by Ross Caputi
To the dismay of many Italian-Americans, statues of Christopher Columbus have become a target of the abolitionist wrath elicited by the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Though once seen as permanent fixtures of our cultural landscape, the month of June has cast a precarious future on many of the most well-known statues in our communities. All symbols of historic and contemporary racism have suddenly become candidates to be torn down.
The reaction from the Italian-American community has been mixed, with some interpreting the vandalism of Columbus statues as an attack on Italian American heritage. Many have responded by condemning the Black Lives Matter protestors, countering with their own Italian Lives Matter groups, and organizing “statue defenders.”
These intense reactions invite the questions: Why have so many Italian Americans responded with hostility to the Black Lives Matter protests? And why have they defended Columbus despite his many crimes? One would think that if Italian Americans knew how much their own ancestors struggled against racism and oppression, their natural reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement would be one of sympathy and solidarity. But the history of racism against and amongst Italian Americans is full of ironies. The hard truth of it is that many of us have forgotten where we came from and instead have embraced a mythological account of our history in this country.
The Myth of Italian Unification
For most Italian Americans, our story starts here with the so-called Unification of Italy and the birth of the Italian nation state in 1861. In reality the process of unification looked more like a conquest, especially in the south of Italy, affectionately known as the Mezzogiorno. It was here that the forefathers of the Italian state most violently forced the disparate Italian kingdoms into a single political entity, crushing all resistance along the way and precipitating an exodus of peasants and poor workers fleeing for the Americas. This is why the majority of us in the U.S. have roots in the Mezzogiorno. This is also why our distant relatives still living in Italy—much like African Americans and Native Americans here in the U.S.—have to look at statues of their historic oppressors on a daily basis.
Prior to 1861, the Mezzogiorno was known as the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, a sovereign state ruled by the Spanish Bourbons. But at this time nationalist sentiments were sweeping through the European continent and the bourgeois class throughout the different kingdoms on the Italian peninsula became enthralled with the idea of a unified state stretching from the Alps to Mediterranean Sea.
For the vast majority of Italians, especially the peasant and worker classes, unification was an abstraction that couldn’t overcome the hard reality of Italy’s political, social, and linguistic divisions. Only 2.5% of the population could speak Florentine, which was being adopted as the national standard. The rest of the country spoke highly local varieties of the Italo-Dalmatian language family, some as different from Florentine as Spanish is from French.
In addition to these regional differences, widespread illiteracy and extreme poverty created sharp social divisions. Nonetheless, these divisions did not stop the political class from trying to force unity into existence. A small handful of political leaders from northern kingdoms, namely Piedmont, led military campaigns to absorb the less powerful kingdoms into a single Kingdom of Italy under Piedmontese rule.
Giuseppe Garibaldi, known as the father of the Italian patria, was one of these figures. He led a famed military campaign that landed in Sicily and fought its way north, overthrowing the government of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies and annexing the territory of the Mezzogiorno into the new Kingdom of Italy. But what is left out of the official narrative of Italian Unification is that Garibaldi invaded a sovereign nation and massacred peasants, who either resisted his incursion or took his “revolution” to mean that they could rise up against the landed class who treated them so cruelly for so long.
None of this is to say that the Kingdom of Two Sicilies was a bucolic paradise before Garibaldi’s invasion. In fact, the peasants were already on the verge of a large scale uprising when Garibaldi landed in Sicily, and the fall of the Bourbon regime pushed the situation over the edge. Peasants began rising up against the big land owners. But then the brutality of Garibaldi’s invasion combined with the imposition of new taxes and forced conscription for the new Italian army quickly turned these localized revolts into a full scale guerrilla resistance known as the Grande Brigantaggio.
The Grande Brigantaggio
Brigantaggio, or “brigandage,” was already endemic throughout most of the Mezzogiorno. But this new political context thrust these criminal bands of the past into a “social war,” with the landholding elite siding with the new Italian state, and the peasants (now guerrilla rebels with the sponsorship of the deposed Spanish Bourbons, the Papal States, and the Hapsburg Empire) fighting for their own interests. But the new Italian state treated the rebels as criminals, denying them any form of legitimacy by branding them as briganti, or brigands.
Over the course of the next five years the new Italian state fought a brutal war of counter-insurrection, committing nearly half of its armed forces to suppressing the briganti and placing the Mezzogiorno under military occupation. In 1862, the Italian government declared a state of siege. Massacres became commonplace as the Italian army became increasingly frustrated with its failure to clear the briganti from their mountain sanctuaries. By 1863 the Italian government passed the Pica Laws, which permitted the arrest of relatives and passive supporters of the briganti.
In the end, the Grande Brigantaggio claimed the lives of more Italian soldiers than all the wars of unification, and the death toll for the briganti and civilians of the Mezzogiorno is still widely disputed, but believed to be in the tens-of-thousands. The briganti were eventually defeated, but not without wide-scale destruction of the Mezzogiorno.
