Here I try to anticipate and reflect questions that I often am asked which are NOT answered in my books.
Q. What kind of name is Ardizzone?
A. The Ardizzones in my family tree are all from southern Italy, as are the Nigros and Brunos (my great grandmothers' family names.) Ardizzone is a very uncommon name in Italy and I have been told that it may have either Arabic or Basque background. I am very interested in family history, my own and others', but I have not researched much beyond the fourth generation back. And we pronounce it with a silent "e."
Q. Are you related to Edward Ardizzone?
A. Not that I know of. But I do own some of his published illustrations. Also, I once met one of his grandnephews who told me that the English Ardizzones pronounce the "e." Some American Ardizzones do, too. I just say it the way my grandfather did, although of course he also adamantly denied that his father's parents were from Sicily and when I was in Italy I was told repeatedly that Ardizzone is a Sicilian name.
Q. What is your ethnicity?
A. I am a mixture of European ancestries, although I identify primarily as Italian because that was the strongest cultural influence when I was growing up. I also have much more information about that side of the family because it was something that was constantly discussed. I have a picture of my great grandparents, who were both born in Italy, hanging above my computer and I often wonder what these strangers would think about my life and work. My parents, although both white by American definitions, were from very different ethnic and class backgrounds and I was very aware of the ethnic mixtures of my own and other families when I was growing up.
Q. Are you part black?
A. The short answer is "no;" the more accurate answer is "not that I know of. "
It is estimated that about one-quarter of white-identifying Americans have some black ancestry. While I have done a fair amount of research on my known ancestors and found no evidence to suggest any African American ancestry, history tells us that this information is not always recoverable given the patterns of interracial mixing in the United States. My southern Italian ancestry also complicates our understanding of black and white. Although scholars debate whether Italians identified and were identified as white when they first arrived in the United States, my own family's experience was that they were not considered fully white. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Italian immigration was at its peak, many native-born white Americans considered them a "mongrel" or "mulatto" group and therefore a danger to the nation's character. Although the fear of black ancestry is pure racism, they did have a point about Southern European ancestry. We are all African originally, and Italy, especially Sicily, is right across the way from North Africa. But I never questioned my whiteness growing up, and I live with the privileges of whiteness daily.
Q. How did you become interested in your topic?
A. This is a long story so I'll break it up into parts
a. How I became interested in the history of racial mixing and people of mixed ancestry:
I'll begin in college where I spent two years wandering through a lot of departments and classes, trying to figure out what to major in. (I ended up as an independent major in comparative religion.) One semester I took my first Women's Studies class and my first Africana Studies class and they both blew my mind. But, in 1986, neither one had anything to say about the other. A few courses with Gertrude Frazier and Margaret Washington introduced me to the work being done integrating the study of race and gender and I headed to grad school, following that path. I began reading histories of race which, by the early 1990s had almost nothing to say about gender. I was still trying to figure out how in the world Americans came up with the idea of race, and I was sure that gender played a role in it. Several professors (Crisca Bierwert and June Howard) introduced me to literature written by women of color that focused on interracial relationships and women of mixed ancestry. Nella Larsen, Charles Chesnutt, Mourning Dove, and Pauline Johnson. I quickly discovered there was a tremendous amount of scholarship on this literature, but very little historical work and I gradually developed a dissertation project on the history of American ideas about racial mixing and people of mixed ancestry under the guidance of Earl Lewis. A trip to visit a friend in Jamaica also gave me a new perspective on American racial categories.
b. How I became interested in the Rhinelander Case:
While I was doing preliminary research for my dissertation prospectus, Earl told me about an interracial marriage he remembered reading in the Norfolk Journal & Guide, a black-published newspaper he had used during his own dissertation research. He remembered enough information that I was able to track down coverage of the case in the Chicago Defender (this was long before it was digitalized) and in one short, lone article by Mark Madigan. By then my dissertation had taken another direction, but Earl and I decided to co-author an article, and then a book.
c. How I became interested in Belle da Costa Greene:
Just after Earl and I submitted the final manuscript for Love on Trial, our editor, Amy Cherry contacted me about writing a biography of Belle da Costa Greene and put me in touch with Jeff Kleinman, who is now my agent. I spent about a month reading everything I could about Belle, and decided that it was too important a project to pass up, even though I had planned to revise my dissertation for publication next. Although Belle Greene, like Alice Rhinelander, was a woman of mixed ancestry whose identity was ambiguous, I was looking for something different and challenging in a new project. I quickly found several. First, the sources. With Love on Trial we were limited to newspaper accounts and court documents which filtered the story of Alice's racial identity and her love affair and marriage with Leonard Rhinelander. Although Belle Greene had destroyed her own papers before her death in 1950, there were over six hundred personal, often very lengthy, letters written to a man who was first a lover and then a friend over a thirty year period. As an historian, my writing is limited by the available sources, and I was eager for a project that would offer much more direct insight into the personality, motivation, and daily life of my subject. Second, Belle's work at the Morgan Library and her association with artists, musicians, and writers brought her, and therefore me, into an entirely new realm of early-twentieth century New York society. Belle and Alice shared some experiences and a general geography, but they lived in entirely different social worlds. Finally, Belle's public presentation of her racial identity was quite different from Alice's. Alice's story suggested that a family could live quietly between the categories of black and white even in such a highly racialized period as the 1920s. But once public attention turned to the question of her identity, she became, for most Americans, black. Belle's story suggests that white Americans were willing, in limited circumstances, to overlook or pretend not to know that a colleague or friend had black ancestry, even if that person was famous for making pointed references to her dusky skin and black "blood." But also, we see that rumors and interest in Belle's known or suspected black ancestry continued throughout her life and after her death.
Q. How long does it take you to write a book?
A. First I should note that I am rarely just writing a book. I was still working on my dissertation when I began researching Love on Trial, and I was teaching full time for the last two years we were writing. All told, there were about four years between starting the book research and publication. An Illuminated Life took over six years.