My kind & welcoming ex-mother-in-law and I - Salerno 1997
When I moved to Italy over twenty years ago I had already lived in several other countries on three different continents and felt quite confident moving through circles which tended towards being, woefully, short on POC.
I don’t want to list grievances about racism endured in this post, I’d like to talk about joy. However to give that some context, I need to give you a bit of background.
A never-ending conversation - or “Che bella abbronzatura.”
When I first moved here it felt as though I was in a never-ending conversation with white Italians. It was often with white Italian friends that this conversation ended, inevitably it seemed, in incredible frustration on my part and a sense of being wholly misunderstood. In 1996 the presence of POC was nowhere near the number it is today. I had people finger my dreads at an airport in Rome and speak about the texture in Italian as though I weren’t there. I laughed out loud when they jumped, seriously jumped, in surprise once I had recovered my voice (I was dumfounded) when I spoke to them in Italian. I had a woman on the street come up and run her thumb across my lip covered in the brown lipstick I favored at the time while saying, “Is this the real color of your lips?” I was stared at and mocked, men thought I was a prostitute and a week did not pass while waiting on the train for Milan without a most unwelcome proposition and inquiry as to my price. However, once I mastered Italian, those more blatantly racist moments were easier for me to handle than the endless discussions regarding microaggressions with people who, despite this ignorance, I really liked.
The number of times that I was told “Che bella abbronzatura.” to which I would reply, “Actually, no this is not a tan, it’s the color of my skin.” and explain why that was offensive. Every single summer several people say, “You’re so lucky you don’t need to go to the beach you already have a great tan.” Or “Look, I tan so easily I’ll be as dark as you soon.” Thinking it hilarious. And original. When in 2008 Berlusconi, made the same “abbronzatura” joke referencing Barack Obama (and then repeating his gaffe in 2009 referring also to Michelle Obama), many of the white Italians I knew claimed to be offended and embarrassed by the Prime Minister’s remarks, yet I’ve heard the same joke directed towards me countless times.1996 Salerno province
The Elephant - or white people telling me how I feel
There is a tendency I’ve observed in some white people the world over, who seem to think my color is the elephant in the room, to think it must be acknowledged and that they must demonstrate that they have no issue with it. Which to me proves, of course, the opposite. It’s so very odd. Another of these “ice breakers” has to do with coffee. When offered I decline saying, ” I’m more of a tea drinker…” and the response is, “Ah yes, you are black enough.” I protest and begin my speech, sometimes patiently - more often lately exasperatedly, about why and how wrong this is. Again I hear, it’s supposed to be a joke, we all know coffee won’t turn you black ha ha ha. When I pursue the matter and do my best to educate gently, because, er, look if we are trying to be friends you need to understand... I’m accused of being; tiresome, humorless, defensive. "How sad you carry that chip on your shoulder!" I'm told. Then, I'm harangued about my ignorance of Italy and it’s history. The white person instructs me on how I’m supposed to feel and why I’m wrong. It’s normally someone who is defending the person who has just made the racist remark who says, “You don’t understand, there’s no malice here.” or, proudly, “Italy never colonized countries like France and England, so we have less experience dealing with black people.” which, while it is true that France and England have a much larger population of POC as a result of their colonization, it was not for a lack of trying on Italy’s part. There is next to no acknowledgment by Italy’s white citizens or government of the 50 odd years that Italy did have colonies in Africa and the atrocities they committed there.
The Fabric of Italian Society - or Calimero
There’s a warning that Italian parents use on their children, “If you don’t behave the “Uomo Nero” will come and take you away.” - this appalling threat that a black man will do them harm, or the atrocious series of cartoon shorts advertising a laundry detergent starring a baby bird called "Calimero", the black baby chick, who cries his mother has rejected him because he’s black, the tag line is “You’re not black you’re just dirty.”. These along with so many other examples of blatant or covert racism are woven into the fabric of Italian society and still, somehow, there is a lot of defensiveness when any part of this mindset is criticized.
In 1998 when filming a video for a dance hit that I had participated in with a blond female DJ the suggestion from the director was that we would do an angel and devil theme, guess who they wanted to be the devil? Just like the Benetton ad. I refused. Though I knew perfectly well why the suggestion had been made I asked why the DJ couldn’t be the devil- the director laughed in my face and said, ”That doesn’t make any sense, she’s blond, of course, she’s the angel.” I pitched a fit and the concept was changed. That same DJ when we were on tour in Paris, and I remarked how beautiful it was to see so many black faces- spit “If you don’t like Italy just go back to where you came from.” That partnership ended shortly thereafter. I declined the invitation to do a follow-up album, truthfully it was also because the music was trash, but those moments played a major role in my decision.
