Skip to main content

Flavor and Soul

Italian America at Its African American Edge

In the United States, African American and Italian cultures have been intertwined for more than a hundred years. From as early as nineteenth-century African American opera star Thomas Bowers—“The Colored Mario”—all the way to hip-hop entrepreneur Puff Daddy dubbing himself “the Black Sinatra,” the affinity between black and Italian cultures runs deep and wide. Once you start looking, you’ll find these connections everywhere. Sinatra croons bel canto over the limousine swing of the Count Basie band. Snoop Dogg deftly tosses off the line “I’m Lucky Luciano ’bout to sing soprano.” Like the Brooklyn pizzeria and candy store in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever, or the basketball sidelines where Italian American coaches Rick Pitino and John Calipari mix it up with their African American players, black/Italian connections are a thing to behold—and to investigate.

In Flavor and Soul, John Gennari spotlights this affinity, calling it “the edge”—now smooth, sometimes serrated—between Italian American and African American culture. He argues that the edge is a space of mutual emulation and suspicion, a joyous cultural meeting sometimes darkened by violent collision. Through studies of music and sound, film and media, sports and foodways, Gennari shows how an Afro-Italian sensibility has nourished and vitalized American culture writ large, even as Italian Americans and African Americans have fought each other for urban space, recognition of overlapping histories of suffering and exclusion, and political and personal rispetto.

Thus, Flavor and Soul is a cultural contact zone—a piazza where people express deep feelings of joy and pleasure, wariness and distrust, amity and enmity. And it is only at such cultural edges, Gennari argues, that America can come to truly understand its racial and ethnic dynamics.

296 pages | 12 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2017

Black Studies

History: American History

Sociology: Race, Ethnic, and Minority Relations


“A well-written, thought-provoking, and well-researched work that is an important contribution in the areas of Italian American studies specifically, and race and ethnic relations and identity in general. Highly recommended.”


“In this thought-provoking, academic, yet often lively study, Gennari explores the intersections between African-American and Italian-American culture. . . . Whether he’s discussing the relationship between Italian-American basketball coaches and black players or the importance of food to both cultures, Gennari shows that despite tensions between them, black and Italian-Americans have much in common and understand one another better than many outsiders realize.”

Publishers Weekly

“An eloquent book about Italian Americans and race that carves out new space in our increasingly polarized national debate about whiteness and racial identity. . . .No scholar or writer has ever explored the multiple zones of contact between these two groups in the world of arts and the imagination the way Gennari does. . . A powerful work of healing and imaginative reconciliation. . .Flavor and Soul is a landmark in both cultural studies and in the exploration of race in the United States.”

Italian American Review

“A thoroughly enlightening cultural perspective and retrospective on the mythical and well-known burgeoning effects of Italian American and African-American cultural icons and identity on America. . . . Gennari succeeds in making clear how inevitable and beautiful, even if oft times difficult and sometimes violent, the mutual understanding and appreciating of races and cultures is when each benefits and supports the other while always recognizing, preserving, and nurturing what is good.”

Berkshire Eagle

“Gennari packs more into a paragraph than most scholars do into pages and delivers that knowledge in an ear-rewarding style—smooth, riffy, without all the high-falutin’ jargon we’ve come to expect from academics. This book connects the academy to the streets in ways that few cultural studies monographs can.”

Fra Noi

“There is no other than Gennari—a huge-hearted scholar of voracious curiosity and impeccable taste—to productively mine what happens when black and Italian meet. He sees the third thing those two galaxies of history and self-expression create at the crossroads. Cooking and eating, sports, film, and, of course, music are where the most potent and telling cultural action is, where we go to experience the true beauty and meaning of life in a world where we may know ourselves deeply along cultural lines but then find so much more at the recombinant intersection. Flavor and Soul is brilliant, encyclopedic scholarship that also accomplishes the rare work of speaking directly to and from the heart. This is a passionate treasure book of scholarship and ultimately a handbook for living a rich, surprising, culturally-guided life.”

Elizabeth Alexander, author of The Light of the World: A Memoir

Flavor and Soul is so damn good. The reader—whether passingly curious or utterly invested—is going to have a ball and come out wiser, better informed, and more determined to do the right thing, too. Gennari’s purpose is to identify, unpack, meditate upon, reenact and reinflect that dimension of Italian America created in tension with, and, especially, in mutual emulation of, African America. After all we’re talking about Sinatra and Miles, The Godfather and ’70s blaxploitation, the cult of food TV, Mookie and Pino then Travolta and Jackson, Calipari and his latest All-African American crew vs. Izzo and basketball’s la via vecchia, and hip-hoppers galore. Why is this approach such a revelation if so much of it is so darn obvious? American writers and intellectuals, with a few quiet exceptions, have paid attention at best only to each other’s accounts of these matters rather than to the arts, the artists, and their aficionadas, who really do have different stories—especially Gennari’s story—to tell.”

Thomas J. Ferraro, author of Feeling Italian: The Art of Ethnicity in America

"In this compelling, original book, Gennari ​stylishly rethinks everything from racial and ​ethnic boundaries to the oeuvres of virtuosi as different as Spike Lee and Rollie Massimino. With wit, compassion, and a sharp eye for what matters most, he manages to take seriously the most sentimental and wishful renditions of identity while also pushing past them in​ to edgier, harder-minded territory.”

Carlo Rotella, author of Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories

"In his new book, Flavor and Soul: Italian America at Its African American Edge, University of New Hampshire professor John Gennari explores the black/Italian interactions in American cultural history to provide some valid and valuable insights into the development of these two American subcultures. Gennari examines the presence and contributions of both groups to music, food, film, and sports, and believes 'strongly that it is in literature, the arts, and what I am calling expressive culture that the most meaningful, searching, creative, and finally consequential molding of our racial and ethnic lives take place.'"

Fred Gardaphe | Journal of American Ethnic History

Table of Contents

Introduction: “Who Put the Wop in Doo-Wop?”
1          Top Wop
2          Everybody Eats
3          Spike and His Goombahs
4          Sideline Shtick
5          Tutti

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press