I recently asked my daughter Rachel to recommend a book for me to read from her class booklist at Granite Hills High School in El Cajon, California. She immediately suggested WARRIORS DON’T CRY by Melba Pattillo Beals. WARRIORS DON’T CRY is “a searing memoir” of Melba’s harrowing experience in 1957 to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School. Melba and her eight classmates faced angry mobs daily, and endured physical and emotional abuse. Their sin, besides being black: challenging the Southern tradition of segregation.

My emotions, while reading WARRIORS DON’T CRY, rotated between sadness, anger, and rage toward her white classmates, white parents, cowardly teachers and administrators, Governor Faubus, and even President Eisenhower.  My respect for Melba and her classmates grew by the page as I read how they deflected hatred through prayer, family support, and Melba’s faith in Gandhi’s non-violent response to discrimination. The segregationists couldn’t break Melba and her classmates. WARRIORS DON’T CRY is a manifesto of perseverance and determination.

Melba’s memoir made me reflect about my own identity and my experiences with race. It’s easy to squint into a 2011 magnifying glass at a 1957 event. Segregation was terrible and it’s easy in 2011 to point the finger at 1957 segregationists.

What was I thinking and believing in 1957, 1967 and beyond? Were my family and I significantly different from Arkansas segregationists? How I was raised?  What were we taught about other people? How did we interact with people of all races, and ethnic heritage? Finally, how did growing up calabrese influence my fifty-eight years of life in a nation featuring many races, ethnic groups, and underrepresented groups?

For non-Italians, calabrese refers to a person born in Calabria, the toe and instep of Italy. In my case, it’s being born and raised calabrese-americano. I was born in Chicago, as was my dad, so I qualify as second generation Italian American. The Saccos, originally from Miglierina, Calabria, are close to celebrating one hundred years in America. My ancestors were peasants, living and working in a feudal society that exists even today. My great grandparents are identified on my grandparents’ birth certificates as “contadini”—peasants. The best description of Calabria’s poverty and proof of its current feudal society emanates from a recent poem entitled IL MERIDIONALE (The Southerner)

Io sono nato laggiu’ in Meridione     I was born down there in the South

dove la gente fa colazione                  where people make breakfast

con un po’ di cipolla e pane               with a bit of onion and bread

e certezza non ha del domani             with uncertainty as to tomorrow

Dove ancora il padrone e’ barone      Where the baron is still the Godfather

e quando passa gli bacian le mani     and when he passes we kiss his hands

Dove il divorzio esiste di fatto          Where de facto divorce exists

dove le mamme si vestono a lutto     where mothers dress in mourning

dove le mogli son senza mariti          where wives are without husbands

e le baracche hanno i terremotati       and huts have earthquake damage

Dove il meglio aspettando si spera    Where one hopes for the best

dove si muore sepolti in miniera       where one dies in the mines

Io sono nato laggiu’ in Meridione     I was born down there in the South

dove profuma la zagara in fiore         where orange blossoms give off their scent

dove il sensale porta l’amore             where the matchmaker brings love

e le ragazze son vergini ancora          and girls are still virgins

dove il treno lascia i villegianti         where trains drop off vacationers

e fa carico degli emigranti                 and loads up emigrants

dove la barba si fa dal barbiere          where the barber still shaves people

e il calzalaio fa ancora il mestiere     and the shoemaker still does his trade

dove ancora non c’e’ l’ospedale        where there are still no hospitals

e l’autostrada ci han fatto passare     nor highways

dove i giovani voglion morire.          where the young want to die

Io sono nato laggiu’ in Meridione     I was born down there in the South

e voglio fare la rivoluzione.               and I want to start a revolution.

GROWING UP CALABRESE celebrates our upcoming centennial and offers the reader a guide to self-reflection of identity and race. It’s not just a book for Italian Americans but for anyone searching to better understand their ethnic origins.


About growingupcalabrese

Professor of French and Italian at San Diego State University
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