In Flavor and Soul John Gennari offers a series of essays that explore a liminal space, what he refers to as the «edge» between Italian American and African American cultures. In reading it, the image that comes to mind is that of I limes dell’Impero, meaning the boundaries maintained by the Roman empire as it expanded its dominion across Europe. Consisting of both natural and constructed barriers, I limes effectively served as a place of meeting, convergence and interchange between diverse people in which new and interesting cultural forms took shape. Gennari illustrates how in the U.S., interactions along the «edge» between African Americans and Italian Americans – in neighborhoods, jazz clubs, at the dining table, on stage and the big screen, and even on the basketball court – have served to imbue expressive culture with innovative, progressive and distinctively American characteristics.
Gennari’s book proceeds from an introduction titled «Who Put the Wop in Doo-Wop,» which opens with a series of quotes from Dion DiMucci, from the 1950s rock group Dion and the Belmonts, Motown icon Marvin Gaye, and writer and Black Civil Rights Activist Amiri Baraka. Gennari offers them as «(t)hree scenes to set the stage» for the «set of interlocking case studies» (pp. 1,12) that form the body of his work. Drawing on Frederik Barth, Gennari establishes the theoretical underpinning of his work by defining ethnicity «as a set of performances of differences and sameness enacted at the boundaries between groups, performances that both reflect and create interdependencies across the boundaries» (p. 8). He thus establishes that his critical focus on «performance» – in the arts, foodways and sports – offers a lens for exploring how racial boundaries have been «complicate(d) and reconfigure(d)» in American society (p. 12). According to Gennari, Italian Americans «have mediated US concepts of black and white alien and citizen, outsider and insider, high culture and low culture, masculine and feminine, in ways that have decisively shaped American thinking about race and ethnicity» (p. 9).
The book is divided into five sections, distinct essays that respectively explore: 1.) Frank Sinatra as «Top Wop,» his ethnic swagger and engagement with African American musicians and musical forms, and his masculinity as a function of his relationship to his mother; 2.) «Everybody Eats,» in which Gennari parallels the American appropriation of Italian American foodways with that of African American music and fashion, deeming them gestures of «both love and theft» (p. 74); 3.) «Spike and His Goombahs» provides a close reading of Spike Lee’s films Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever, noting, as have other critics, that the casting of Italian American roles intentionally problematizes reading racial tensions across a strict «black-white» binary; 4.) «Sideline Shtick» in which he remarks that despite their notable absence on the court Italian Americans have loomed large in basketball as coaches and managers, and through their relationships with their largely African American players have reshaped the sport into the spectacle of entertainment and model of entrepreneurship it is today; and, the final chapter, 5.) «Tutti,» which reflects on how «no sooner did Italians become ethnic than they became white ethnics» (p. 214), and the manner in which this new characterization, ostensibly representing full access to all the privilege associated with mainstream American society, ultimately served to further complicate Italian Americans’ relationship to their ethnic selves and their interactions with their African American neighbors along the «edge».
While each chapter’s «case study» is compelling, Gennari’s treatment of Sinatra in the first chapter offers the broadest analysis. Sinatra’s two monikers, as «Top Wop» and «Chairman of the Board» serve as metaphors for the way he inhabits a space between insider and outsider, simultaneously existing as American icon and ethnic outlier. Known for his comradery with and support for African American musicians, most notably Sammy Davis, Jr., he is hailed by contemporary hip—hop artists as the «Original Gangster,» for the manner in which his so-called «dagotude» (a term coined by Pellegrino D’Acierno) stood in defiance of conventional models of Anglo-American masculinity.
Gennari’s exploration of Sinatra’s relationship with his mother Dolly, a woman Guy Talese describes as «a kind of Catherine de Medici of Hoboken» (p. 60), while insightful in its assertion that the singer’s rearing by a powerful woman left him «unafraid . . . of the female energy at the core of (his) own manhood» (p. 71), is somewhat flawed in its misuse of the Italian term mammissima (a super-mamma), which is conflated with what seems to be the intended words mammismo and mammone (defined, respectively, as an excessive if not pathological relationship with one’s mother and the male son who exhibits such attachment). Here Gennari inadvertently affirms the linguistic/cultural void he alludes to in his introduction, when mixed race black Italian actor Giancarlo Esposito and Eritrean American painter and restaurateur Ficre Ghebreyesus break into «mellifluous Italian» while he sits apart noting «I am the only one in our group that most New Yorkers might perceive as Italian American. But in many respects I am the least Italian of the three of us» (p. 8). Language, be it the standard Italian spoken today or the dialects of countless immigrant ancestors, continues to be an element that inflects and complicates Italian American identity.
Chapter Two «Everybody Eats,» meanwhile, is problematic in its treatment of Mario Batali as an example of Italian American masculinity constructed through the marketing and consumption of Italian foodways. Knowing what has happened to Batali in the wake of the #MeToo movement (allegations of sexual harassment and assault have been levied against him) it is hard to read Gennari characterize a scene in which «Female prep cooks run for cover as Batali announces that an ample artichoke or a choice cut of meat has given him ‘so much wood. . . big wood, strong like a tree wood’» as being «all for fun» (p. 101). Nonetheless, the chapter successfully analyzes the «gender-bending» at work in the cult of celebrity that has become associated with Italian foodways in the U.S.
All things considered, though, Gennari’s case studies distinguish themselves for the manner in which he utilizes his first-person perspective and animates his analyses with friends and colleagues who effectively embody the liminal space—i.e. the edge—that he is exploring. In addition to the aforementioned Giancarlo Esposito and Ficre Ghebreyesus, he offers anecdotes about scholar Joseph Sciorra, who stood alongside he protesters marching in the largely Italian American neighborhood of Bensonhurst after black teen Yusef Hawkins was murdered there, and Kym Ragusa, daughter of an Italian American father and African American mother, who while participating in the procession of the Madonna of 115th Street in East Harlem, surrounded by Italian American and Haitian American devotees, laments, «I don’t know the words of any of the songs, in any language, and I walk with a sense of shame that I can’t add my voice to those of the women around me. I feel as though I’ve lost something I never knew I had, something whose presence I can sense only in its absence» (p. 232). What is perceived to be absent, Gennari implies, can be found in the flavor and soul along the limes, the edge of Italian American and African American cultural spaces.
Gennari’s work is original and compelling, combining scholarship with keen observation and personal reflection. It will appeal to anyone interested in cultural, racial and ethnic studies, as well as the performance arts, consumer food culture, and even professional basketball. It pushes readers to reflect not only on how Italian Americans and African Americans have engaged and influenced each other, but on how issues of race and ethnicity continue to shape the greater American cultural landscape.
Carla A. Simonini (University of Loyola Chicago)