Photographer Oliviero Toscani
Nope, Italian isn’t synonymous with white - or Pearls & JOY
Now joy. Finally right? If it made you uncomfortable to read that, imagine living it. If you recognize my experience, welcome and I feel your pain.
In the ’90s when I arrived most of the POC in Italy were first-generation immigrants and they were keeping their heads down and working hard to assure their children a better life. I met African, Middle Eastern, and Chinese doctors, lawyers, teachers, and engineers whose degrees were not recognized in Italy, who were taking any job to make ends meet or, when they could, studying and retaking exams to qualify. The Afro-Italian children, though they are not always recognized as such, one does not automatically receive citizenship by virtue of birth in Italy, are now grown and they are making waves. Huge double-up waves and they are surfing them while hanging ten.
So many still think of Italians as white. When I googled Afro-Italians for the first time, Google kept asking me, “Don’t you mean Afro-Latinos?” Google, seems you’ve lost the narrative. There are many Afro-Italian intellectuals and a great many writers who have been advocating for social change for years now, but it took the furor over George Floyd’s murder to bring the Afro-Italian movement to the attention of the mainstream here in Italy and beyond.
The first black minister in parliament, Cécile Kyenge, was subjected to prolonged and intense overt, as well as covert, racism and she dealt with it with such aplomb, such grace, inspiring other AfroItalians to try to effect change through the government. The majority of those leading the charge for social justice, however, are writers and intellectuals as well as entrepreneurs. African Italian writers Pap Khouma, Mohammed Bouchane, and Salah Methnani began the tradition in the 1990s with their autobiographies recounting their stories. Today writer, journalist, activist Igiaba Scego is a fiercely dedicated leader as is author, journalist, activist Cristina Ali Farah, another whom I deeply admire. Director, writer and actor Alfie Nze is making incredible films that inspire dialogue. Model and activist Bellamy has created the digital platform AfroItalian Souls celebrating AfroItalians while simultaneously providing a space to amplify black Italian voices. Afro-Italian queer immigration activist Medhin Paolos is a photographer, filmmaker, and musician whose current project in collaboration with Harvard University, “Mind the Gap” will have far-reaching effects as the heart of the work will be implemented in Italian classrooms. Activist Karima 2G makes music with a message. ARTivist Kwanza Musi Dos Santos is getting national attention with her non-profit work, as is interpreter, journalist, and activist Uche Bridget, and on, and on, and on, and on, there are way too many marvels disguised as humans to list here…
I am not calling you swine, you all are my lovelies and I’m so very glad you’ve taken the time, but I gotta say - pearls I’m dropping before you, pearls I say! Look them up. Support them, subscribe, follow, tweet, retweet, and purchase their books and products. They are all, so very worthy of your time and pennies.
My people! Or - Inspiration!
Left to right Hajar Fahmi, Nata Chérif, Francesca Sanneh, Sidoine Assignon
In my own little corner of Italia, I am awed by and honored to work with: Uno Collective, activist Francesca Sanneh is one of the collective’s intrepid leaders whose commitment and tireless energy to the cause inspires me daily - and Afrobrix. Musicians: Osasmuede Aigbe, Eva Fuedo Shoo, Daniela Savoldi, and Anna Bassy are talent and beauty personified. Designer Nata Chérif makes the most beautiful jewelry and clothing.
Francesca Sanneh and me
There are actually more Afro-Italians that I've met in the last few months than I have space to laud here. But I must include a brand new friend. I zoomed yesterday with the wonderful artist and adoption activist Alessia Robin Petrolito- an Afro-Italian-American and a fellow adoptee whose iridescent light burned right through the screen.
Do you get it? Are you feeling the fizz of my delight yet?
In finding my people.
I am so proud and much moved to see the Afro-Italian community rise and shine so brilliantly. To watch as discourse is created where there has been none. To be permitted to admire the depth of spirit. I am elated to hear them - see them - assume their rightful space in this country where they have too long been treated as second-class citizens, too long been shunned and marginalized while being subjected daily to willful ignorance and systemic racism.
Meeting those to whom I needn't explain a thing and watching them elevate the conversation, watching them command respect. Marching by their side and singing for this righteous cause. The feeling? It is as thrilling as the swoop straight down on a roller coaster. It is as boundless as love. It is, too tickled to sit still dancing in my seat, heart lifted and filled with bubbilicious, incandescent, bursting, elation.
Pearls they are. Each and every one sparks my joy.
Eva Fuedo Shoo, Osasmuede Aigbe, and me
To learn more, in English, check out American professor Dr. Camilla Hawthorn, who is exploring “the politics of Blackness and citizenship in Italy” in her current book project “Citizenship and Diasporic Ethics: Youth Politics in the Black Mediterranean”.