My father has never been a historian or a genealogist. Quite honestly, my father so rarely talked about anyone in his family that he actually knew firsthand that I was quite certain he had been conjured by mom’s imagination when she was looking for a boyfriend in 1978. Having said that, my father was very committed to one particular piece of family history:
“Hundreds of years ago, i normanni invaded Sicily, raped some women, and our family was born.”
Now, as per usual it becomes necessary to fact check my father. So yes, around 1030 (~1000 years ago), the Normans invaded/conquered Sicily and up to about Lazio in what is now mainland Italy. For the unfamiliar, the Normans are most famous for that area of northern France called, wait for it, Normandy.
They swung around the Iberian Peninsula (modern day Spain/Portugal) and landed in Southern Italy/Sicily. Their empire included, at times, parts of modern day Sweden, Finland, and Norway, the northern coast of France, and part of the modern day Netherlands and patches of land in the Middle East. Yes, in the physical architecture of Sicily it’s possible to see all the people who passed through. Looks a little bit like Morocco in Epcot? Glad you got that vibe, because while the Normans and Swedes passed through, so did the Arabs contributing on the most basic levels to Sicilian society, culture, language, and most importantly, food. (Pistachios, anyone?) But i normanni left something else behind, a physical stamp more pronounced and reflected upon than the architecture.
What could a 1000 years ago conquest have to do with me today when my dad’s family genealogy consisted of asking me how his mother spelled her name and he certainly wasn’t doing family trees back to 1030 to see how he was related to the Normans? We aren’t doing family history going back to biblical times, we’re too lazy for that shit.
My grandfathers had been dead a minimum of 15 years before I was born and I never actually met either of them, just became casually acquainted with them through others’ memories. Because we saw my mom’s family regularly, her father made an appearance more often and I knew things about him like that he was a truck driver; that he would drive early in the morning to Staten Island for work and was really excited when the Verrazzano bridge was built. My maternal grandmother, in what can be described as some kind of miracle, never had a nasty, negative thing to say about her dear departed husband other than that he died too young.
Not seeing my father’s mother and his sisters combined with the fact that my dad was 12 when his father died meant that that man was even more of a blank slate. What was notably odd, though, was that while no one ever brought up my mom’s father’s physical appearance, one of the only things I knew about my dad’s father before I even knew his name was what he looked like.
As a kid, my mom would comb my hair and she would point out two things:
- I have tight curls on my neck which she would call “horns” and say I was so fortunate I narrowly escaped having her tightly curled hair.
- That the red tint to my hair (which is now no longer natural, alas) was due to my grandfather who had red hair.
The most famous little family trivia fact about my grandfather, though, is that he had…. Green eyes. My dad didn’t do any investigation into the family tree at all, once Sicilians see green or blue eyes, fair hair or skin, immediately i normanni get name dropped. In reality, i normanni now can generically just mean “northerners” and not just or only the Normans themselves.
My aunt provided further clarification. She related that her father told her their last name was actually used to identify people who came to Sicily from a small group of islands off the coast of what is now the Netherlands. Her father also said that it wasn’t exactly 1,000 years ago, but more like 500 or so. So normanni but not Normanni.
But i normanni are a concept that I hear about a lot when you get to talking about Sicilians because people get talked about a lot like buildings in Sicily do — the color palette of their bodies, their height, all harken back to a specific style. Physical appearance and the need to racially classify Sicilians, and especially to point out those that differed with their green or blue eyes, height, blonde hair, followed Sicilians wherever they went. People assume we look a certain way.
Mario Fillioley wrote about when he left Sicily to move to Pisa: “Me lo dicevano tutti, anzi secondo me facevano la domanda: ma com’è’ che sei un siciliano chiaro di occhi e di capelli?” [Everyone told me and asked me the question: but how are you a Sicilian with light colored eyes and hair?] Fillioley responds, “I normanni,” but the normanni have been long gone, maybe it was too hot and humid in Sicily. Did his mom cheat on his father? If normanni are just “northerners’’ doesn’t that mean that relative to him in Catania, people in Messina are northerners? The Calabrese?