The dominant narrative of Italian unification is a victor’s history. The briganti get little official recognition, and statues presenting Garibaldi as a liberator and nation builder stand in nearly every large city throughout the Mezzogiorno. While the attitudes of southern Italians towards these statues vary, ranging from full acceptance of the national mythology, to mild annoyance, to “Neo-Bourbon” nationalism; this propagandistic version of Italian history, designed to erase the crimes of the past and inculcate obedient citizenship, is given physical expression in the thousands of statues and street names honoring the men who sacked the Mezzogiorno.
The Southern Question
It was through the violence of the Grande Brigantaggio that the relationship between northern and southern Italy was formed. This violent encounter left the south economically dependent on the north. It also hardened the belief amongst the soldiers sent to suppress the briganti that southern Italians were racially and geographically closer to Africa than to Europe, a belief that was infamously expressed in a correspondence from Luigi Carlo Farini, Chief Administrator of the Mezzogiorno during the period of occupation:
“[W]hat lands are these, Molise and the south! What barbarism! This is not Italy! This is Africa: compared to these peasants the Bedouins are the pinnacle of civilization.”Qtd. in Nelson Moe. The View From Vesuvius: Italian Culture and the Southern Question. (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2002), 165.
Such attitudes quickly proliferated throughout the north and lent a racist dimension to the debate within Italy known as the “Southern Question,” which refers to the enduring poverty, economic dependence, and corruption in the Mezzogiorno.
This phenomenon is attested to by the radical thinker, Antonio Gramsci, who described the widespread belief amongst northern industrial workers that,
the Southerners are biologically inferior beings, semi-barbarians or total barbarians, by natural destiny; if the South is backward, the fault does not lie with the capitalist system or with any other historical cause, but with Nature, which has made the Southerners lazy, incapable, criminal and barbaric only tempering this harsh fate with the purely individual explosion of a few great geniuses, like isolated palm-trees in an arid and barren desert.Antonio Gramsci “Some Aspects of the Southern Question.”
Together the violence of the Grande Brigantaggio, the economic exploitation of the south, and the racist attitudes directed at southerners set the conditions for one of the greatest mass migrations in human history, as southern Italians fled their homes by the millions for far away lands in the Americas and Australia.
The Myth of the Land of Opportunity
Myths abound amongst Italians about why and how we came to be American. One of the most enduring myths is that our ancestors fled poverty for the economic opportunity offered by the United States, but there are several things wrong with this statement.
First, our ancestors didn’t only flee poverty, they also fled violence and racism. To those who believe the migration of Europeans to the United States was somehow different or more honorable than that of contemporary migrants coming from the Middle East and Central America, the conditions are actually quite comparable.
Second, most Italians didn’t choose to go to the United States rather than Brazil or some other country. These were largely illiterate people who didn’t get an opportunity to study a map before they packed onto a boat. The new world was all “America” to them. And while they might have sought out New York or San Francisco based on a letter from a loved one, they knew little about what the United States offered to immigrants compared to Canada or anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere.
Third, they didn’t assimilate and learn English out of a sense of civic duty to their new country. They did so under the threat of racist violence.
It was largely in this context the Italian-American communities embraced Christopher Columbus as a symbol of their binational identity. The first statue of Columbus was erected on the heals of the largest lynching in American history, which wasn’t against African Americans but Italian Americans.
In New Orleans 11 Italian American men were murdered and mutilated following an incident with the local mafia in 1891. This led community leaders to select Columbus as a symbolic patron of the Italian American community, overlooking his history as a genocidaire for what he offered in terms of protection against those who claimed Italian immigrants made no tangible contributions to the country.
The Whiteness of Italians
Italian Americans were not considered white when they first immigrated to the United States. But over the course of generations, Italian Americans, led by their own elite caste of prominenti, assimilated in the direction of white American culture, internalizing its racism and classism, rather than building stronger bonds with other marginalized communities and communities of color.
The process of assimilation was so successful that today it seems strange to think of Italians as nonwhite. But this speaks to just how much of our history we’ve forgotten and how much our identity as a community has shifted away from that of our ancestors towards mainstream America.
I am not suggesting that what we should take from this history is that we too suffered in some comparable way to the African American community; therefore, all lives matter. What I am suggesting is that if in the name of our Italian American identity we defend Columbus and oppose Black Lives Matter, it is at least partly because we broke from our past and reconstructed our identity to blend in with white America.
The point is not to throw blame at us for erecting statues of a monster in our time of need, but to remind us of what we’ve forgotten about ourselves. While tearing down familiar symbols of our culture can seem scary and might feel like a kind of loss, this moment can also be about learning and rediscovery for us.
This is an opportunity to explore what it means to be Italian in America—beyond comfort foods, old Sinatra songs, and Scorsese flics. Reconnecting with our history, breaking out of old cultural molds, and engaging with the full plurality of italianità will, without a doubt, mean growing pains. But if such a process of critical self-reflection brings us closer to our ancestors and our neighbors, we will only be better for it.
Ross Caputi is a PhD student of history at the University of Massachusetts.