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The Black Mediterranean: Bodies, Borders and Citizenship

Book Review

Sunday 5 December 2021, by siawi3


Book Review: The Black Mediterranean: Bodies, Borders and Citizenship

Fouad Mami

10 Nov 2021

Gabriele Proglio, Camilla Hawthorne, et al. (2021). The Black Mediterranean: Bodies, Borders and Citizenship. Palgrave, MacMillan: Cham, Switzerland; pp. 275. Hardcover: $99.04; ISBN-13: 978-3030513900

The Black Mediterranean owes its inception, not just its mere inspiration, to Paul Gilroy’s 1990 volume, The Black Atlantic, whereby the trope of the Middle Passage grapples with constructing a counterculture of modernity. The Mediterranean Sea, the contributors to this volume claim, has earned its right to be qualified as black in the wake of successive migrants’ and refugees’ crossing, some of which have been particularly tragic. Underneath this approach, there lies—as will be shown down in this review—not only an unkind portrayal of Africans that perfectly subscribe to the trope of the begging bowel but a misleading narrative that maintains the very order the book claims to challenge and somehow redefine. Indeed, the argument in The Black Mediterranean pits African refugees/migrants against proletarianized white Europeans to suck the labor of both to the bone.

The editors-contributors (since all of them occupy that double seat) are unhappy at the ways in which the celebrity historian of the Mediterranean Fernand Braudel in his majestical oeuvre assumedly “fails to acknowledge slavery” (2) and the role of Africans in the making of contemporary Europe. Other than relativizing Braudel’s findings, the ambition from The Black Mediterranean is to hit two birds with a single stone. The first is the rewriting of European history in a fashion that further stigmatizes Europeans’ guilt should they fail to integrate those ‘pitiable’ Africans knocking their southern shores. The second proceeds slowly but surely towards the erosion of African statehood by casting doubts on Africans’ capacity to found sustainable and egalitarian polities. In both, there lies an attempt to quell whatever subversive propulsions or even troublesome residues in each of these two histories for the benefits of the neoliberal order that defines the status quo both in Europe and Africa.

The Black Mediterranean is comprised of three parts: Borders, Bodies and Citizenships. Each part counts three chapters where each delineates on either the theme or the method of the long durée. For purposes of precision, I will discuss the first two parts as they offer a framework of abstractions that promise to propagate towards a reversal of the dominant power dynamics. By the time readers reach the stage of imploring citizenship rights and detailing the challenges for partial or full integration (after assimilation of course), as highlighted in the third part, the narrative becomes flat and self-effacing. The last three contributors intensify the myth of the begging bowel disguised as a humanist quest for political inclusion and multiculturalism.

The first chapter: “When the Mediterranean “Become” Black: Diasporic Hopes and (Post)colonial Trauma”, by Angelica Pessarini, addresses the situation that by simply arriving at Italian territory, today’s refugees and migrants become involved in a diseased framework of references and significations. For southern Italians have not been fully embraced as Italians until quite recently, exactly with the advent of the colonial project. In other words, whiteness had been grudgingly expanded beyond full-blooded Aryans only when Europe cashed the profit from its proximity to racialized blacks. And that proximity come in a peculiar context as these blacks are not any blacks; they are defeated Africans in colonial conquests. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense that today’s Meticci (mixed race Italians or North Africans in France) or other assimilated groups for that matter are systematically excluded in Europe and can lead only an underground life of les banlieues: invisibility and racism.

In “Fanon in the Black Mediterranean”, Gabriel Progilo notes a parallel between the experiences of natives in the colonies and those of contemporary migrants or refugees in European countries. Hence, how he stretches Frantz Fanon’s abstractions of violence on colonial Algeria in order to invigorate the task of history writing. Writing from below, that is, from the perspective of the marginalized and the subaltern—the way he sees himself doing by carrying out fieldwork and interviewing those individuals tagged illegal—can tantalize the lingering legacy of colonialism in the migrant/refugee experience. Such attempts, the author claims, open liberating venues for both refugees from Africa and elsewhere and proletarianized Europeans.

Giulia Grechi in “Colonial Cultural Heritage and Embodied Representations” finds that Europeans’ privileged economic position owes much to the colonial plunder and conquest. But instead of evoking a message for a common humanity, that selective memory of the colonial past, which tangibly bursts in the everyday reality through objects and commodities Italians lavish in daily, actually has the opposite effect. Selective memory specifies that Italians have become insensitive to the role of colonies in outlining their privileged status. In order to readjust the numbing effects from that memory, the author encourages considerations of works of art by migrants. She recommends both a film (Martina Melilli’s Mum, I’m Sorry) and a performance (Tania El Khouri’s As Far as My Fingertips Take Me) to elicit a chance for the palliative.

