Linciati: Lynchings of Italians in America (2004)

Article excerpt

Linciati: Lynchings of Italians in America (2004)

Unlike other European immigrants who struggled initially to become "white" in America, such as the Irish and the Jews, Italian immigrants fought a hostile reception even beyond the third generation in the U.S. Despite, or perhaps because of, the nearly quintessential American familias of the Corleones and the Sopranos, young people of Italian descent are still given affirmative action scholarships, at least in New York City, to entice them to go to college and take part in the American Dream. Although European immigrants were initially granted automatic citizenship thanks to the privileging of white skin that inspired the Naturalization Act of 1790, thus leading to the large-scale immigration of Europeans of the 19th and 20th centuries, it took Italians several generations to be perceived as entirely "white" while the Irish and Jews were essentially "white" by the second generation.

Sicilian immigrants were particularly suspect: not only were they more olive-skinned then their northern European counterparts, but the timing of the arrival of the majority of Sicilian immigrants (between 1880-1921, over 4 million Italians entered the U.S.) made their initiation into the racial quagmire of the Reconstruction period in the U.S. much more rocky than other immigrant groups. Although the vast majority of lynchings targeted African Americans, and while Native Americans, Jews, Mexicans, and Chinese men were also lynched during this period, the number of Italians and the geographic range of the lynchings are astounding: there are a total of over fifty documented cases of lynchings of Italians in such places as New York, Florida, Mississippi, Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, Chicago, Florida, and Seattle, Washington.

In this powerful, and painful, documentary, director M. Heather Hartley illustrates the violent prejudice that many Italian immigrants and Italian Americans faced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The film examines the convergence of social, economic, and historical causes of the unspoken history of the lynching of Italians throughout the U.S. during this period, highlighting the most dramatic case of lynching that occurred in 1891 in New Orleans when eleven Italians were lynched by a mob. This event, which is widely known in Italy even today, is mentioned in a brief paragraph or footnote in most American history texts.

With the use of archival footage with animation and audio effects added, old photographs, letters, illustrated magazines, and newspaper articles, Hartley documents how conditions in Italy played a role leading up to this event: after arriving on Ellis Island, although most settled in New York and other northeastern cities, many southern Italian immigrants found their way to Louisiana where there was plantation work and where the climate was not unlike that of southern Italy.

Since many Italian men planned to work in the U.S. and return to Italy to marry and raise a family, assimilation, including any desire to learn the culture, language, and racist attitudes of their temporary home country, was not a priority: Italians in late 19th century New Orleans worked alongside blacks as laborers, and the various fish and fruit stands that Italian immigrants owned sold food to blacks; white New Orleanians of a certain class responded with hostility. By the 1890s, as many as 30,000 Italians were living and working in New Orleans, and stereotypes of Italians as criminals, beggars, or organ grinders abounded in Louisiana and throughout the U. …