My grandmother’s parents came from Calabria and Sicily in Italy to the United States.
I did not get to know my great-grandparents; they died before I was born. I have heard, however, family tales of my great-grandfather who was, shall we say, colourful.
Rocco, you see, ended his life on a trip back to Sicily when he fell off a balcony. Enough said. He left eleven children in America.
But whenever my cousins or me brought up the subject of us being Italian, my grandmother would proudly proclaim: “I’m American.”
And right she was, she was born and raised in the United States. Both my grandparents spoke Italian as well as English. The Italian they learned came from at home, not school. My father and aunt, however, were discouraged from ever speaking Italian. My grandparents wanted to raise their children as Americans.
It’s the third- and fourth-generation immigrants, or more, in the States who go back to their roots. Scots (though it could be Irish, Italians etc.) who visit the States are amused, and sometimes offended, when they are approached by somebody who grew up in New Jersey who tells them: “I’m Scottish too!”
These stories are actually quite remarkable and once you’re away from the country for a while, you begin to realise just how remarkable. America is not a country like France, or England or Scotland. America had to be forged, had to be made from one wave of immigration after another, none of whom were accepted right away.
It’s why, perhaps, we cling so fiercely to the flag. In the American South you can see pickup trucks – it’s a cliché but it’s true – with both the Confederate flag and the American flag displayed on side-by-side bumper stickers, without irony. Yes, sometimes we’re not big on irony.
As fraught with trouble as this is, particularly since we stained our very founding declaration with the crime of slavery, it is still a tremendous achievement. What does an American look like? It could be anything. What do these 50 states have in common? It could be nothing.
Think about trying to make a single country, rather than single market, out of the member states of the European Union and add on top of that a history of slavery and inequality and you get the idea of what it’s like to form a country like the U.S.
In recent years we have witnessed the fragility of this union. Racial tensions and government shutdowns are the most obvious examples.
There are countless calls from every stripe, every corner and every political stance to: “take back America”. From who? Well, other Americans.
In all this, there are lessons for Europe as it deals with the issue of immigration and assimilation. Lessons, but not solutions for, in a heterogeneous, multi-racial global world, ideas of identity, integration and loyalty are always going to be shifting.
The reaction to the attack on Charlie Hebdo, rightly seen as an attack on free speech, brings some of these issues to the forefront, issues too complex for a hash tag.
We’ve seen Charlie Hebdo, a satire publication of the left, mercilessly mocking the likes of the right-wing Nicolas Sarkozy, who immediately came to its defence.
The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, in the name of free speech, makes the argument that Britain needs more powers to monitor speech, particularly that on encrypted social media like Skype or WhatsApp. In the U.S., the attack on free speech has been used again for reasons to renew the 2001 Patriot Act. France, in turn, is hearing calls for more surveillance.
Questions are being asked, again rightfully so, about the satire of Charlie Hebdo. Is targeting a powerful and rich Catholic Church fair but mocking religious beliefs of an economically fragile minority unfair?
Yet, the magazine’s target of ridicule was not so much the poor Muslim as the authority of Muslim clerics over believers, in the true tradition of French anti-clericalism. And, then again, isn’t provocation the point of satire?
Then you have the immense gift the terror attack has given to anti-immigration parties, which have been proliferating lately: Marine Le Pen and the Front National in France, UKIP, the Danish People’s Party, the Sweden Democrats, parts of the Tea Party in the U.S, to name but a few. The attack gives these parties the opportunity to wrap themselves in high-minded rhetoric about the defence of liberal tolerant values.
Then there were two other terror attacks the same week of the Charlie Hebdo murders. A homemade bomb exploded outside the office of the Colorado Springs NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), echoing dark memories of America’s fight for civil rights.
In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, Boko Haram staged an attack in the town of Baga, seizing a military base. Amnesty International believes up to 2,000 could be dead and there are reports of up to 7,000 refuges fleeing into Chad or Niger.
All in all, it wasn’t a great weak for the human race.
In my grandmother’s attitude there was more than a touch of shame about her ethnic background, but there was also the belief that she could make it – she could become as American as apple pie and baseball. She could make her contribution and her grandchildren would then one day proudly seek out their Italian roots.
And in that, we should find much hope.