A nation’s identity between pride and discrimination
Francesco Costa and Marta Ciccolari Micaldi came to Festivaletteratura with the aim of making contemporary America more comprehensible to the general public. Costa’s new book, Questa è l'America, aims to challenge the consolidated European stereotype of contemporary America as a distant land ravaged by political unrest and dominated by largely inexplicable social dynamics. Costa argues that the Italian perception of America as a unitary whole “lacks a fundamental spatial dimension and neglects the massive difference in geographical scale with European nations”, which makes the US “a bunch of culturally heterogeneous countries all patched together”, “a constellation of densely populated metropolitan areas with colossal empty spaces in between”.
Americans exhibit some shared cultural traits, such as a “fervent patriotism” which enables them “to approach their future with enthusiasm and confidence, leave the past behind with ease, and be irresponsible enough to take those risks who made them the world’s leading power”. But while in the United States, one’s ancestry group is celebrated as the main component of personal identity, the term American has acquired a more conservative connotation, which glorifies its white population and excludes African-American and Hispanic minorities. Costa tells his readers of a two-faced America which preaches political correctness as the cornerstone of a welcoming society whilst trampling on the rights and dignity of its non-white population, “an America where being born a person of colour not only exposes you to racist remarks, but systemically affects your education, your employment opportunities, your health and your life expectancy”.
He delves into the persistence, one a half centuries after the end of slavery, of the cultural stereotype of the “black criminal” in the collective consciousness and explores the dichotomy between segregated African-American communities with “bad public schools, scarce resources, easy access to drugs and guns, and ruthless law enforcement officials” and a rural white America which still subconsciously perceives their nation “as a savage land where settlers have established themselves before the state and have to defend themselves from a hostile environment” and which holds onto reactionary political beliefs as an act of defiance towards evolving standards of social acceptability, or, in Costa’s words, “trying to desperately revive a glorious past which they feel is slipping through their fingers”.
It all boils down, Costa argues, to the clash – which cross-cuts socio-demographic strata - between different perceptions of American identity: one which challenges racially biased institutions, tradition and laws and advocates for the blurring of racial lines, and another which reinforces ethnic divisions and either “flows into the horrors of white supremacy on one side, and into the sectarian pride of formerly marginalised communities and asphyxiating atmosphere of liberal art colleges on the other”.