In January 1990, I arrived in Charlottesville, a college town famously known as the home of the University of Virginia. I came from Bozzolo and the University of Parma with a mastery of English grammar and considerable knowledge of English literature. Nevertheless, it was exhausting trying to understand when people spoke to me. I would reply with the simplest answers. I had never been on an airplane, never used a computer. Back in Bozzolo, I was the occasional substitute teacher and taught religion at the local elementary school; that was all the teaching experience I had.
On my bus ride from Washington D.C. to Charlottesville, I stared out at the verdant and flat landscape which reminded me of the landscapes I was accustomed to back home. I was seated near an old Spanish literature professor from England, married to a woman from Bologna. He looked like Stan Laurel and I believe he spoke like him too.
It was Sunday. On Monday morning, I faced a class of about twenty students, none of whom knew a drop of Italian. I had to teach them without ever speaking a word of English myself, a rule I had no problem following over the first few months. By the end of the trimester, they were speaking Italian and I was speaking English.
At U.Va., I met my first black friend, my first Jewish friend, and attended my first protestant function led by a Reverend who resembled my mother with her teased hair, earrings and a thin layer of lipstick. At the University of Virginia, for the first time in my life, I met men and women who weren’t ashamed or afraid to identify as gay or lesbian. On a bridge, someone had spray-painted “It’s OK to be gay at UVA!”
At Charlottesville, I tasted freedom for the first time and experienced the beauty of diversity. I was in a true ‘university’ because the whole ‘universe’ seemed to be concentrated in that large town. In the big house I lived in, there was a Spanish woman who studied Faulkner, a woman from Yugoslavia who studied Spanish renaissance literature, a woman from Trento with a passion for Virgil, and an American woman who studied French women writers of the 20th century. We shared an unconditioned love for dark chocolate and when we would return home from class, we would have voice messages in at least 6 or 7 different languages.
As I continued to learn English, I began to learn about the glorious yet embarrassing history of the university which to me seemed like a paradise where everyone got along. It was founded by Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, author of the Declaration of Independence, perhaps the most important governmental piece of legislation in history, with its unforgettable passage:
“all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The President, an Enlightened intellectual, also designed the gorgeous campus (the most beautiful campus in the U.S. and the only campus recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site) inspired by the neoclassical architecture of our very own Palladio. However, in the Declaration of Independence, all those men “created equal” did not include the African men and women that were kidnapped from their lands and sold like livestock across the thirteen colonies. A slave owner himself, Jefferson never spoke out against slavery and fathered a child from one of them whom he never recognized as his own.
Virginia’s coat of arms shows a robed haughty woman – sword in hand – treading over a dead shackled man. The motto is “sic sempre tyrannis.” A strong Republican message – attributed to Brutus – against the ambitions of the King of England, but also the slogan screamed by John Wilkes Booth while assassinating Abraham Lincoln, the President who had dared to free the slaves despite the opposition of the Southern states.
In the 1960s, Virginia declared “massive resistance” to the Supreme Court ruling that required the integration of black and white students in public schools. Robert Kennedy, the American politician who perhaps did the most to give dignity and legal strength to the civil rights movement, graduated from the school of law at the University of Virginia at a time when black men and women were still being refused admission.
Saturday night, when Charlottesville and my Alma Mater were desecrated by a demonstration of neo-Nazi terrorists, white supremacists, and the Ku Klux Klan, it was as if all the contradictions of this historically emblematic place had suddenly resurfaced once again.
It is no coincidence that the violence was the reaction to the removal of a statute of the rebel General Lee and of confederate flags from a public park – oh, the irony! – named Emancipation park.
Virginia, and with it the Union, have yet to confront their history, at least in a less formal fashion. All it takes is for an irresponsible president like Donald Trump to take the stage, after having publicly incited his followers to use violence against opponents and minorities, for the racist, violent and reactionary part of America to show its face – criminal and grim – and to feel legitimized and protected in its absurd and anti-historical claims.
The dead and wounded in Charlottesville must also serve as a warning to us Europeans who are not immune to those regurgitations of racism that inevitably only lead to division, violence, and death.