Sunday, February 5, 2017

My Mother, Frank Sinatra and Radical Politics

My mother hated Frank Sinatra. She despised him for the way he treated women and his condescending and racist slapstick with Sammy Davis, Jr. She hated his voice, his clothes, his drinking and his image. The only record allowed in the house with Frank Sinatra on it was "Guys and Dolls."

My mother would despair over the large reproduction of Sinatra's mug shot from 1938 on my wall. For me the poster is an important part of Italian American identity. Frank looks great and the poster reminds me that we can become more than stereotypes and more than the images manufactured for us. And if I'm okay with Sinatra making it in spite of having a criminal past, I have to be good with rap stars and other doing the same even when I don't really get the music.

No, I take that back. My mother wouldn't despair over the poster. She would be furious.

Two points come together here. First, Sinatra has been largely forgotten about. When was the last time you heard him on the radio or met someone hot with a Sinatra CD? Second, there was my mother.

My mother had a work-your-way-up ethos and loved transcendental poetry. When that failed, she was good with low-key collective action. I once asked her what she had learned from having attended a union womens' summer school and she said, "Well, they taught us to clap like ladies." She recalled attending a union rally in Philly as a kid and meeting the Three Stooges there and signing petitions for public control of atomic energy---actions which later kept her from teaching and factory jobs in the McCarthy years---and she refused to buy clothes without her union label sewn in. She loved Mrs. Roosevelt and Edna St. Vincent Millay. She was an Ida B. Wells fan and a member of the NAACP. She would sign petitions to get the Communist Party on the ballot and tell me not to tell my father. And my father would do the same.

My mother wanted the ERA and women priests but she wouldn't buy a dress unless my father gave the okay. Black students, abused wives and white working-class kids shared our home or our table, my parents patiently pushing them to build better lives. My parents set as their mission helping the kids who were called "slow" and struggled to get through school, my father recalling how he didn't speak English as a child and was bullied because of it. My father would also get frustrated and push my mother to be more of her own person. insisting that she keep her pay and use her maiden name. And when my parents danced at a club, the mob guys cleared the floor and dinner and drinks were free because they brought a crowd and were just that good. My parents' major failing was that they had a blind hatred of the Irish, a prejudice typical of their generation.

My parents supported the war effort, my father returning from World War Two with PTSD and a Purple Heart and convinced that he had done the right thing. They connected the war abroad to fighting fascism at home, but there the support for war stopped. When the U.S. was pulling out of Vietnam I asked my mother what she thought about it. "I helped end that war," she said  "What? How? What are you talking about?" I said. "Well, I made you that crumb cake and you took it to the demonstrations and that helped someone walk a little further and the war ended. So there!"

My parents would be lost in today's political climate. They would have voted for Clinton and considered that a major contribution. They would be repelled by Trump's racism and sexism and anger. They would not understand how he won. And they would be afraid. Joe McCarthy, the Ku Klux Klan and racism in the bigger family scared and scarred them. They had no collective to fall back on in the 1950s and early 1960s when they found themselves blacklisted for a time. They knew poverty and fear.

Sinatra reenters the picture here. Sinatra's "The House I Live In" from 1945 made sense to them. It expressed their Americanism and their climb out of hard and tough times. It was sentimental and transcendental enough that it gave them a wistful look back and forward, back to a time of national unity against fascism and forward to peace and something like equality. Part of the code here is that Old Blue Eyes is telling Italians not to hate the Irish.

Listen to the words, forget about hipster irony for ten minutes and fifteen seconds, put this in the context of 1945, think about what Trump & Co. are saying today and ask yourself if there isn't something here that touches you today.

The postscript is that a united-front cultural effort might seem lame in the moment but prove to have an enduring quality over time. Sinatra was persecuted and criticized and red-baited for the movie and the song---and eventually he performed it for Ronald Reagan, I think---but the song has a meaning today that no one expected.

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