Black Italians Fight to Be Italian
Moderator: Immigration has been and remains an obsession of the Trump presidency. Asked about the pandemic, Trump inevitably points to his ban on flights from China in January. The administration is still fighting to rescind DACA, even after a Supreme Court defeat. For years now, they've even spoken about ending birthright citizenship.
Speaker 2: A week before the midterm elections, President Trump said he could end so-called birthright citizenship with a stroke of his pen.
President Trump: A person comes in, has a baby, and the baby is essentially a citizen of the United States for 85 years with all of those benefits. It's ridiculous.
Moderator: That's despite the fact that it's in the constitution.
Vice President Pence: We all know what the 14th Amendment says. We all cherish the language of the 14th amendment, but the Supreme Court of the United States has never ruled on whether or not the language of the 14th Amendment subject to the jurisdiction thereof applies specifically to people who are in the country illegally. I think the President-
Moderator: The birthright citizenship we have as Americans is the exception not the rule. Not one country in Europe, for example, automatically grants citizenship to any child born there.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: There's basically two main systems in the world and they use Latin terms. There's jus soli, law of the soil, and there's jus sanguinis, law of the blood. We have jus soli in the US, law of the soil, you're born on the soil, you have the citizenship.
Moderator: Ngofeen Mputubwele is one of our producers and he also happens to be a lawyer. Let's trust him on the Latin.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: In Italy, they have jus sanguinis, this idea of lineage, descendancy. Initially, that meant you're descended from another Italian man. What that means is that if you are the offspring or the descendant of Italians anywhere on the planet, you have the right to citizenship. Bill de Blasio's kids have the right to Italian citizenship because Bill de Blasio is descended from an Italian seed.
Moderator: For the past two years, Ngofeen has been working on a story about citizenship, immigration, and race in a context that's very different from the United States. Before we start, a note of warning, telling the story involves a racial slur that was directed at one of the characters and there's really no way around it, so be advised. Here's Ngofeen.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: I studied Italian in college. I sang classical singing opera, so I like to keep up with Italy stuff. There was a certain point in my life where I was confronting the whiteness of my spaces, the spaces that I was in, and the fact that in Italy all my friends were white. That bugged me. I remember at some point being like, "I actually haven't even heard of Black Italian." I started following a bunch of them on YouTube, on Instagram, et cetera, and there's this one woman in particular, her name is Bellamy Ogak.
Bellamy Ogak: [foreign language]
Ngofeen Mputubwele: She has this blog and YouTube page and stuff called AfroItalian Souls, an aggregating site for Black Italian stuff that's going on. Bellamy is classically Italian.
Bellamy Ogak: I like clothes. I like doing my makeup. I like going out and being put together.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: Her dad was a doctor.
Bellamy Ogak: I attended Catholic private schools from kindergarten up to high school.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: This was a very preppy, fancy Catholic school.
Bellamy Ogak: Kids wearing Gucci belts, Louis Vui belts, Louis Vui shoes.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: Bellamy was one of two or three black people at the school.
Bellamy Ogak: When you are the only one of your kind, you are extremely visible all the time. I wanted to be as invisible as possible.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: We start talking about her experience and she tells me like--
Bellamy Ogak: I was so blessed to live in a place where I never faced over racism at all. It was very, very rare. It was subtle.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: Anything that happened was subtle. What was the kind of thing that would happen to you in high school that you put in the category of a racist thing [unintelligible 00:04:18] or whatever?
Bellamy Ogak: Well, the N-word, they used to say negro de nada. Negro de nada means dirty N-word. All my friends were like, "Oh, as African people, as Black people, as immigrants, we hate them, we despise them, they're trash, but you, you are different because you were born and raised here. You are eloquent. You don't act like them."
Ngofeen Mputubwele: I'm so curious that doesn't sound like subtle racism.
Bellamy Ogak: Well, that to me was subtle because I've heard that word since I was five years old. I go to a café with my godparents who are white and you see other elder white Italian people coming to me, caressing me and say, "Oh, [foreign language]," which means, "Oh, you're such a cute little nigga girl." Since I was three, four, five years old.
I realized that I wasn't a citizen when I think I was 14 or 15-ish, I wanted to apply for studying holidays in England. I went to this website and you have to indicate your nationality. That's when I realized, I was like, "Oh, my nationality is technically Uganda." Since it's Uganda, I could see that I had to apply for a visa. Then I went to the website of the Ugandan Embassy and the British embassy and when I realized all the steps that I had to take in order to attend that course, that's when it hit me, that's when I went to my parents and was like, "Wait, why are things like this?" That's when they explained to me.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: Do you remember at all how your parents explained things to you?
