Building Black Futures in Italy

This is the third of five articles in the series Black Italy, which explores questions of Blackness, belonging, and representation in contemporary Italian society.
When will new generations of Afro-Italians finally be heard and recognized as full and active members of Italy’s culture and society?

The future, explains writer Igiaba Scego, in her introduction to a new anthology she edited, is something “we want to be different.” Using the collectivizing first-person plural, Scego seems not only to speak for the other Afro-Italian women writers she has collected in Future: Il domani narrato dalle voci di oggi (Future: Tomorrow narrated by the voices of today) but also to call for a broader reckoning with Italy’s unwillingness to include Black and migrant voices in a renewed sense of national belonging. Future, she explains, was originally conceived as a denunciation of the stifling “immobilism” of Italy’s literary and cultural field, its political class, and its society at large.1

Future’s 11 stories compellingly show that, in order to build a different future, it is imperative to recognize how the experience of Blackness in Italy continues to be shaped by historical traumas and unhealed wounds. These include the racial legacies of Italy’s colonialism and the enduring myth of italiani brava gente (Italians [are] good people), a disingenuous characterization used to absolve Italy of historically documented colonial violence.

In a country where racism is still often dismissed as a foreign problem and where minorities are severely underrepresented in literature and media, Future addresses two central questions: Why does the construction of Italianness continue to exclude Blackness? And when will new generations of Afro-Italians finally be heard and recognized as full and active members of Italy’s culture and society?

In this sense, the anthology’s title is a felicitous (and, probably, intended) instance of homonymy between Italian and English. In Italian, the word future is a plural, feminine adjective (“of the future”). The title, thus, implies a noun, which could be scrittrici (scrittrici future, “future women writers”), or Italie (Italie future, “future Italies”): a plural future written by women.

By drawing attention to the presentness of the past, Future calls for a deeper historical awareness. Consider Angelica Pesarini’s story “Non s’intravede speranza alcuna” (No hope in sight). Here, Pesarini’s narrator discovers, through her archival work in Eritrea, a series of letters that chronicle the story of a meticcia (mixed-race) child trying to escape a Catholic mission, so as to meet the Italian father that had abandoned her.2

Set during the Fascist colonial occupation of East Africa, Pesarini’s story is one of “love in the time of colonization.” As such, it is structurally precluded a happy ending, because it is “conceived in a space of oppression and violence.”

A similar process of coming to terms with histories of violence is crucial in Marie Moïse’s autobiographical piece titled “Abbiamo pianto un fiume di risate” (We cried a river of laughter). Moïse recounts what she sacrificed to fully participate in Italianness as whiteness. Specifically, she had to sever her connection to an unspeakable Black past, represented by her Haitian father and encapsulated in the dieresis on the “i” of her last name.3

Mixing self-analytical prose and lyrical vocabulary, Moïse explores the “curse of [her] Haitian family” that gets passed on, generation after generation, until she is forced to obliterate it. After years of traumatic repression of her past, she finally decides to go to Haiti, and reclaim her personal and family history, as part of the transcontinental routes of the Black diaspora (from Africa to Haiti and from Haiti to Italy).

Moïse’s story cogently shows that the drive to suppress, to erase, to escape into aphasia can be transformed. Indeed, this silence can even become an affirmative desire to produce discourse, to affirm, to “cry a river of laughter.”

This difficult emergence from silence is a running thread of the writing in Future. And the theme’s reoccurrence testifies further to Italy’s societal and political “immobilism”—as Scego calls it—toward young generations of Afro-Italians.

Leaticia Ouedraogo’s story, which contains large sections written in the first-person plural, reads like a manifesto of the struggles and hopes of Italy’s nuove generazioni. These are the sons and daughters of migrants, who—despite being born in Italy, or having moved there as children—can apply for citizenship only on their 18th birthday. This limitation is due to a retrograde law that favors citizenship based on biological affiliation (jus sanguinis, literally “by right of blood”).4 Years of struggles to change this law have been frustrated by a reactionary political class and disheartening public indifference.

This legally enforced exclusion from political participation, as Ouedraogo explains, has been made more exhausting by everyday episodes of racial discrimination. Such events, Ouedraogo adds, have led to the feeling of “being ghosts in a country that, though we wanted to feel as our own, rejected us.”

Against these rooted forms of indifference, Ouedraogo’s story suggests that the kind of work that needs to be done is more than political. Instead, what is required is a rethinking of society’s epistemic coordinates, which have imposed a permanent “present” of invisibility on young generations of Black Italians and denied them “access to the complexity of temporality.”

As “Future” progresses in a polyphony of voices and experiences, Scego’s opening indictment of Italy’s inertia becomes a wake-up call to build a more just and inclusive tomorrow.

