Italian Americans & The Confederacy

Last week as I watched the Confederate flag paraded through the Capitol, I was reminded of a conversation I recently had with another Italian American who defended flying the Confederate flag. His position was that he lived in a former Confederate state where many of his neighbors who flew the Stars and Bars were good people who see it as part of their heritage. As I told him, I had little doubt about the goodness of the people. In the considerable time, I have spent in southern states, I found most of the population to be fine people. That was not the point. I do not believe that people who fly the Confederate flag to be irredeemably flawed. The issue is not the people of the south, but what the Confederate flag represents as well as what the display of that symbol means.

We should bear in mind that when we express ourself we must take into consideration how our hearers understand what we are saying. Words and symbols have meaning beyond what we may personally assign them. We cannot be like Humpty Dumpty who said to Alice; “when I use a word it means exactly what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” All persons wishing to communicate clearly must not only understand that there is a difference between what is said and what is heard but seek to minimize that difference.

In the case of the Confederate Flag there frequently is a huge gulf between what those waving that flag mean and many who see it. The flag is a representation of the Confederacy. Of that, there is no rational debate. The values of the Confederacy are the antithesis of the values of the United States as well as the values of our Italian immigrant forbears.

A loyal citizen of the United States can only see the Confederates as traitors. Revisionists claim that the Confederates left the Union because they were defending states’ rights. This is incorrect. Lincoln as well as nearly all Americans agreed back then that the federal government was prevented by the Constitution from abolishing slavery in states where it already existed. If anything, Lincoln agreed with the rights of slave states. There were no rights to defend; none were being threatened. The real crux of the issue was the expansion of slavery into the western territories that were won from Mexico. Make no mistake about it, the secession of the Confederate states was to not only preserve their right to own another person as property but to expand that right to other parts of the Union.

The act of firing on Fort Sumter, taking up arms against the government was traitorous. Our government has a system in which people with grievances can go to the courts. If the courts decide the laws are not in their favor, they can work through the legislative branch to change those laws. This is how the United States works. However, the Confederacy chose not to do things the correct way. They chose to shed American blood to expand slavery. How can this be seen as noble? This is what the Confederacy and the Confederate flag represents.

In terms of how this relates to our Italian identity, we should remember that Italians, at least those of us from the Mezzogiorno, were not considered white just a hundred years ago. The Confederates represented by that flag would have just as happily enslaved us as they had black men and women. It was the bigotry of the Confederacy that drove the lynching of Italians across the United States from 1886 to 1916. When Italian Americans defend the Confederate flag, they are defending a way of thinking that oppressed their own people.

More importantly, the racism inherent to the Confederacy is simply the exact opposite of Italian values. Giuseppe Garibaldi, who was to Italians what Washington was to Americans, fought for the equality of all people. While Lincoln may be known as the great emancipator, he did not recognize the true equality of blacks, suggesting that whites and blacks could not live in harmony, going so far as to suggest that they be repatriated to Africa. Garibaldi was a consistent defender of the rights of all people, frequently coming to the defense of the oppressed. In one such instance, while a freedom fighter in South America, he encountered some slaves being beaten and, although he was outnumbered, attempted to rescue them, failing only because his friends pulled him away fearing for his life.

Garibaldi was not unique; the abolition of slavery is a very Italian thing.  Dante’s Divine Comedy, the greatest work of western literature, delivered a message of emancipation, both spiritual and political. Dante’s work which is ingrained in Italian culture demonstrated that only through our emancipation can we hope to find our salvation, to find God. It was this message, penned by an Italian, that inspired many Italians and Americans.

Many who display the flag do so as an expression of their heritage. But, what do we mean by that? Heritage. You see, heritage is an inheritance. It is something which is passed from one generation to the next. We should remember though that there are things in the past that should remain in the past, that should not be passed on from one generation to the next. Simply labeling it as part of your heritage does not make it sacred and good. At one time in Italy, it was accepted that a man could, and in some cases should beat his wife. You could say that wife-beating is part of our heritage. Should we celebrate this aspect of Italianità? Of course not. In the same way, the heritage of the Confederacy should not be celebrated as part of a person’s heritage.

Another defense I often hear of the Confederate flag is that it is part of our history, that we should not try to erase the past. I absolutely agree. However, remembering history does not mean we celebrate values and ideas that are wrong. In Germany, it is against the law to display a swastika. During a recent trip to Germany, a friend told me about two Japanese tourists who were arrested and subsequently told to leave the country for giving the Nazi salute. There are few nations more aware of their history than Germany. I see little, if any, difference between the swastika and the Confederate flag. We should learn from our German friends.

While I can appreciate one’s love of their culture, of their ancestor, we must recognize where those ancestors have fallen short. We must recognize that some of their ideas must be put aside. If we are to fully embrace what is good about being Italian American, that is to say an American of Italian descent, we need to cast aside those things that conflict with our values. The Confederate flag is one such thing, what it represents conflicts with who we are as a people, with our culture. The Confederate flag has no place in the home of an Italian American.

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