Bellamy Ogak: Well, African parents are very particular. They're very particular. Well, first of all, no empathy at all.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: I feel this is an important point where I should say, I love you, mom and dad.
Bellamy Ogak: They were like, "Listen, this is the way it is. White people are trash. African people can not go anywhere because that's just the way it is. Until you become an Italian citizen, that's what you have to go through." I couldn't even talk about it with anyone because I was ashamed. I was honestly ashamed and embarrassed.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: Bellamy isn't alone, she's part of a generation of Black Italians, kids of African immigrants who came in around the '80s. My parents are from the Democratic Republic of Congo. My parents and her parents left the African continent around the same time. My parents landed in the US. I was born in a hospital in Indiana. Bellamy was born near Milan. I'm born and I am automatically an American citizen. She's born and she's Ugandan because of jus sanguinis, remember law of the blood.
If you're the child of an immigrant to Italy, you have to wait until you're 18 to apply for citizenship and you have to apply between your 18th and 19th birthday. If you don't apply in that one year, you lose your right to citizenship. You could live to be 99, never set foot outside of Italy, but are still a foreigner. Two years ago, I reached out to Bellamy and Bellamy is like, "You should come. A couple of my friends, we meet every once in a while and talk about these kinds of things." I'm like, "Oh, sweet. I go to this address. Then I show up and it's like there already is the art studio apartment. It felt like a salon.
Bellamy Ogak: We usually go for wine because we are bougie like that.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: They have jollof rice and plantains or whatever these pieces of African culture that make me feel at home. In the beginning, when I first entered this Black Italian universe, it's just me, Bellamy, and about four or five of her friends.
Bellamy Ogak: Yes, we're just waiting for a few people in the meantime.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: Then people start filing into this room in Milan. Bellamy's close friend David walks in.
Bellamy Ogak: David, I was just talking about you.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: By the time everyone is there, there was like 20, 25 people.
Bellamy Ogak: We have two more singers arriving, actually.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: Okay. Cool. I'll just throw out questions and I'll move around and come to you. I'm trying to get at what does it look like to live as a Black Italian in Italy? Anyone, feel free.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: There's this love. Someone even says like, "Oh my gosh, guys were so timid."
?Speaker: [unintelligible 00:09:53]
Ngofeen Mputubwele: As they loosen up, everyone has stories that are the various ways that white Italians have told them that they're not supposed to be here as Black people in Italy.
[speaking from Bellamy's meeting in Rome]
Speaker 1: It's jokes, humor. That's one of their stronger weapons to let that you're Black, that you're different.
Speaker 2: Of course, my parents, they are African, but I was born here. I have both of the cultures.
Speaker 3: Whenever they see me, they try to enunciate Italian. I'm like, "How do you assume that I am not Italian?"
Speaker 4: I want to be straight, I don't think [inaudible 00:10:45]
Ngofeen Mputubwele: They start having this like back and forth where someone's like, "I don't know if Italy is a racist country."
Speaker 4: I strongly believe that Italy is an ignorant country.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: They feel like Italy is a ignorant country.
Speaker 4: They don't want to learn. They don't want to know.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: This one guy, David, this is a Bellamy's friend he's like--
David: Fact that I am born here, I've lived my whole life here and you don't consider me Italian makes Italy a racist country not an ignorant country because
Speaker 6: [inaudible 00:11:13]
Speaker 6: [inaudible 00:11:15]
David: No, [crosstalk] it's a fact. That's what racism is. Racism is not just about, "Oh, they're making me feel a certain way." Racism is about system, is about society. The fact that a person is born here, and immediately they come out the womb, they have to live their whole life until they're 18 as an immigrant, what does this say about the country and about yourself? You're lost.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: As everyone's going back and forth, I'm recording, but I'm also watching, having this out-of-body experience. Every single person I've ever seen as a Black Italian, they're in this room; the first Black Italian to win a show like American idol, the first Black Italian musician to get signed to major label Universal Records. Everyone is Black, everyone is young, artists, intellectuals, and they're debating about being Black in their time. Imagine if you could get into a room with like a young Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, it's like the start of the Harlem Renaissance and they haven't become famous yet.
Adama: For every nation, there is a generation that is the generation to start the fight.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: I am in the room with all of the people. This group, they're mapping out what it is to be Black Italian for the rest of that country's history.
David: This is the generation that have to do this because we all first generation Black Italian, all of us.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: None of them are born citizens, they're not considered Italian. In modern Italian history, the first big wave of Black immigration came from the African continent post-independence. Bellamy is the child of immigrants of that generation, but in recent years migrants have been arriving from Africa in boats on the Italian shores and these boat landings are constantly in Italian news like the way we see undocumented immigration from Latin America reported here in the us.
