued to pursue Indians who resisted conversion: my critical thinking skills were being stifled.

As a young student, I was somewhat chagrined that Mom, Dad, Dick, Jane, and Spot were not Italian. Although the women in my reading primer were held up as role models because their homes were ordered by feminine patience, sacrifice, and submission, I had no plans to imitate them. In those days we did not read Kate Chopin, Tilly Olsen, Maya Angelou, or Grace Paley. There were no real households for us to relate to in either the present as children or in the future as adults. Trying to preserve custom, the nuns read us stories that showed how innovation and debate resulted in tragedy -- Martin Luther, for example, and Anne Hutchinson. A good cautionary tale, so my teachers believed, would pre vent the evils brought about by individuation and acculturation.

In college I was awed when a fellow student questioned our professor's rendition of Shakespeare's Richard III. What motivated her to criticize what we were being taught? But to my surprise, our instructor welcomed her ideas and conceded certain points he had previously raised. Was I now free to think for myself? If so, how did I go about it? Wouldn't it get me into trouble? In the sixth grade hadn't Sister Thomas More been quite clear about the dangers of impertinence and willful pride? Did I really want to be "a true daughter of Eve?"

In college I excelled because my essays and exams presented my instructors with written affirmations of their own ideas. Then, in my last semester, a sociology teacher saw through me and threatened to withhold my A until I told him what I -- not what every one else -- thought about Nietzche's philosophy.

However, thinking for myself became a mixed blessing, for it created the shift in power that eventually caused my marriage to fall apart. How can the same woman who challenges myths and pursues truth in the classroom be expected to return home and subordinate her ideas and opinions to a husband who cuts off any discussion that makes him feel uncomfortable? My Italian-American marriage did not survive this question.

During my many years of graduate school, my husband spoke proudly of my accomplishments, especially in front of other people. In private, he frequently complained that I had become too opinionated, too argumentative. A few weeks before he moved out, he joked that his next wife would be barefoot and bookless.

Now I had a new question: "Where does an Italian-American single mother completing a graduate degree, so crucial an issue in her tenure decision, turn for understanding and support? Most of my family and many old friends waxed nostalgic when my husband and I separated. Knowing less than they thought they did of the obstacles that my education had placed in my marriage, they all but canonized the wonderful cook who had "helped" me clean our house. "What does Maryann want?" was the question they offered with their condolences. Very few of my college friends understood how thoroughly academic values were in conflict with my role as an Italian-American woman. Fearing that they might consider me less than their equal, I grew protective of the very traditions that had undermined my happiness.

As I completed my degree, I often wished that Dick and Jane's mother had gone to graduate school. I needed some role model who had been in the British Museum writing her dissertation while her child was on the other side of the Atlantic in New York. Curiously, I felt like my great-grandfather Orazio crossing an ocean and hoping that paesani would be waiting on the other side. But few of the people I met while I wrote my dissertation were women, even fewer were single parents, and no one was Italian-American. I was all three. The string intended for my left thumb bound up my workdays with feelings of guilt, alienation, and fear. The librarian at the University of London, when she asked me where I came from, treated me kindly as I began to cry and babble about how lonely I was away from my son and how I needed to get this work done quickly, or both of us would be in real trouble. "No," I told her, "There was no one at home who knew how to help me through this." "You can't go home until you complete your research for your dissertation. After all," she said, "if you return home with out it, what kind of role model will your son have? Someday he will know your story."

I often hear from my Italian-American students how much they enjoy learning and how they look forward to teaching. Using idyllic language, they also speak of the support they receive at home. Everyone is rooting for them, everyone is lending full support. "That's good," I tell them, "when you are struggling with new ideas and ways of improving your writing." But these students rarely say that what they learn in school is being discussed or explained at home with their husbands or families or at any cultural, social, or political events. In that matter, the separateness between the new ideas and the old remains. To what extent, I think, will their learning also separate them from their family traditions?

Today, when I think of my Italian heritage, I think of holiday cooking, cordial hospitality, and family closeness. But I also think of Anne Cornelisen's "women of the shadows" and wonder how long educational deprivation and the Italian ambivalence toward higher education will continue to haunt Italian-American women who brave the uncertain shores of academe.

MARYANN S. FEOLA co-edits The Journal of College Reading and is President of The CUNY Association of Reading Education.

Copyright 1993, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.

Reference Citation : Feola, Maryann S. (1993). An ethnic passage: An Italian-American woman in academia. WILLA , Volume II, 24-26.