The genetic and cultural composition of Sicilians (and the rest of Southern Italy, which at the time of unification in 1861 was the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies) raises interesting questions about race. In the 1800s, a trip further south than Naples was understood as “si sprofondava negli abissi” [one sank into an abyss] and that one would be “[nell’]inferno, l’avamposto dell’Africa” [in hell, the outpost of Africa]. “In generale poi ‘il Sud rappresenteva un mitico stato di natura, un mondo primitivo e selvaggio, incontaminato, in contrapposizione con l’artefatta ed esangue civiltà dell’uomo europeo.” [In general, the South represented a mythical state of nature, a primitive, wild, uncontaminated world in contrast to the artificial and refined civilization of the European man.]
The green eyes and their remarkability, to me, always seemed to highlight this connection to Whiteness. A more acceptable, more palatable whiteness and refinement that sharply drew people out of their assumptions that Sicily was no more than an outpost of Africa. A desire on the part of others to assign Sicilians a particular racial lineage and place that was for all intents and purposes meaningless. “Southern Italian” was a race the US put down for a group of people who weren’t dark enough to be African but sure as shit weren’t in the same category as White, Anglo Saxon, Protestants. And, BTW, “Southern” puts Sicily in relation to, say, Milan or Germany. As far as Senegal is concerned, Sicilians are i normanni.
My mom with her incredibly curly hair always knew to differentiate herself from WASPs. My father met my mom in the summer and when fall rolled around my mom was surprised the tan never went away. My dad hadn’t inherited the i normanni look of his father but rather his mother’s Straight Outta Sicily stereotypical features to the point where post 9/11 my mom told him don’t get angry in the airport they’ll think you’re a terrorist.
My parents had always instilled in me one thing when it came to race: Make no mistake, you’re whiter than that group but you sure as shit aren’t White like those people. Which explains why I was the only 7th grader who used the term “WASP.” When people started getting DNA tests done, I couldn’t quite understand why. First of all, as previously mentioned, do you really want to find people who are going to want money? But more so than that, I had always lived in this understanding that genetically, DNA-wise, I wasn’t tethered to any specific place or location. I was the culmination of thousands of years of people who moved around, passed through one place to end up in another.
When my grandfather left Ellis Island for Manhattan (he didn’t pass through when he arrived from Italy, he was arrested in NYC and then detained on Ellis Island for deportation), these were merely the latest islands that the family passed through. Another chapter as we island hop our way around the world. Maybe I should adopt the Italian practice of naming a kid after their grandparents, only in this form I just change my last name to reflect the island my grandparents came from.
A friend came back to me saying that his DNA wasn’t 100% Italian! It was partially Croatian! How could this be?! Rethinking your entire ethnic and cultural identity on a consumer DNA test seems ill advised, quite honestly. Italian Americans with a lot of knowledge that they’re “Italian” American but little knowledge about our actual history further back than the boat showing up in the US always make me chuckle, especially when it comes to DNA test results.
It’s also why I am compelled to remind them that white supremacy does not and has never served us — we were never White like them and we should never have bargained with the devil to make ourselves whiter. We changed our culture, our names, our language, and our complicated history to appease the unifiers in the 1860s and the US government shortly thereafter. And for what? To further divorce ourselves from Africa? Why? What’s so wrong with being associated with Africa or the Arab world? Nothing. There’s nothing wrong with it.
“Do you think people always stayed immutably in the same place? Italy was a place where people came and went all the time to enrich themselves and others. Look at where Croatia is on a map, it’s not shocking,” I told him.
“Are you going to see where your family came from? Are you going to do one?”
“I don’t need to. My grandfather had green eyes.”
“So you’re not 100% Italian?”
“100% Italian is meaningless to me, we’re Sicilian.”
“But then how did he get green eyes?”
I laughed. “I normanni, duh.”