In 2018, Italy's population was about 8%, 9% immigrants with about a fifth of those coming from Africa. When I was there in 2018, native born Back Italians were pushing to get a birthright citizenship, but they were losing the battle. A politician named Matteo Salvini was the face of Italian politics and he had just pushed through a law that people in Bellamy's world were freaking out about. It severely restricted the rights of immigrants and the language around it was all about the threat that undocumented immigrants posed to Italy, and the face of undocumented immigrants in Italy is Black people.
Bellamy Ogak: When the law passed, I remember I started crying out of disbelief, so you can imagine how hard life became for us. Of course, when you see me, you see a Black person. I do not have my ID card with Italian citizenship written on my forehead, so you think I'm an immigrant and so you fear me.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: These subtle things that have been boiling, a politician helps to channel that and now it becomes more explicit.
Bellamy Ogak: Every week or so you could read in newspaper Black people being physically attacked, Black people being killed. It was crazy. That's when I started really being afraid of being a Black person in Italy.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: Then in August of 2019, a very, very big unexpected thing happens. This Trump-like leader of Italy gets ousted from power. I'm following the news and I see on Facebook this group of Black Italians in Rome is trying to seize the moment and change Italy's laws on birthright citizenship and I just buy a plane ticket. Just to recap for a second, the US has what we call jus soli, birthrights citizenship. It's written into the 14th Amendment, which passed after the Civil War.
The 14th Amendment settled the question of how do we view all the Black people who are no longer property and the answer is citizenship. "Anyone born in this country from now on is a citizen, including the children of immigrants ever after." For a few years, I've been talking to Black people in Italy, children of immigrants who don't have birthright citizenship and they want it. They want to be recognized as Italians in the country where they were born. Last fall, I go back to see how their fight is going. I fly to Rome.
I just flew over from New York to meet some black Italians who are organizing our protests to try to change Italy's citizenship laws. I'm realizing that my American passport makes me-- I get to go through the express line. I'm here to follow this political moment, but I stopped by a bookstore in the transition and I find this book that's come out since I was last in the country. It's got a kid who's Black Italian, who's got an Afro dark skin, well, dark skin for a white person. It's written by an Italian named Sonny Olumati, which is a Nigerian last name. On the back it says, [foreign language]. After that night, I [unintelligible 00:17:44] would never be the same.
In that period that I'm gone, this network of Black Italians, they're making a lot of Black Italian art. One of the people that we hear from writes a novel, someone writes a very James Baldwin [unintelligible 00:18:00] Manifesto. They're making these things that are articulating the contours of what it is to be Black in Italy. The hair company, Pantene Pro-V, they approach Bellamy and they're like, "Will you be our hair ambassador?"
Ngofeen Mputubwele: We might own 4C Afro hair, let's put that in mind.
Speaker 1: Bellamy is like--
Bellamy Ogak: Never, never, never ever in a million years I would've imagined that the day would come that you would see an ambassador of Pantene with Afro hair.
?Speaker: Stop hair shaming Pantene.
Bellamy Ogak: They finally started giving us a chance to express ourselves.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: I'm here to follow this political moment, but I realize that there's like two levels of work going on. There's like this cultural work and there's this political work that these people I'm talking to in Rome are trying to do. The head guy's name is Amin Nour. He is Somali Italian. He's a filmmaker. We talk and his friend Palo is there. He's in local government in Rome. What they think they can pass is a tempered birthright citizenship, jus cultūra. Not the law of the soil, but the law of the culture.
It would grant them a part of the citizenship that's way easier and people could get it long before they turn 18. At one point, I asked, "How are you feeling? Do you think that this can happen?" He's like, "No, we're really hopeful," and Amin says, "We don't hope, we believe and we fight no matter what." They're talking to legislators and trying to get this on the agenda. They organize a protest. A couple of months later, Palo and the group are testifying before parliament. The nationalist Salvini Government is gone. 2019 is over and the feeling was like this thing, if it's going to happen, it's got to happen in 2020. 2020 comes in Italy.
News reporter automated voice: In Italy, a terrible milestone. The death toll from COVID-19 in that country now more than 3,400, surpassing the death toll in China despite Italy's [inaudible 00:20:42]
Ngofeen Mputubwele: So the moment passes. Bellamy, our woman in Milan, she's in isolation, quarantine, like all of us. She says this really interesting thing, she's like, "Even when things are getting better in that things are reopening-
Bellamy Ogak: I literally got an anxiety attack because I was like, I did not have to face any racism at all. Oh my God, I actually have to deal with white people again.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: That's March and April. May. In May-
Bellamy Ogak: Ahmaud Arbery.