One of the central preoccupations of Future is, then, to show that Italianness and Blackness are not mutually exclusive. Yet, at the same time, the aim is to do so without flattening the complexity of how new generations of Italians live their cultural and emotional attachments to their African identity.

What emerges in Future is a nuanced picture of national, linguistic, and ethnic affiliations, which dismantles monolithic views of culture. While some of the anthology’s authors were born in Italy; others migrated there as young children from Burkina Faso, Morocco, Senegal, and Uganda. Some decided to stay and are now working in a variety of cultural fields, such as academia, nonprofit, radio, and publishing. Others left Italy, only to discover that migration does not stop being racialized when one holds a European passport.

The protagonist in Addes Tesfamariam’s story moves to the Netherlands to start a master’s program. While abroad, the protagonist realizes that—despite her Italian passport and student card—she is not considered an expat but a refugee. At the same time, she is able to rediscover her roots by connecting with the local community of Eritrean refugees.

Tesfamariam’s story testifies to the emergence of a vibrant Afro-Italian cultural class that is establishing strong transnational networks, particularly within Europe. In this way, the frame of reference of the anthology gets expanded from Italy and Afro-Italianness to Europe and—through deliberate editorial choices—from Europe to the United States and Latin America.

In a postface to the volume, Prisca Agustoni, an Italian professor based in Brazil, relates the emergence of Afro-Italian writers to the long history of cultural and literary expression of the Afro-Brazilian community. Similarly, Scego’s introduction is followed by a preface by Camilla Hawthorne, a US-based scholar with “African American and Italian roots.” Hawthorne contextualizes the emergence of a Black Italian consciousness, both personally and collectively. She warns against considering Afro-Italianness as marginal or derivative, in relation to the more symbolically powerful African American experience.

Some authors aim to go beyond a vacuous celebration of hybridity. To do so, they detail the struggle of trying to embrace the culture of their African parents while finding ways to make it coexist with Italy’s social norms and expectations.

Djarah Kan comes to appreciate, while hosting her Ghanaian aunt, the importance of having two names, one manifest and one secret. Ndack Mbaye describes the collective mourning following the death of a member of her Senegalese family and discusses her internal clash between fatalism and a “redemptive sense of sharing.” The personal conflicts described in many of these stories are often exacerbated by the escalation of racist episodes, which have plagued Italy in the past decade.

In one of the most formally interesting stories of the collection, Esperance H. Ripanti imagines a not-so-distant future of actual persecution of Black Italians and migrants. The story is narrated from the perspective of a white teenager, who struggles to understand the constant racism experienced by his Black girlfriend. Ripanti’s story identifies a turning point in the “summer of scrap metal”; that is, June 2018, when Soumaila Sacko, a Malian undocumented immigrant and union organizer was shot and killed by a white Italian man.

Ripanti’s story stands as a warning that a different future can be imagined only if this and other episodes of racial hatred are understood not as isolated events. Instead, Ripanti shows, these acts must be seen as only the most horrendous manifestations of racist undercurrents that have not yet been eradicated from Italian society.

Future originates in a literary field that has been reluctant to support new voices and provocative outlooks; Italy’s publishers tend to prefer, instead, the safety of established genres and appeasing worldviews. As such, this anthology stands as a much-needed model for discussing urgent topics of global relevance—the construction of Blackness vis-à-vis national identity, the dynamics of cultural and political participation—while engaging the peculiarities of the Italian context.

As Future progresses in a polyphony of voices and experiences, Scego’s opening indictment of Italy’s inertia becomes a wake-up call to build a more just and inclusive tomorrow. Writers and activists have been demanding collective discussions and concrete actions for more than a decade. Now that their voices are reaching wider audiences and shaping the future to come, Italy has no more excuses. icon

  1. Translations from the Italian are mine.
  2. On the particularly dire situation of mixed-race children in Italy’s African colonies during the Fascist era, see Giulietta Stefani, Colonia per maschi: Italiani in Africa orientale; Una storia di genere (Ombre Corte, 2007).
  3. The ï (with dieresis) does not exist as a character in modern Italian; hence, to an Italian speaker, it denotes a foreign, in this case, French Haitian, name. Moreover, as the author explains, “Moïse means ‘Moses’ in French and … it’s one of those Biblical names that the colonizers gave to their slaves once transplanted from Africa to Haiti.”
  4. According to ISTAT, Italy’s national statistics institute, as of 2018, there were more than one million second-generation immigrants (between 1 and 17 years of age) without citizenship rights. See ISTAT, “Identità e percorsi di integrazione delle seconde generazioni in Italia.
Featured-image photograph by Etty Fidele / Unsplash