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Black Italians
by Paolo Pontoniere and Francine Brevetti

Recent history's episodes of racial intolerance, like the murder of George Floyd, and the subsequent whiplash of mass demonstrations against bigotry and police violence on blacks and other ethnic minorities--with the ensuing push to cancel landmarks glorifying the colonial and slavery past of the United States--have struck a raw nerve. And not only across the US but also within the ethnic communities themselves, forcing them to re-examine their narrative of integration and the pathway they took to becoming "Americans."

This reflection has been particularly true for the Italian and the Italian American communities, which from bystanders in the clash between the resurgent Jim Crow culture across America and minorities vying for recognition and full citizenship, have become unwitting participants in the debate surrounding Columbus' legacy and his role in the colonization of the Americas.

As a byproduct, this process has been an increasing debate within the Italian and Italian American communities about their communities' role in making the United States and the racial and economic disparities that have characterized this process. And in so doing, they have started questioning the position of Italian descendants of color. Especially in Italy, where the pressure exercised on its frontier by the deluge of refugees coming from Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East has reached levels unthinkable in the past and has pushed Italian citizens of color to the forefront of the world's color wars, and made them foreigner in their own country. As a result, in the United States, descendants of Italian immigrants and recent Italian immigrants have also begun questioning their community if it suffers from color blindness when acknowledging its minority members.

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Tom Cardella, a radio anchor who co-hosts Monday Night Kickoff on Philadelphia's and ESPN Radio, is one of these persons. "Italian-American immigrants suffered from some of the same prejudices against African-Americans; much of that prejudice was based on skin color," states Cardella in The Black Italians, a commentary he wrote for The Philly Review, few months after George Floyd's assassination. "Less acknowledged is that Italians themselves discriminated against darker-skinned members of their own ethnic group," adds Cardella, "I experienced that within my own family. "

It seems that pulling a shroud of invisibility on this issue isn't unusual within the Italian-American community. Francine Brevetti, a co-author of this article, discovered it herself when attempting to reach a cousin of African-American heritage she met with a brick wall. No response was forthcoming to her request for an interview.

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"I sort of came to these questions myself," writes UC Santa Cruz social scientist Camilla Hawthorne in Cornell University's Migration. A Grand Global Challenge. Hawthorne, an Afro-Italian-American herself--her mother is from Bergamo, and her father is African-American--started conceptualizing the existence of an Italian black diaspora in college. At the time of printing, Hawthorne was recovering from a severe bike accident and not available for an interview; however, she goes on writing: "And then when I started my Ph.D., I started meeting a lot of Afro Italians, or Black Italians, who were, you know, around my same age, who, for the first time that I had really noticed – and people remarked on this as well – were beginning to kind of collectively refer to themselves as Black Italian or Afro-Italian."

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Italians migrating to America during the last two centuries have predominantly clustered in East Coast cities and Louisiana.  That is where the jobs were; that is where they could join their "paesani" (peasants) who immigrated to these cities before them and find safety. And as white Americans perceived Italians as black and criminals, they pushed Italians to occupy the same areas that African Americans had been occupying since the end of the Civil War. 

For a long time, the two communities lived in peace and intermingled with one another, often working side by side in the southern fields of cotton and sugarcane and even more often playing music together. Scholar Fred Gardaphe,  director of the Italian/American Studies Program at Queens Queens College/CUNY, has documented Neapolitan and Sicilian music's impact on jazz and the peaceful intermingling of the two communities in Louisiana. 

It is in 1892 that a schism between the two communities starts appearing. President Harrison, responding to the lynching on March 14, 1891, of 11 Italians in New Orleans at the hands of a white mob, decided to make Columbus Day a one-time national holiday. 

Rather than being a heartfelt recognition, the declaration mired to appease the Italian government--and the Italian community--which threatened to send a naval squad to bomb New Orleans in response to the lynching. Harrison's efforts to "normalize" the Italians were paralleled by a media campaign directed at accrediting Sicilians and Neapolitans as inheritors of the classical culture of Rome and children of the renaissance. Thus if before they had been at loggerheads with one another, now Italians could disparage somebody else.

"Mom claimed that Sicilians were at the bottom of the racial ladder among Italians. They had no culture, she claimed," writes Cardella, "unlike Napolitanos, they were dirty and ignorant. Gangsters, even. Dangerous." Consequently,  these Italians and Americans of color who lived in harmony began competing for resources, territory, jobs, and respect.

Rather than an inborn limitation of the Italian-American community, Afro-Italian-American scholars, such as Hawthorne, see it as a handover of the old country.

"...Because the Italian racial state positions Black Italians as always outsiders, no matter, you know, how long they lived in Italy, regardless of whether they were born there," Writes Hawthorne. "And so it placed these citizens to perform activists in the equivocal position of having to kind of assert, no, we're not migrants, right, we are just as Italian as the next person." 

And as intermarriages increase, so does the awareness of this issue among new generations of Afro-Italian-Americans. Although it is more evident on the East Coast of the United States, this phenomenon is becoming visible on the West Coast as well.

The literature documenting intermarriage grows. It grows among academicians studying sociological trends and among artists – writers, actors, painters,  and cinematographers -- who seek to document their experiences growing up in households of dual ancestry. Unions have been forged despite the quasi-official narrative of hostility between African Americans and Italian Americans advanced in the media.


