Writers long have been agents of social change, exposing societal evils, challenging oppressive orthodoxies, and offering visions of what could be, of possibilities latent or emergent. Future. Il domani narrato dalle voci di oggi, an anthology published in Italy in 2019, comprises writing by 11 self-identified black Italian women. As the book’s title suggests, their work, mostly personal accounts of being black women in Italy, is forward-looking while grounded in contemporary realities: a tomorrow narrated by the voices of today. The essays also are steeped in Italian history and particularly a past that only recently has begun to be acknowledged: that of Italian empire and its African colonies. The book—the first literary anthology by black Italian women— is a political intervention, an act of resistance to the racism and anti-immigrant attitudes that have become alarmingly widespread in Italian society and politics. Or as its editor, the Somali Italian author Igiabo Scego puts it, a contemporary “j’accuse” that “publicly denounces power and injustice.”
On February 4, the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute in Manhattan hosted an event to introduce Future. Il domani narrato dalle voci di oggi. The panel discussion, organized by New York-based researcher and writer Candice Whitney, featured three of the book’s contributors: Camilla Hawthorne, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz; Marie Moise, an editor with the Italian-language edition of the socialist journal Jacobin and a feminist and anti-racism activist; and Angelica Pesarini, a lecturer in Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University-Florence.
Whitney, whose review of Future at the online journal The Dreaming Machine is the first in-depth critique in English, introduced the book, saying readers will “learn from each of the women’s experiences and also get a sense of the values and a new Italy, a new world that could be imagined.”
Camilla Hawthorne, who wrote the book’s introduction, observed, “I began to understand my own blackness in Italy.” Hawthorne was born in California in 1987 to an African American father and a white Italian mother; her parents married in “the snowy mountains of Trentino in 1976, at a time when there were very few couples like them in Italy.” “And although they eventually settled in the United States, they insisted that I’d be raised in an environment where I would learn to value both my African American roots and my Italian heritage. So, I grew up bilingual in English and Italian. I actually spoke Italian before I spoke English.”
“It was entirely unremarkable to me that I spoke two languages, that I had two passports, that my parents were two colors. But as I grew up, I realized that I was actually really fortunate to be raised by parents like mine and that the rest of the world wasn’t quite as open minded as the family that I came from.”
“In Italy,” Hawthorne continued, “my mother was often peppered with questions about what African country she adopted me from. When my father and I would go out for coffee together in Italy, we would often notice older Italian men gossiping about us in Italian, but of course they shut up as soon as we switched our conversations into Italian. And of course, wherever I went, I was asked the same question, which we’ve all faced, right? Where did you learn to speak Italian so well?
“Over time I started to see more people of African descent in Italy and I was seeing more people who look like me. I was seeing more families that looked like my family. I was totally enthralled. I wanted to know who are these other Afro-descendants in Italy? How did they get to Italy? What were their stories and what did we have in common? And so, when I started my undergraduate degree, I started studying the history of the African presence in Italy, the dynamics of African immigration to Italy. Part of this longstanding desire to knit back these two parts of my identity that the rest of the world had said were mutually exclusive.”
Hawthorne spoke about “the Ius Soli movement in Italy, the movement for reform of Italian citizenship law away from a blood or descent-based citizenship system towards citizenship based on birthplace.” This movement “has really been spearheaded largely by people of African descent, although not only, and people who are around my own age. As I started traveling around Italy conducting interviews and going to meetings and organizing events, I was struck by all the ways our stories intersected. Stories of multiple belongings and non-recognition, stories of anger and frustration, but also stories of everyday resistance and hope, stories of what [African American intellectual W.E.B.] DuBois called double consciousness.”
“There’s been an African presence in Italy for centuries,” Hawthorne noted, “but Italy really only became a major site of African immigration in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The children of that first generation of immigrants have come of age. They’ve grown up in Italy understanding themselves to be Italian, but not being recognized by the wider society as such. They’ve endured racist humiliations at the hands of high school teachers or classmates, stereotypical representations in the media, and in many cases, the labyrinthian bureaucracy of the Italian naturalization process. And these sorts of shared experiences have sparked a growing identification with the categories of ‘black’ or ‘Afro’ as frameworks for collective political organizing.”
Hawthorne noted that although Afro-Italians “challenge dominant conceptions about who counts as Italian,” their activism transcends national boundaries to connect “Afro Italian struggles with other mobilizations in Italy for the rights of precarious workers, women, refugees, and other struggles around the world.” She observed that despite a common belief that “blackness and black politics begin in the United States and then emanate outwards to influence the rest of the world,” African Americans “can learn from the experiences of black Europeans.”
