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Impegno nero: Italian Intellectuals and the African-American Struggle

  • Author(s): Leavitt IV, Charles L.
  • et al.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Italian intellectuals participated in Italy’s reconstruction with an ideological commitment inspired by the African-American struggle for equal rights in the United States. Drawing on the work of many of the leading figures in postwar Italian culture, including Italo Calvino, Giorgio Caproni, Cesare Pavese, and Elio Vittorini, this essay argues that Italian intellectual impegno—defined as the effort to remake Italian culture and to guide Italian social reform—was united with a significant investment in the African-American cause. The author terms this tendency impegno nero and traces its development in the critical reception of African-American writers including W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, and Richard Wright. Postwar impegno nero is then contrasted with the treatment of African-American themes under Fascism, when commentators had likewise condemned American racism, but had paradoxically linked their laments for the plight of African Americans with defenses of the racial policies of the Fascist regime. Indeed, Fascist colonialism and anti-Semitism were both justified through references to what Fascist intellectuals believed to be America’s greater injustices. After 1945, in contrast, Italian intellectuals advocated an international, interdependent campaign for justice, symbolizing national reforms by projecting them onto an emblematic America. In this way, impegno nero revived and revised the celebrated "myth of America" that had developed in Italy between the world wars. Advancing a new, postwar myth, Italian intellectuals adopted the African-American struggle in order to reinforce their own efforts in the ongoing struggle for justice in Italy.

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