One of these unions is that of Marco Marinucci and Cori Duncan. From Genoa, he and Afro-American her, Marco and Cori have two daughters Valentina and Sofia, who were born in Northern California and live in the Bay Area of San Francisco.

"Yes, it is true. When we are in Italy, people cannot make sense of what we are. Are we tourists? Are we visiting? They don't seem to think that, in fact, we are Italians," says Cori, confirming that otherness is imposed on them rather than beginning with them.

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Jonas Carpignano, a black Italian-American movie director who grew up between New York and Rome, attempted to explain this disconnect in an interview with Film Comment in 2015. 

"I think the fundamental difference is that, in Italy, this is a very new phenomenon," states Carpignano, "...There are very few blacks, especially in the South, black Italians. I think that is what differentiates the discourse entirely. In America, it's about coming to terms with, tolerating, and getting over prejudices that have existed for years and years. In Italy, it is more like making sense of the situation that no one is equipped to handle."

Interestingly, in Italy,  a consciousness of intermarriage between Italian blacks and white Italians has risen following the 2020 murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. 

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Kym Ragusa, an American writer and documentary filmmaker, illustrates this coming of age in her book Growing up Black and Italian in a Time of White Flight.

Her Calabrese American father and her African American mother had a brief relationship while they were in their 20s.  They never married, leaving the care and rearing of their daughter Kym to the grandparents, a stepmother (once the father married), and aunts.  

Each parent sought to elevate their economic and social standing by moving to other neighborhoods.  From the tenements of the Bronx, her father moved to New Jersey. Her mother became a fashion model and moved to Rome.

Ragusa recalls:

"This was, after all, a classic case of white flight. What was not lost on me even then, as an eight-year-old biracial child, was the absurd complexity of "our" white flight. My African American mother and Italian American father split up when I was a baby …my new stepmother was Puerto Rican. She and I were exactly what my family was fleeing from, and we were caught up in that flight of fantasy. The dynamics of race, class, ethnicity, and geography have always been complicated for both sides of my family. Both sides lived in a constant state of physical, emotional, and economic migration.  It seems the forces that drew father and mother together were the same that unglued them." What they had in common, she states, "is a certain restlessness, a desire to be something different than what their families and communities had proscribed for them – indeed a desire to escape these communities and their unyielding ethnic/racial boundaries altogether."

What of her experience as the child of such a union? Ragusa's accounts are heartbreaking. To the bullying of schoolmates, she says: "At nine years old, I didn't know what to say or do except to be quiet and not draw attention to myself. I carried this desire for invisibility with me for a long time. It was tied to my sense that difference somehow caused trouble for my Italian family, made them stand out in a way that hurt them."


Meanwhile, in Italy, the scene is more complicated.

People of African descent are discriminated against because they may be immigrants from poorer countries. Also, their path to Italian citizenship is unpredictable.  These insights come from Fred Kuwornu, the son of a Ghanaian father and an Italian mother. 

Kuwornu lives part of the year in New York City. His work with universities has taken him to the American heartland. 

He says New York is more liberal than the middle of the United States, and since he works with many universities, he has enjoyed a privileged position. But his issue is with Italian Americans in the US. 

"They don't recognize me as Italian,'' he says. "Historically in America, those born of African and Italian parents were not included in the Italian American community.”

For Valentina and Sofia and the Marinucci-Duncan clan, the experience appears to be quite different.  Says Marco and Cori, "It is not very different from that of the average Californian, attuned to diversity and inclusiveness. It is also different from that of the Italians; it is used to a much higher degree of diversity."

"We haven't encountered episodes of discrimination," affirm Valentina and Sofia. "Also within the larger Bay Area community. Besides, I look white, and with my last name, many believe that I am Italian," adds Valentina. "People see that I am black, but you know they know my name, I speak Italian, I think they see more like I am Italian," interlopes Sofia. 

Should this be taken as an indicator of a general attitude of Italifornians toward African-Italian-Americans? The Duncannuccis (the mush-up last name that they have jokingly adopted) aren't sure that their experience in this direction can be generalized. "I don't think of myself as an Italian-American, I am African-American, and people can see that I am black, the girls are ethnically ambiguous, "says Cori. "There are so few black Italians," notes Sofia.

"The average American doesn't think there are people of mixed race," says Kuwornu. Because of his accent and skin tone, "They cannot recognize me as Italian." Instead, they tend to see him as Brazilian or Hispanic. 

As for Italy, where he was born and educated, he feels that his job applications to companies were excluded because of his last name. Kuwornu does not sound Italian and is more probably perceived as African. "I applied to over 100 companies without receiving feedback," he recalls.

New African-Caucasian alliances are created easily in Italy because of  American armed forces, he reflects. US Army bases exist in Vicenza and Livorno, and the US Air Force has presences in Aviano and Sicily.

"There are lots of relationships and marriages," Kuwornu says. Typically, when the fathers have completed their military duty, the children from these unions return with their parents to the United States.

While one would never equate the scorn and the violence that Italians have suffered in this country with what African Americans have suffered, but they have indeed both been the subject of discrimination. And in many cases have turned that suffering on each other. One can only hope that increased intermingling and familiarity foster healing and increased awareness.

©Paolo Pontoniere and Francine Brevetti

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