P. Khalil Saucier in an essay titled: “Crane Nera”, literally means ‘black flesh’, deploys Horton Spillers’ 1987 classic essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” as a unit of analysis, even a matrix, to underline the ontological cost of policing black bodies. Ambitiously, Crane Nera, the trope and signifier, is unleashed to recover “the repressed issue” behind European modernity defined solely as “anti-Black Sociality.” (103)

In “Impermanent Territories: The Mediterranean Crisis and the (Re-)production of the Black Subject”, Timothy Raeymaekers notes the double role of the impermanent migrants’ and refugees’ ghettos in Italy. While such notorious localities nurse a false hope of a future legalization, the condition which spells out extended delays of legalization (that is, impermanence) intensifies marginalization steps further, aggravating thereby these migrants’ limbo situation. Long-term exploitation becomes possible as the victims keep expecting legalization if they constantly keep tolerating exploitation just one more time! The field work Raeymaekers carries out illustrates that migrants often resist by creating a community in exceptionally precarious situations (122). Still, those efforts remain light years removed from effective resisting of multilayered exploiters, including EU’s structures that maintain dependencies for the infinite extraction of value.

As the title: ““These Walls Must Fall”: The Black Mediterranean and the Politics of Abolition” explicitly underlines, Ida Danewid calls for both an open-border policy and radical activism to undo what she vehemently sees as racial capitalism. She calls for a solidarity with the disenfranchised populations (refugees and migrants) grounded in the abolition of borders, not in hospitality. (157) Her term, disenfranchised, embraces migrants, refugees as well as workers including European proletariats.

The volume offers insightful remarks, particularly when it comes to the listing of facts such as those pertaining to the emerging market of modern-day slavery in post 2011 Libya. When it comes to the overall thrust from the argument however, The Black Mediterranean becomes troublesome. For example, the way Pessarini brushes aside Italian Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s “ethnic substitution/replacement” as a cheap populist discourse is inaccurate, in order not to say, dishonest. Suffice it to know that in the wake from 1968 general strikes and overall social unrest in France, President George Pompidou explicitly announced the flooding of French mills and factories with workers from North and Sub-Saharan Africa. Specifically, French industrialists imported such ‘hands’ because even if the latter sometimes strike, their form of agitation cannot challenge the capitalistic order. Ever since then, the “open-door policy,” as these authors of Black Mediterranean shrewdly remark but never pressed deep enough, has been serving rich industrialists. This policy gave industrialists unprecedented leverage over organized labor and unions. Racism in this context becomes European proletariat’s manner of expressing disconcertion from the ruling elites, an ill-directed class struggle targeting less the refugees and migrants and more the rich and their mafias.

Readers can spot instances of cross-proletariat solidarity in the way Progilo empathizes with the refugees. He finds their story at some deeper level, and rightly so, echoing his as an Italian adjunct academic, someone precariously employed. That portrayal comes as a rambling, but readers can underline a genuine exasperation with the structure of marginalization equally embedding forms of expropriation of surplus value. Indeed, those social classes who call for open-doors policies actually abuse the migrants and refugees’ disasters (tragedy and even trauma) as political cards to further stigmatize large sections of already impoverished Europeans. Thrusting violent episodes from the colonial pasts as well as circulating present misfortunes of sea crossings aim to essentially lower the cost of production even further than its 1970s level. The extraction of value has become an art that is monetized (not necessarily by artists, but by overarching structures of reception and circulation of ideas in the form of assumedly unbiased research such as the ones readers cannot miss in The Black Mediterranean. It makes a lot of sense to read Danewid’s call for marshaling the kind of solidarity rooted in the abolition of border, not in hospitality. Irrespective of intentions, that call in the words of Angela Nagle is characteristic of “…useful idiots [serving] big business.” with the specific aim of rewriting the real history of both proletariats: European and African.

For Khalil Saucier finds neo-abolitionists at fault for highlighting the political economy that renders slavery visible in Tripoli, Libya and other parts. (106) When closely considered, abolitionists should be blamed for not highlighting the political economy enough, that is, for remaining stacked in the phenomenal in lieu of submerging in the phenomenological. Overall, in its plea for integrating migrants and refugees in bourgeois spaciotemposphere, The Black Mediterranean becomes a litany as Africans maintain their role as the eternal victims while Europeans perpetuate their onslaught on Africans. I find it indecorous when academics rarely refrain from overgeneralizations like this last! The book overlooks the reductive—and—unjust comparison between enslaved Africans of yore and contemporary migrants. Africans of the Middle Passage resisted at the risk of their own lives forced evictions. Their descendants today, we are told, risk everything to make something out of their lives, something their homelands are inherently incapable of helping them achieve!

Fouad Mami is a Professor of English at the University of Adrar (Algeria). His also serving as Associate Editor for Africa Review. Apart from contemporary African Literature, he is interested in postcolonial theory, diaspora studies, Deleuzian criticism and the history of thought largely conceived.