Slowing down for Black History Month Florence 2019

Fourth edition takes an “adagio” approach

Mary Gray
January 31, 2019 - 11:51
 Adagio is an Italian word even total language novices might recognize. Musicians, especially, or anyone who’s maneuvered a car through a particularly cramped garage entrance. A piano player sees the word and knows a piece is to be performed in slow time; a driver spots an adagio admonition and takes care, theoretically, to go easy on the entry-exit, to turn corners with caution.


This idea of treading lightly and thoughtfully is what inspired the Adagio theme at the fourth edition of Black History Month Florence (frequently shortened to BHMF, the moniker of its registered cultural association.) Building on the nearly 100-year legacy of counterpart celebrations in the United States, but expanding their scope beyond African-American history, the event series will spotlight Afro-descendent cultures in Italy and beyond through March 3.


Director and co-founder of the initiative Justin Randolph Thompson is well-schooled in the mechanics of putting together a program. Still, the thematic approach this year is a new one for the team. “Figuring out how to {concisely} frame an initiative that’s this broad and multifaceted”—one that seeks to place blackness in a global context, but strip it of a singular narrative—is “complex,” to say the least, he told TF. But that very complexity is what organizers hope audiences will take time to sit with during the 60-odd lectures, exhibitions, workshops, tours, concerts and cinema screenings. Hence, adagio.

Calling for nuance in our era of echo chambers and online shouting factories, BHMF, Thompson explained, aims to take more of a proactive than a reactive approach. For former municipal councillor Pape Diaw, a frequent spokesperson for Florence’s Senegalese community, the initiative’s mission of using “culture to foster understanding” picks up where a little-discussed gathering of black literati left off in Rome. In March 1959, the pan-African quarterly journal Présence Africaine hosted the Second Congress of Negro Writers and Artists in the Eternal City, a follow-up to an inaugural edition held in Paris three years prior. (Among the guest speakers was the first president of Guinea, Ahmed Sékou Touré; behind the event’s promotional poster was a little artist called Pablo Picasso). For decades after an event of such magnitude, “there was nothing else like it {in Italy},” according to Diaw, and BHMF is closing that gap.


Nearly 60 years later, Diaw, who will co-lead a conference on colonial and postcolonial cinema at Le Murate on February 13, is among the many thinkers, leaders, artists and scholars sharing their expertise. He’s hardly the only testifier to BHMF’s cultural weight: Dr. Angelica Pesarini, a faculty member in the social and cultural analysis department of New York University Florence, called it a “pivotal event in Italy.”


Pesarini, who teaches a course called Black Italia, is interested in BHMF not just as a Florentine initiative, but as one thread in the Italy-Africa narrative. BHMF “reminds us that Italy isn’t a ‘white country,’ despite many people’s beliefs, starting with our current government,” she wrote in an email to TF. “Italy has very ancient ties to Africa and all the events going on during BHMF highlight the importance of such connections.”



Work by Tesfaye Urgessa, whose exhibition "Beyond" is currently running in the Andito degli Angiolini of Palazzo Pitti. Urgessa will give a BHMF artist's talk in the Sala del Fiorino at Palazzo Pitti on February 2.


BHMF itself is an apolitical entity, but divorcing it from larger local and national issues deprives us of fully embracing the Adagio attitude it promotes. In light of myriad 2018 events in Italy—from the mass shooting in Macerata to the murder of Idy Diene in Florence—Pesarini will explore the nexus of race, gender and migration in the current political discourse in a lecture at the British Institute’s Harold Acton Library on February 20.

Keeping it adagio will be key. “We’re in a moment right now where, more and more, these quick definitions and broad stereotypes are being applied in a way that is about simplifying and reducing complexity and, in a lot of ways, reducing humanity,” Thompson said. BHMF’s ethos of moving carefully—recall the driver in the cramped garage—seeks to facilitate conversations that probe beyond the surface, one that can be tough to crack in an Italian and Florentine context.

Why tough to crack? Witness one example: the decidedly non-adagio fallout in November after local media outlets caught wind of Nicole Phillip’s essay in The New York Times,My Very Personal Taste of Racism Abroad,” which illustrated several instances of racially tinged intimidation she experienced in Florence and Liguria. Although framed—even in the title—as an individual’s take on a series of events that left her viscerally shaken, the story, when filtered through a local lens, became, “Racist Florence: shocking phrases from a New York Times journalist” (Firenze Today), “Is Florence really racist?” (La Nazione), “African-American New York Times journalist denounces the city of racism” (Il Giornale), and numerous other headlines that were rather, well, black and white.


Of the media reaction and its connection to BHMF, Thompson said, “I think it’s very often that we read things, like in the case of the NYT piece, as blanket statements that aren’t blanket statements at all. A question like ‘Is Florence racist?’ asks if the city itself is institutionally, systematically racist, but that’s different from ‘Is there racism in Florence?’” (And of course there is: as Pesarini puts it, “It’s everywhere. The problem isn’t Florence per se.”)


Pesarini suggests that race is “at the core of Italian national identity,” but “we don’t name it, nor do we have the tools to name it. So monitoring and highlighting racism is more difficult.” Note how the narrative went in the early aftermath of Idy Diene’s March 2018 shooting: 54-year-old Senegalese man is shot by 65-year-old Italian man. As Thompson pointed out to TF, what immediately followed was a laundry list of the latter’s alleged motivations, financial hardships, family background, and lack of political ties or explicit, aggressively "racist motives," with comparatively little context on Diene: "It's the treatment of one versus the other in media that's fundamental," he said.  The tendency to dismiss these more quotidian, unconscious dimensions of racial bias in such events will be among the ideas discussed at “It has been said it was not racism: Italy after Macerata and Florence,” a talk by Mackda Ghebremariam Tesfau of the University of Padua (February 18 at Palazzo Bargagli.)


Approached from an adagio angle, such themes are an important component of the BHMF program. Yet long-term, positive diffusion of culture and lived realities are where organizers’ propelling interests lie. Three successful editions of BHMF are now in the bag, and with enthusiasm on the part of Palazzo Vecchio for the initiative to continue, organizers and partners are assessing their visions for the next few years. Thompson cites the idea for a Florence-based black cultural center, a hub for scholarly research and community events, an idea that emerged from his discussions with Diaw at the 2017 edition. Ambitious long-term projects of the sort are already underway; one is Black Archive Alliance, a Villa Romana-steered effort to compile material related to Africa and its diaspora found in the holdings of Florentine and Tuscan archives. It’s the sort of project that illustrates Pesarini’s earlier point about longstanding Africa-Italy ties. Currently, without a brick-and-mortar space of its own, BHMF must rely on partner institutions for these initiatives to gain traction.


Thompson imagines, though, that like “what we call social progress” itself, these multi-year efforts will be slow-going. Adagio, so to speak. For now, BHMF’s bottom line is to showcase lived experience: “For most of the people involved with this,” he says, “it’s Black History Month Florence all year round.”





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