Understanding racism, she argued, demands a close engagement “with the histories of colonialism, capitalism, and racism that emerged first in Europe. In addition, the struggles of Afro Italian youth are intertwined with matters of immigration, borders, and colonialism.” These issues, she said, represent the “historically intertwined processes” that “can serve as the basis for powerful new solidarities.” The stories in Future “are a reminder that African Americans are not alone in our political struggles. And that while the global resurgence of the far right is deeply alarming, we must find hope in the fact that the resistance is global too. None of us is fighting this battle alone and our struggles are interconnected.”
Marie Moise began by reading, in Italian, a passage from her essay, “Abbiamo pianto un fiume di risate” (We Cried a River of Laughter). When she finished, she said that “when Igiaba Scego asked me to write a piece for this book, I felt she asked me to look at the future with a pair of eyes which I hadn’t had the courage to open for a long time, my Haitian ones.”
She recalled that when she was a teenager and her body “was turning into a woman’s body, I got angry with my white Italian mother for giving birth to me with a Haitian man and not with an Italian one, as she did for my sisters who unlike me, have Italian surnames.” She said her father “suffered from failing for all his life in attempting to be white.” “I chose to write this piece because I felt I needed to reopen my Haitian eyes on him and on our relationship and on the non-white sufferance that connects us.”
Moise spoke of that “sufferance” as a psychological state for which she had no name. “So, it’s depression? No. Anxiety? No. Schizophrenia? No. Without the words to name it, I learned from my father who passed as white and I chose to close my Haitian eyes.” She had the “privilege” to do that because she is perceived as a white Italian and has Italian citizenship. “And yet,” she added, “when people treat me as a white Italian, I feel like I am forced to censor a part of me, to isolate it, and I feel alone.”
Unlike most of the other stories in Future, Angelica Pesarini’s “Non s’intravede speranza alcuna” (There’s No Hope Whatsoever), isn’t a personal account. Instead it is the story of Maddalena, an Eritrean orphan whose Italian father, whom she did not know, was a colonist in that East African nation during the Fascist era. Pesarini discovered Maddalena’s story in an archive while conducting research about mixed-race children of Italians and Africans. She found a 1931 letter to Maddalena from her father in a file kept by the Italian missionaries who ran the orphanage where she was raised. Maddalena was never shown the letter.
Although Pesarini’s story is not about her, in a sense it is, since she also is a product of the history of Italian colonization. Born in Rome, she is of African and Italian heritage on both sides of her family. In the early 1900s, her Italian great-grandfather was a settler in Somalia, where he had three children whom he didn’t recognize as his heirs. One of them, Pesarini’s grandfather, sued his father in court to obtain the family surname. Pesarini’s paternal grandmother was born to a “Fascist” father whom she never met; her Somali mother died when she was seven years old. Like Maddalena, her grandmother was raised in a Catholic orphanage for mixed-race children. Her maternal grandfather was a Communist who fled to Africa from the Fascist town, Forli.
Pesarini said that when she was growing up her parents kept this history from her— “There was a very heavy silence in my family which I realized only later that it was due to this trauma, this pain that they didn’t want me to suffer. But I needed answers.” She did graduate studies in anthropology and gender studies in the UK and Italy. Working on her doctorate in anthropology was “really a life changing experience because for the first time I went to Eritrea, and everything started to make sense.”
Pesarini found that “there were so many stories about the colonial period that were completely uninvestigated and not known at all. So, I really wanted to gather the voices of women who were born during the Fascist regime, from white, usually Fascist fathers and African mothers like in my family. I discovered a number of incredible stories. So that’s why when Igiaba [Scego] asked me to write this story, my first reaction was not to use my personal story but one of those I gathered because it was so important. It was speaking to me a lot.”
After their presentations, the speakers responded to questions from the audience. Asked about anti-racist discourse and practice in Italy, they agreed that white Italians, including left-wing activists, largely have fallen short. They too often espouse an anti-racism that denies race. There instead is a sort of universalistic humanism that, although ostensibly progressive, not only obscures how race, as a social category, operates in Italy but also can draw on racist tropes. At a demonstration protesting the murder in 2016 of Emmanuel Chidi Nnamdi, a Nigerian refugee, by an ultra-right thug, Camilla Hawthorne saw a protestor carrying a sign with images of apes and the slogan, “We are all evolved monkeys.” At other anti-racist demonstrations, white Italians have blackened their faces in what they believe is a gesture of solidarity. Vocabulary also can be a problem—the “race-blind and power-neutral” term meticciato—hybridity—being a prime example.
The speakers noted, though, that Afro-Italians are creating anti-racist networks and organizations like Razzismo Brutta Storia. Marie Moise observed that “there’s a lot of resistance against what’s happening in Italy….an incredible amount of networks and associations that go into the streets. They are there. They put themselves there.” Camilla Hawthorne said that she, Moise, Pesarini, and other activists were developing a lexicon adapted to the realities of race and racism in Italy, “a vocabulary that can attend to the really important histories and differences that undergird the situation in Italy.”