Tag Archives: Italian-Americans and racism

My Mammy’s Touch.

Mae Elisabeth [Learn] Sweet was my maternal grandmother. Her first grandchild, Alan Marshall, called her “Mammy”, and it stuck; she, and her husband, would be Mammy and Pappy to all 19 grandkids, thereafter. Let me tell you about her.
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Mammy (seen in this photo, at about 95 years) was widely regarded by all who knew her as a human saint. She was the absolute sweetest, most loving, most gentle, most prayerful, hardworking, resourceful, generous, forgiving person anybody knew. Her character made most men whither. She prayed, daily, for everyone she knew, whenever they “came to mind.” I am not alone in believing that she was nearly psychic, able to attune to the slightest and most immediate needs among her brood, and beyond. And, when mum met dad on the train and began to write letters to him, placing those letters in the iron mailbox just outside the front door on the porch wall for the mailman to pick up and deliver, Mammy would discreetly take those letters and cross off the final two syllables of dad’s surname. Mum told me this, having discovered the act. Why did Mammy do that? Mammy did that, not because she wasn’t a loving, caring, forgiving, generous, prayerful, hardworking, resourceful mother and grandmother, but because systemic racism had borne itself out, in her; dad was Italian, and he was a source of shame to her. She had to remove the final two syllables of his last name, to make it appear different than the identifying  ” – zillo” which appeared naturally.
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Was it Mammy’s fault, that she behaved this way? Did her actions arise out of some corrosive gangrene in her soul? No; it did not. It emerged because she had been taught by her Eastern Pennsylvanian, Danish/English/Germanic societal roots, to regard Italians as second class citizens, as shameful members of American society.
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And, it is just such deeply rooted, largely subconscious behavior toward people of color which those of American “white” society have and continue to portray, however subtley however fleetingly however rarely, in their actions throughout the generations.
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In 1944, mum married dad. Almost ten years later, after a nearly decade long divorce, they remarried. I was their second child, and favored my father; my hair was black, my skin was dark. And, Mammy was fond of stroking my face, doing so every time I would sit beside her. She would regularly exclaim at the beauty of my skin, its softness, and smile with deep fondness into my eyes.
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It’s my belief that my birth changed my Mammy, ever more; she realized, and thereafter made conscious effort, to appreciate that which she had been taught to shame. And, in just such the same manner, only when we reach out and touch that which we are taught to revile will we ever hope to heal from hate.
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© 6/28/2020     Ruth Ann Scanzillo.     All rights those of the author, whose story it is and whose name appears above this line. Thank you for respecting the rights of authorship.
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