Speaker 1: African American man being chased down [inaudible 00:21:30]
Ngofeen Mputubwele: -the story of Ahmaud Arbery breaks.
Bellamy Ogak: I remember feeling extremely overwhelmed and just defeated.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: Then George Floyd.
Bellamy Ogak: I refused to look at the video because I was like, "No, I can't," but it was pretty much impossible avoid seeing the pictures. Then, of course, when you read about how he was assassinated and him yelling, "I can't breathe," and it's so brutal.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: I think that is just rock-bottom. When the protests start here in the US, very quickly in Italy, you had all these white Italians denouncing in solidarity this act of racism in the US.
Bellamy Ogak: I have never ever in my life, seen Italy as a country take a stand against racism in such a unanimous and visible way. Never in my life. That shocked me, but in a bad way. Why do Black American lives matter more than Black Italian lives?
Ngofeen Mputubwele: Bellamy, all the writers and artists in that room in Milan, the folks in Rome, Black Italians across the country.
Bellamy Ogak: When we noticed that there was an open door to discuss racism, we started yelling, "This is how racism takes place in Italy. This is what we have been going through all these years. This is what you need to fight for with us. If you ignore us now, it means that you really are not anti-racist."
Ngofeen Mputubwele: She's like, "I have the stuff on deck. I have a video that I'd been holding up to about racism in Italy, but I was just waiting for the right time to publish."
Bellamy Ogak: They talked about the racism that they have faced throughout their lives. I'm like, "Okay, let me add this video clip." It became viral.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: All this cultural work that they've been doing for the past years; the fiction book, the memoir, the novels, these things are like, "Okay, there's this moment now."
Bellamy Ogak: The mic was given to black people.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: At these protests, you're seeing white people, and black people holding signs that say 'Black Lives Matter' and next to that sign, it says just soli, birthright citizenship.
Bellamy Ogak: I really got emotional because hundreds of thousands, probably millions, I don't know, but hundreds of thousands of white people went in the street to fight against racism together with us, validating our injustices and our pain. It's something that I had never seen before in my life. It made me feel seen and it made me feel like, "You are at least trying to understand what it feels like to be in my shoes and you want to help me dismantle the system."
Ngofeen Mputubwele: At the same time, she told this story of her friend David, that I mentioned at the beginning of the story. The day of a Black Lives Matter protest, these law enforcement folks came up and were like, "Hey--"
Bellamy Ogak: "Oh, oh, oh, hey you," as if it was a dog. They asked for his documents, they asked if he smoked, if he sold drugs, they asked what does he do for a living. The first thing he did was give them his documents. On the ID, it states that he has Italian citizenship, and they still ask him, "Where are you from?"
David: I have the paper. It says I'm born in Italy. It says I'm a citizen. I'm from here.
Bellamy Ogak: They're really wanting him to say the country of his parents.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: They keep pushing him to keep pushing on him and-
Bellamy Ogak: He insisted. He's saying, "I was born in this town, in this region. I live in Italy." They only let him go when he told them that he works with one of the biggest singers in Italy. He showed them the pictures and then they let him go after humiliating him, after making him feel alienated because Italian citizenship is not enough.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: I have this kind of theory that I've come up with in my mind, where there's different buckets of belonging to a country. One, your physical presence there. You are there. Second thing, you have legal status. You're legitimately legally allowed to be there. A third thing, your culturally a part of the place. These are three different channels or buckets or whatever we're constantly pushing on in a country to determine who belongs. These things aren't linear. You're always constantly pushing on the different areas to try to assert your belonging to a country.
Adama: In every nation there is a generation that is the generation to start the fight. Those assets or those tools, those weapons, and then hopefully, current generation or future generation [inaudible 00:27:33]
Ngofeen Mputubwele: When I was in that room with Bellamy and her friends in Milan, I was like, "I feel like this is the Harlem Renaissance." Then I leave and I was like, "I don't even really know what that means, but I feel it. It feels really young and exciting and Black and art." I'm like looking at the Harlem Renaissance and I'm looking at it and I'm looking at it and I'm reading what people were writing at the time, and for me I was like, "Oh, this is the significant of that time."
Black folks went from being a physical presence in the country to a legal presence to asserting our cultural presence in this country. The Black artists of that generation were articulating in the face of really blatant white supremacy, "This is why we belong here, this is how we belong here, this is what it looks like for us to belong here. We've been here and this is us."
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