Books, especially scholarly ones, are the products of sustained conversations that illuminate the critical questions asked within them from perspectives both sundry and incisive. The highest compliment to an author is to have one’s book generate fresh insights into these questions and indeed generate new questions themselves. The reviews and commentary on my book, Empire’s Mobius Strip, in this forum represent exactly that: they explore how the control of mobility, which I argue is empire’s standard operating procedure, articulates with race, anti-Blackness, and the ripple effects of Italian colonialism on subject making in Somalia, Niger, and among young people of African descent immured in Italy’s system of migrant detention centers.
Expanding and applying questions of empire and mobility to sub-Saharan Africa, as the research of all three reviewers do, is an especially fruitful direction of inquiry, especially for the Horn of Africa. Contemporary understandings of Blackness in Italy—and more sharply, anti-Blackness in Italy—are perceived through a set of optics formed during Italian colonial rule in Eritrea, Somalia, and Ethiopia. It recalls a question that Camilla Hawthorne puts so eloquently—namely, how do we “take seriously the histories of racial boundary drawing that were caught up with the process of national unification as well as Italy’s own colonial history . . . and the reverberations of these histories in the present?”1
A through line in all the commentaries, as well as in my book, is that the exercise of empire upholds the global apparatus of neoliberalism. In our interdependent world, we are all yoked to this system and are to varying degrees subject to its stratifying and discriminatory forces. For people who are Black, Brown, mixed race, female, queer, trans, disabled, or basically anyone who does not fit neatly into the sanctioned understandings of belonging as once defined by Enlightenment Europe, these forces can be, and often are, deadly. As an example, one need only look at the disproportionate number of Black and Brown people who have died of COVID-19 in the United States in 2020. A Black person is six times more likely to die than a white person, and this figure is likely an underestimate.2 Heather Merrill writes that Black social death is a prerequisite for European ontology, but here, the mass death of Black people from COVID-19 lays bare the brutal, violent forces of neoliberalism going about their work.3
One way to push back against these forces is to foreground the unruly and messy subjectivities lived by people of African descent. Such is the case with Torin Jones’s fieldwork among West African youth in migrant centers in Italy, Ampson Hagan’s work with people in Niger who are subject to the “humanitarian” initiatives of supranational organizations like the EU and UN, and Xafsa Ciise’s research into how Somali Muslims become signified as recusant subjects in need of carceral management. In these ways, the complexity of affective and subjective ties that are too often erased are made visible.
To go deeper, we might ask about the historical precedents that both shape and complicate these subjective constellations. By way of one example, the renowned Italian journalist Indro Montanelli infamously boasted during a 1969 television interview of buying a twelve-year-old child bride named Destà while serving in Italian-occupied Eritrea. Montanelli proudly recalled this “marriage”:4 “Pare che avessi scelto bene. Era una bellissima ragazza bilena, di dodici anni” (It appears that I chose well. She was a beautiful Bilen girl of twelve years old). The moment he uttered Destà’s age, there was a chuckle in the crowd. Montanelli turned to the audience and with a sly smile rejoined, “Scusate, ma in Africa è un’altra cosa” (Excuse me, but in Africa, it’s another thing). Despite the fact that Elvira Banotti, an Italian-Eritrean journalist in the audience, took Montanelli to task about sexually assaulting a minor, Montanelli remained stalwart and unflustered: “No signora, guardi, sulla violenza . . . nessuna violenza perché le ragazze in Abissinia si sposano a 12 anni” (No ma’am, look, regarding violence . . . there was no violence because in Eritrea [Abyssinia], they marry at twelve years old).
Montanelli’s display of toxic masculinity, misogyny, sexual violence, and absolute devaluation of Black life—not to mention his framing of Africa as Other (altro), as a place beyond European mores and values, where anything and everything goes (ma in Africa è un’altra cosa)—speaks to deep-seated white supremacy in Italy that is directly linked to its colonial past. This past is only now starting to be addressed by scholarship on Black Italy and the Black Mediterranean.
Activism, too, has been picking up in Italy. During the BLM protests in June 2020, a statue of Indro Montanelli in Milan was doused in red paint and graffitied with the words razzista (racist) and stupratore (rapist), making visible the violence of Montanelli’s racism and sexual assault on his monumentalized body. What is more, Destà now has her own mural in the same city—her fist is raised, her presence vibrant and demanding of our attention. In precisely this way, art takes us to the edges of empire’s Mobius strip, affords us a brief reprieve from its force field, and if only for a moment, allows for equity and social justice to flourish unabated.
Stephanie Malia Hom is a faculty member in the Department of French and Italian at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She writes and lectures on modern Italy and the Mediterranean, mobility studies, colonialism and imperialism, migration and detention, and tourism history and practice.
Camilla Hawthorne, “In Search of Black Italia: Notes on Race, Belonging, and Activism in the Black Mediterranean,” Transition 123 (2017): 165.
Ladan Golestaneh et al., “The Association of Race and COVID-19 Mortality,” EClinicalMedicine (2020): 1. In the interview in this special issue with Nunu Kidane and Gerald Lenoir, Kidane argues that these numbers are not only disproportionate—they are “catastrophic.”
Heather Merrill, Black Spaces: African Diaspora in Italy (London: Routledge, 2018), 59–62.
Indro Montanelli, interview by Gianni Bisiach, L’ora della verità, 1969, “Montanelli e la moglie dodicenne—Video Completo 1080p,” YouTube video, 3:10, June 14, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PYgSwluzYxs.