Decolonising our Cities: Rome Suppressed by Igiaba Scego and Rino Bianchi
'The struggle for the safety of Afro-descendant bodies has always been intimately linked to how we treat the bodies of our cities and countries. The traces of a slave-owning, misogynistic, racist and homophobic past embodied by the many statues dedicated to Confederate politicians and soldiers [...] are a wound in the body of the United States.’
(Igiaba Scego, Internazionale, 9th June 2020)
On June 7th, Edward Colston, who built his fortune by transporting more than 80,000 men, women and children from Africa to the Americas as slaves, was pulled down with ropes and toppled into the harbour in Bristol, UK.
Since then, Jefferson Davis, a president of the Confederate States, has been removed from the Capitol rotunda in Washington D.C..
Confederate general, Robert E. Lee and his horse have been covered in messages of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and a projection of the Pride flag in Richmond, Virginia.
And Leopold II, a Belgian king known for his extraordinarily brutal colonial activities in Congo, has been set alight, doused in red paint, and plucked from his plinth by a crane in three separate Belgium cities.
Statues and street names are the most visible points at which our racist past is inscribed on our cities. To pull down a statue is a physical, visually impactful way to show we're ready to start deconstructing white supremacy. Though our racist heritage is represented by these monuments, it isn't bound by them. Often it's found lingering in the shadows, vibrating unheard in impressive architecture; swelling in the gaps created by inculcated ignorance.
As Bristol’s Poet Laureate Vanessa Kisuule puts it to Colston:
You who perfected the ratio
blood to sugar to money to bricks
each bougie building we flaunt haunted by bones.
Children learn and titans sing under the stubborn rust of your name.
It takes a lot more work to expose the stubborn rust and gloomy shadows of racism that are braided tightly into our cityscapes. But when we look, they are everywhere. They are in the high vaulted ceilings of the London Guildhall where the crew of the Zong slave ship, who tossed 130 Africans overboard, were unsuccessfully tried. They are in the landscaped gardens and hedge mazes of so many of our stately homes, built with the compensation paid to former slave owners when slavery was abolished.
They are even in the foundations of the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI), the pride of so many coastal communities.
Our racist past is everywhere. It would be impossible to remove all the traces of it, hurl them into the river, send them up in flames, and start over. And that's not what anyone is suggesting. What we can do, though, is walk around the cities and countries we live in with our eyes more open. Notice, read, learn, question, talk, reflect. We can use places as a starting point for exploring how the asymmetry of history has impacted our lives, how it has informed the way we think of ourselves and the people around us.
In Rome Suppressed, Igiaba Scego and Rino Bianchi do exactly that.
In Rome, as in all imperial capitals, racism persists not only in statues of colonial "explorers" and obelisks looted from African colonies, but also in the lines and archways of fascist architecture; the courtyards of buildings that still feature the big 'M' for Mussolini; in piazzas dedicated to hundreds of Italian lives lost in a battle that brutally and unlawfully killed thousands of Ethiopians.
'Our past of violence and coercion is still among us, thriving in the urban space.' (Scego, 2020)
Scego and Bianchi walk the streets of Rome, questioning the erasure of Italy's colonial past, highlighting the racial injustices ingrained in certain landmarks, reinforcing the link (to which so many Italians are oblivious) between twentieth century colonialism and the ongoing wave of migration from the Horn of Africa.
'Memory is absent, removed, forgotten. In schools, on the street, in the popular, intellectual and institutional culture of our country. In the worst cases it has been distorted, changed, transformed.
Unfortunately, when you walk the streets of Rome, it is all too obvious. The city's sites of colonialism have been sequestered (the Obelisk of Axum), neglected (the Dogali Obelisk), or misunderstood (the African quarter). All the uncomfortable bits have vanished. It is uncomfortable for Italy to admit that it has been racist. It is uncomfortable to admit that the racism of today has strong roots in the racism of yesterday. It is uncomfortable to admit that we’re the last to take responsibility.'
(Scego and Bianchi, Rome Suppressed, 2014, p. 107)
National amnesia when it comes to Mussolini’s brutal and bloody colonial ventures into Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somali and Libya has resulted in the evolution of a population that, for the most part, feels no connection or responsibility towards the young Ethiopians, Eritreans, Libyans and Somalis arriving on Italian shores in serious danger today.
Bianchi's photos of Afro-Italians against the backdrop of the Roman landmarks that symbolise historical injustice restore dignity and subjectivity to this community. Each chapter takes a familiar site, places we might wander past, oblivious, when roaming the city with a gelato in hand – the Cinema Impero, the Piazza dei Cinquecento, the obelisk at Piazza di Porta Capena – and Scego delves into its colonial past and postcolonial present in a way that is sharp, witty, painful and - perhaps most importantly - imbued with an intense, if complicated, love for the city.
'To forget the history that links Africa and Italy is also vile. Because by forgetting, we forget that we were vile, racist, colonialist. Italiani brava gente (‘Italians are good people’), the most self-absolving tell you, and therefore the same mistakes continue to be made.
Yesterday it was the colonized, today it is the migrants, victims of a system that self-generates and self-absolves. This is why I am obsessed with places. It is from places that we must begin a different journey, a different Italy.
(Scego and Bianchi, 2014, p. 25)
Rome Suppressed is a powerful act of decolonising the city. Of deconstructing the white supremacy present in architecture. Of laying bare a racist history that has long been actively ignored and denied. This is what is needed in every city across Europe and North America. Not ‘now more than ever before’, but, ‘now, better late than never.’
‘Over 10,000 people at the Black Lives Matter march [in Bristol] spoke unequivocally: Edward Colston does not represent us moving forward. Though his historical and financial mark is indelible, the portrayal of him as “wise” and “virtuous” doesn’t have to remain so.’
(Vanessa Kisuule, NME)
Colston and his counterparts across the UK, the US, and Europe may have been wounded, defaced, drowned, but the rest of the historical and financial marks of racism are, indeed, indelible. But that doesn’t mean we have to continue being blindly proud of them. We should instead start wrapping our heads around the fact that much of what we white people consider our birthright, our inheritance, the result of our ancestors’ hard work and savvy is, in fact, a result of the historical and persisting enslavement and persecution of millions of black lives. Is that something we can honestly be proud of?
Igiaba Scego is an author, journalist and academic, and a key figure in Afro-Italian culture. Of her award-winning collection of fiction, three of her novels have been translated into English: Adua (trans. Jamie Richards, New Vessel Press, 2017, Jacaranda Books, 2019), Beyond Babylon (trans. Aaron Robertson, Two Lines Press, 2019), and The Color Line (forthcoming). Rino Bianchi is one of Italy’s pre-eminent documentary photographers, with a focus on the humanitarian. His work has been featured in a number of Italian and international newspapers, including the New York Times, and he has co-authored books with Richard Duranti, Lidia Riviello, as well as this creative non-fiction title with Igiaba Scego.
[Translations all my own. My full translation of chapter 1 of Rome Suppressed is available on LitroNY]
Roma negata: percorsi postcoloniali nella città