“Don’t say such a thing in public,” I can almost hear him admonish. Yet, when I think back, piece together his behavior, that becomes the simple conclusion. Racial prejudice nearly ate him alive.
He could have been worse. As far as I can tell, he largely exercised his prejudice within the home. He did not disguise himself in a white sheet and hood, drive around black neighborhoods and burn crosses on black peoples’ lawns. (Or worse.) Yet in the presence of the Citadel cadets he taught, whom he invited to dinner, he spewed racial hatred while the rest of us sat silent, our heads bowed as if to ward off his animosity. Sometimes a tiny quirk at the ends of his mouth gave an almost humorous tilt to his diatribes, as if he knew he transgressed a social norm, being the “bad boy” whom his father, the Reverend John B. Fortunato, would immediately order from the table.
As boys in Pittsburgh, he and his brothers strung up their oldest and most pliant brother after seeing a Tom Mix movie. If their mother, the gentle Rosalie, hadn’t glanced through the kitchen window and raced out to cut him down, who knows what might have happened.
My father often acted on impulse. He derived from an ancient culture of drama and emotion. Years later, when I sat with him and watched the opera “I Pagliacci” on TV (The Clowns by Leoncavallo, one of the greatest Italian operas of all time), I heard in the wrenching sob of the cuckolded Canio, the lyrical pain and revenge at the heart of Southern Italian culture. Lived entirely in the open.
Lucky for me, though his racism browbeat me, sent me to my room seething with anger and disgust and determined not to engage with him again, my mother’s cool refusal to be drawn into his vortex helped distance me. I left home for college in “the north,” although Baltimore hardly qualified as true north. Friends marched and protested for civil rights up and down the east coast, but I was incapable of such overt political behavior. My experience with my father’s racism had created such an intense need for protection and silence that I shrank from political engagement in any public way.
Yet, here I am, exposing our story, which I have learned is far from unique. Children of parents with extreme and unexamined political views often retreat. They move to another climate, another country. From South Carolina to Minnesota; Illinois to Italy. Then, from a distance they let the threats of cataclysm subside. Pull out the barbs of hate. And find that they have earned a discernment, if not the power to act openly. They can discern the soft underbelly, the manipulation of emotion, the excessive untruths of political extremism.
What happens next is their own story.