The Italian general election held last March produced predictable and unpredictable results. In line with many other countries in the world, a wave of populism has swiped the political arena, with grassroots parties like the Northern League and their anti-immigrant, anti-European stance taking center stage. Conversely, the election of the first black senator in the history of the country—Mr. Toni Iwobi—was a less expected factor. Given the current climate, you would be prone to think that Mr. Iwobi is an opposition candidate. In fact, he is a far right politician and an active member of the League since its inception in the late 1980s. This in itself is not particularly surprising. History has proven on more than one occasion how some institutional changes have a smoother ride when they take place within a conservative framework: we had to go through a Colin Powell and a Condoleezza Rice before we could have a Barack Obama. Iwobi was born in Nigeria and moved to Italy in the mid-1970s on a student visa. After obtaining a degree in economics, he settled in Treviglio, a small town about twelve miles west of Milan, where he worked for a governmental utility agency before founding his own company. The Northern Italy Iwobi experienced in the late 1970s – early 1980s resembled the place James Baldwin visited and so acutely described in “Stranger in the Village.”1 Having entered the picture in post-school age, hence exempted from the bullying and abusing normally perpetuated in those environments, an adult black man like Iwobi could go on about his life knowing that his rare status would make him, in the eyes of the crowd, an anomaly rather than a threat. All he had to do in order to be welcomed was to engage in the reassuring “smile and the world will smile with you” routine and display a will to work hard, embrace the country’s fundamental values, and, essentially, conform to the rules.
This benevolent atmosphere of astonishment, curiosity, and amusement evaporated in the late 1980s with the first mass immigration from Africa. The increasing numbers and graver motivations of the newly arrived, and the prejudiced responses that ensued, dramatically changed the social landscape. Acceptance and integration became much more complex goals to achieve, and it was in this context that soccer player Mario Balotelli was born in Palermo in 1990. Balotelli was abandoned by his Ghanaian parents in the hospital and subsequently adopted by a family in Brescia, where he grew up. His natural talent for playing ball guaranteed him a bright professional future, but his “native son” standing did nothing to protect him from the most obtuse forms of racism even in a meritocratic bubble like the world of sport. Here lays the paradox. In the Italy of the 1970s, nobody would have asked Iwobi where he was originally from, simply because nobody cared. The prevailing attitude was, if you live with us, you are one of us. In contemporary Italy, people like Balotelli are asked this question all the time, again not because nobody really cares, but because of the twisted necessity to establish that the person in front of us, no matter where he was born and where he has lived all his life, is really not one of us. The idea of an indigenous black community in Italy has evidently yet to register in most people’s minds.
Although the families of Iwobi and Balotelli lived about 34 miles from each other, the two have never met until recently, when they exchanged barbs on Twitter. Soccer players are not known for being politically vocal, but the sight of Iwobi standing for a party so hungry for political capital to the point of transforming a humanitarian crisis into a barbarian invasion while shouting alarmingly jingoistic slogans like “Italy first” must have looked like a major betrayal to Balotelli. “Perhaps they have not told him that he is black,” he wrote after seeing a picture of Iwobi clenching his fist while sporting a t-shirt that reads “Stop the Invasion.” Iwobi’s answer, perhaps wisely, was deliberately low-key. “I would rather ignore this for the time being,” he said, adding the trite but always infallible line that “there are more pressing things to do.”2 The premises for an interesting debate seemed regrettably squashed, until an extra layer was added from the least expected place when the liberal world, in the form of the BBC, picks up the news and presents it in the African section of its website.3 Africa? One doesn’t know who to feel more sorry for—the Italian black community, which is once again denied its existence, or Africa, a continent with over one billion inhabitants which, on the BBC website, warrants the same amount of coverage space as Australia, a country of little more than twenty million people.
In an interview in 1991, the notoriously reclusive David Hammons was asked about his decision to do an exhibition in Italy. “Italians are black folks, really. They’re so much like us. Italy is the bridge between Europe and Africa.”4 Mr. Hammons, as his art has proven on multiple occasions, was way ahead of his time.
- James Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village,” in Notes of a Native Son, Beacon Press, Boston, 1955.
- www.repubblica.it, last visited March 20, 2018. Perhaps to keep the sparkle of the debate alive, the Huffington Post invented a comment Iwobi never gave. “Balotelli? He is a spoiled brat.” https://www.huffingtonpost.it/2018/03/08/toni-iwobi-mario-balotelli-un-ragazzo-viziato_a_23380209/ Visited March 20, 2018.
- https://www.bbc.com/pidgin/world-43318018, March 7, 2018. Last checked March 20, 2018.
- Gail Schilke, Jemeel Moondoc, Keith Gilyard, Steve Cannon and David Henderson, “Interview with David Hammons ,” A Gathering of the Tribes, Fall 1991.