Bart Giamatti

My Unexpected Education from Fearless

Now Shared in the Reasoned Fate of Christopher Columbus in New Haven

By Guest Contributor Date: June 17, 2024 Tags: SUNY Press Authors, Excelsior Editions, Biography, Italian American Studies

Guest post by Neil Thomas Proto

This addition to the SUNY Blog reflects the imperative of something I didn’t write about in Fearless: A. Bartlett Giamatti and the Battle for Fairness in America (SUNY, 2020).Yet without the depth of research and analysis necessary to understand Bart Giamatti’s life, the bigotry his grandparents and father endured in New Haven, his presidency of Yale University (1978-1986) and Yale’s own vicious historical conduct toward those it designated as “unfit” (that is, southern Italian immigrants), I would not have fully appreciated the history of the region between Naples and Sicily. That is, within the Spanish Empire, in battle to overthrow it, and the battle against the ruthless repression and exploitation by the northern region’s invading army that brought millions to the United States. Nor had I been able to write and have published "New Haven Italian-American sculpture represents true courage (without Columbus)" for the Connecticut Mirror.

In that story—presented in Fearless and in the Mirror article—are also my grandparents, on both sides, my mother, in steerage, at six years old arriving in 1916, and families and relatives I did and did not know but with whom I shared and witnessed joyful Columbus Day events in New Haven where no one talked about Columbus. It was as if— and readily understood by all—that he had no meaning except the date, that Italy did not exist in 1492 as a nation, that he provided no model in his conduct for the gold-driven Spanish and its subsequent colonists to finance generations of repression from Naples through Sicily, and to ensure the unstinting insistent on conversion, death, or expulsion mandated by the Catholic Church. And, as I came to appreciate, with thoroughness in researching Fearless, that  despite being a White Anglo Saxon Protestant icon in America (the nation’s capital was named after him), Columbus had failed to provide any form of protection against bigotry, Yale-led Connecticut laws allowing institutionalization and sterilization of the “unfit”, and the City’s deliberate effort to use “urban renewal” to destroy their neighborhood.

The Mayor of New Haven, Justine Elicker, who had read Fearless, called me in Washington, DC, now four years ago, at the request of Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, who I’d known for decades, who had endorsed Fearless, and was a member of the committee the mayor sought to create to select a replacement statue. I deliberately demurred to his offer to become a committee member, but proposed instead that I become the committee’s historical advisor and counsel on matters related to that history. Mayor Elicker agreed. Fearless mattered to the three of us, and, in time, to the selection, by a broadly-based committee led by Italian Americans, of a monument that represents the only people who ever really mattered: the Italian immigrant family.

Neil Thomas Proto is a lawyer who has also taught at Yale University and Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy. His books include The Rights of My People: Liliuokalani's Enduring Battle with the United States 1893–1917. He lives in Washington, DC.