Interview: Fred Gardaphe, Professor of Italian-American Studies: “We need new ways of imagining identities that transcend the traps of nationalism to bring people of all cultures together”

In the midst of posting about issues on all aspects of crossing borders as well as the profiles of people that I meet, I like to intersperse aspects of Italian-Americana.  My interest in borders began very early on in my life, with my acute awareness of my own cultural identity.  So, in essence , I am continually crossing borders in my own life:  immersing myself in the quagmire of identity, the nation state, borders, immigration, refugees and all other texts and subtexts, from Sicily to my home in the suburbs of Philadelphia , etc. etc. etc.  So here, I cross another border into the world of the Italian-American intellectual by asking Dr. Fred Gardaphe, questions about immigration, identity , the future of Italian-American culture and other things.

In the spirit of self-disclosure, I want to say that  Fred Gardaphe is the very top of my list of Italian-Americans to admire—and my list is a long one.  I am proud of who he is. I have long followed his work and through his writings have found ideas that have both excited and challenged me.  I am proud, too,  of the fact that despite the stereotype of Italian-Americans as “anti-intellectual” —he is a true thinker; a man of ideas and scholarship.

Dr. Fred Gardaphe is the Distinguished Professor of Italian-American Studies at Queens College, The City University of New York. He was born of immigrants in the mean streets  of Melrose Park, a suburb of Chicago.   As a way to escape the increasing violence of the streets ; his father , grandfather and godfather all died lost their lives’ to violence. Gardaphe translated these tragedies by trying to understand them within the context of the Italian-American experience, playing a trailblazing role in the establishment of Italian-American studies in various Universities around the country.  To both escape and understand his experience, he became a scholar.  Dr. Gardaphe  readily agreed to answer my questions about the Immigrant and Italian-American experience.  While he would never claim to speak for all of us, his answers provide a new perspective and a new direction in how we think about “identity” in an increasingly complicated world.

The flags

Please tell me about the intersection of your identity as an Italian-American man and your professional academic life.

I don’t see the need to separate the personal from the professional and so there are many intersections between my work in Italian American studies and my identity as an Italian American.  My identity is as unconscious as it is conscious and in that I find a balance that takes me through life enjoying what I do for a living in that I live for doing, for being.

Fred Gardaphe

What are your particular research interests?

Right now I’m interested in humor and its affects on human behavior.  I’ve always been somewhat of a class clown, even as a teacher, and so I thought I’d better study it to understand it.  I am working on a book on Humor and Irony in Italian American culture, but before I write it, I am reading every book I can find on the subject and teaching courses so that I can learn more about it before I have my chance to write what I think about it.

Dagoes Read by Fred Gardaphe

What does (or doesn’t) it mean to you to be Italian-American?

Being Italian American means a unique way of being American.  I thought I was Italian American by just being born with this ancestry, but I find that to be a good Italian American I had to learn about all the other ethnic identities and then more deeply investigate Italian and American cultures so that I could draw the most out of both.  It’s more than physical, it’s more than material, there is a spiritual quality about it, especially when you study it, that connects you to the most ancient aspects of life.

How do you feel the culture is (or isn’t ) different from other “hyphenated” cultures?

Italian American culture is like so many other cultures in many ways.  What differs is the way we approach the idea of being American.  We assimilated so quickly into American culture, out of fear, desperation, hope, and need that we lost things like language and a sense of history beyond the family (and sometimes we even lost our family histories).  What happens then is that when you begin to study, to learn about what was, you begin to see things differently and imagine more.  I see much of being Italian American as a way of being connected to traditions that need to change in order to adapt to the changing world around us.  You have to know the traditions, know how they have affected our past, and use the present to imagine positive futures for the beauty and truths we uncover about our cultures.

What does Italian immigration to the United States look like today?

Today it seems to be that the Italian immigration is not much unlike the past.  It is the youth of Italy who look around and don’t see a place for themselves in the future of Italy—the same way my grandparents looked around during their youth and decided to take a chance elsewhere, and so they are leaving, not only the educated youth, but the adventurous youth.

The Art of Reading Italian Americana by Fred Gardaphe

(Mis)-Representations of Italian-Americans is legendary—one only need to look at the most recent spate of television shows, reality and otherwise , that are insistent in their portrayal of Italian-Americans.  Can you comment on this?

This happens because others have lead the way in representing Italian American culture to the masses.  What we have before us today is simply fodder for entertainment that gets confused for education.  Italian Americans have never done much, as a group, to reveal the realities of what it means to be Italian American, at least not on a level par with what has been done in mass media.  If we took the time to develop our youth, to educate them as to our histories, to reflect their realities in our media, then we might not have such one-sided representations.

How do you feel the immigrant experience changes someone?  

Typically it takes someone out of their comfort zone and challenges them to be able to find ways of surviving.  The key is to find and maintain the confidence that one’s ancestral culture has values that can be shared by others.  We need to understand why it is people immigrate, what happens to them when they do, and then we will all see that everyone goes through similar experiences as them progress through life. 

Leaving Little Italy by Fred Gardaphe

Are you acquainted with Italian immigration policies and controversies?  What do you think of them?

I’m not connected to the legalities of it all.  I see much of it as a throwback to the old notions of nation building and in this transnational, transglobal world of today; the old ideas are wearing thin.  We need new ways of imagining identities that transcend the traps of nationalism to bring people of all cultures together.

In your opinion, What is the worst stereotype of Italian-Americans?  For instance, mine is that we are anti-intellectual.

Stereotypes are necessary in story telling, but dangerous in history telling.  The most dangerous ones for me are the ones that we ourselves believe.  We need to acknowledge those qualities that have been shaped into stereotypes (such as those that come from the working class experiences), and show the world that there is more to us than the surfaces of those stereotypes.  Whether it’s the gangster, the old, sainted mothers, the stubborn, protective fathers, the inarticulate beauties or the stupid brutes, these stereotypes won’t matter much if Italian Americans can stand with the confidence that comes from truly knowing our own histories and acting on our informed imaginations.

From Wiseguys to Wise Men by Fred Gardaphe

Finally, what do you think of the future of Italian-American culture, such as it is?

I think that the old notion of Italian American culture as practiced in the public organizational models will die out.  A greater diversity of what it means to be Italian American will rise out of its dust and there will be many ways of being Italian American.  Through identity-building and identity-stretching education, future Italian Americans will no doubt look very different from what we consider the Italian American is today.

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