- Sport and the Shaping of Italian-American Identity by Gerald R. Gems
Gerard Gems’s original research on Italian men and women who immigrated to the United States from the middle of the nineteenth century onward shows that they have distinguished themselves in sports. Using interviews and personal testimonies, Gems recounts the difficult, often tragic stories of individuals, families, and communities. With the passing of years, many immigrants adapted to their new life and patiently built their identities as Italian-Americans, eventually coming to regard themselves simply as “Americans.” Others tried to keep alive their own particular ethnicity and ancestral traditions while endeavoring to adhere to the precepts of the dominant WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) culture of mainstream America. Unfortunately, this was neither a linear nor an obvious process. In fact, some were not able to assimilate into the alien world because Anglo Americans regarded them as an inferior race; assimilation was further hampered by barriers of language, culture, and religion. Might the full shaping of their new identity still be under way? Citing the works of many eminent scholars, Gems does not exclude this possibility. In the end, the author leaves other issues unexplored. These include “What Is Italian-American Culture?” and “How Has Italian-American Identity Survived?”
This excellent book is fascinating and well written, and it will be of great interest to historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and, of course, specialists in the history of sport. But it will also interest general readers, and not necessarily Americans, Italians, or Italian Americans. Actually, the phenomenon of mass immigration to the United States between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries also touches on many other European populations. The difficulties that German, Irish, Polish, Greek, Romanian, and Spanish nationalities had before being integrated into American culture, as well as their contributions to American sport history, also deserve to be studied, evaluated, and disseminated. Did their achievements in the sporting arena play a significant role as it did for a considerable number of talented sportsmen and women of Italian origin who earned great fame in the United States? [End Page 418]
Initially, Italian families who immigrated to the United States considered sport simply as a waste of time, and their children generally avoided school and instead helped their parents by devoting their physical energies to working activities. In their spare time, they used to run and play traditional games, but the stronger and more aggressive boys enjoyed challenging each other to boxing matches. The author remarks that those who emigrated from southern Italy were particularly talented as boxers—a rough sport that fit their dispositions, their physiques, and their traditions.
Later, the boys (more rarely girls) might attend one of the Catholic schools that arose in their neighborhoods, and a few of these immigrants were integrated into the American public school system. A very fortunate few might even have the opportunity to study in colleges where they successfully participated in such team sports as baseball, basketball, and football, as well as track and other individual sporting activities. The book chronicles the achievements of such iconic stars as Rocky Marciano and Joe Di Maggio; their biographical profiles and those of other Italian American sporting heroes and heroines are extensively recounted and brilliantly analyzed.
Gems documents in eloquent detail the many difficulties endured by those who were forced by poverty to emigrate to America, and he quotes from a plethora of sources including articles, monographs, and other written and oral sources. Specific references to a wide range of thinkers like Antonio Gramsci, Norbert Elias, Eric Hobsbawm, Pierre Bourdieu, and other eminent scholars are especially noteworthy.
The author presents a historical overview that is incisive in its brevity and that highlights several major social and political influences both before and after Italy’s unification in 1861. These include the dominant cultural currents at the beginning of the new century, the Great War, the years of fascism, and the Second World War. Gems dwells at length on the issue of racial and ethnic motivations...