When describing ethnic identity in America, John Gennari suggests you picture a pinball machine. “We all say we come from somewhere, we have these family backgrounds. But then we mix it up. We’re in a pinball machine, we’re bouncing around. The balls are all scattering all over the place all the time.”
Gennari, an associate professor of English and critical race & ethnic studies at UVM, has spent decades researching and analyzing Italian American and African American cultures and practices separately, but he drops himself right into the middle of a whirling, swirling cultural pinball game in Flavor and Soul: Italian America at Its African American Edge (University of Chicago Press, 2017).
Gennari’s book explores the “cultural edge” between these two ethnic groups, a complicated place where identities overlap, intertwine, and clash throughout American history. He takes an energetic dance through connections in music, food, sports, and film, and examines ideas about gender and family, with a dash of his own experiences growing up in an Italian American household.
Take, for example, the place where Flavor and Soul begins: a case study of “Ol’ Blue Eyes” Frank Sinatra, an icon for Italians and, as Gennari details, young, black men like hip-hop mogul Puff Daddy, who dubbed himself “The Black Sinatra.” “The word ‘respect’ is central to all of this, and it resonates with why it is that young rappers take on Sinatra as an icon. There’s this idea of the ethnic outsiders becoming the ultimate insiders, these guys who are able to navigate the world of the street and the schoolyard and get elevated into the world of popular culture,” says Gennari.
This shared affinity for Sinatra is just one example of what Gennari calls black-Italian “mutual emulation” in the 20th Century, a time when both groups were searching for a way in. Another contact zone, which Gennari explores in a chapter called “Sideline Shtick,” is in college basketball in the 1980s. The number of Italian-American coaches and broadcasters increased at the same time as the number of black players on the court. “You don’t hear broadcasters saying much about ethnicity, but people see that there’s an ethnic presence and story there. [Italians and blacks] are now in people’s living rooms.”
Beyond these cultures’ influence on each other, the book also considers the ways in which “Afro-Italian sensibility has nourished and vitalized American culture,” adding flavor and soul to the melting pot through self-expression.
For those who grew up watching the Sesame Street crew “celebrate differences,” it may be a foreign notion to consider cultural intersections. Gennari says this old-school model of multiculturalism is insufficient. “We’ll move conversations and the lived experience of race and ethnicity forward the more that we get explorations of edges and overlaps and contact zones.”
Sure, the places where ethnic groups meet aren’t always proverbial multicultural potlucks (Flavor and Soul does detail times when Italian Americans and African Americans have dangerously, even violently, clashed). But Gennari argues understanding our edges is a key part of understanding our identity. “We need to recognize that we’re all American, but all Americans are multiple. They have multiple identities, and those identities are changing all the time.”