Igiaba Scego takes on the troubled history of the popular Mussolini-era song "Faccetta nera" in an essay confronting Italy's history of colonialism and Fascism.
“I was on a TV talk show the other day, and something curious happened.” Those are the opening words of a Facebook post that Maryan Ismail, an Italo-Somali political activist, published recently. The curious thing that happened occurred in a television studio. Maryan, who is a longtime political activist working in Milan, has made up her mind to express her defiance of racism by speaking openly everywhere she can, including on TV. Of course, she doesn’t talk about just immigration; every important cause will find her manning the barricades: from the fight against fundamentalism (she recently lost her brother to an Al Shabaab terror attack in Mogadishu) to the issues affecting the livability of our cities. “But my skin is Black,” says Maryan, emphasizing the fact that the struggle against discrimination is one of the most important aspects of her political mission. And frequently, especially on TV, her interlocutors choose to make use of the color of her skin to attack her.
In her post, Maryan proceeds to detail one such attack: “A rather out-of-control older gentleman, who was clearly in the throes of a fit of rage, was doing his best to string together a coherent sentence on immigration and its costs. Thrown off balance by my vigorous response, he just started singing 'Faccetta nera' in my face.”
This episode had as its setting the television program Forte e chiaro, broadcast live on the local network Telelombardia. “Pointless to describe what happened next,” Maryan continues. “Let me simply say: the bitterness I feel when I see that yet another taboo has been broken is boundless. We’ve come to the point that a racist sneer is openly thrust in one’s face, for no good reason and without shame.”
What Maryan was subjected to was a full-fledged macroaggression. In Italy, that song is more or less like using the N-word. Because of its role in Italian Fascist history, "Faccetta nera" cannot be considered a song with a neutral significance. We’ll explore that history below.
When I heard this news, my first feelings were of indignation mixed with solidarity. But then I told myself that what happened cannot simply be filed away as racism. Of course it’s that, but it’s also much more. It says something serious and profound about the society we live in. But what, exactly?
If you’re a woman and Black in Italy, some passing reference to "Faccetta nera" inevitably slips out sometimes. When I was a girl, they’d often sing it to me as we were leaving school at the end of the day to humiliate me, and in general, the old ditty hangs in the air like those microbes no one can escape. Lots of people seem to have it as the ring tone on their cell phones (like Lele Mora in the documentary Videocracy) and consider the song as the purest quintessence of Fascism. But even people who don’t openly claim to be adherents of Fascism can be seduced by this quickstep march. All you need to do is hum it for a minute or two, and you’ll see the arms start flailing to the drumming beat.
One emblematic scene can be found in Dagmawi Yimer’s docufilm Va’ pensiero, where a group of mothers sing the well-known old popular song to Mohamed Ba, the Senegalese cultural mediator and actor. Ba has just finished leading a class, on the very subject of stereotypes, with the children of these women. When he hears them singing, he can scarcely believe it. He’s shaken up and discouraged. He tries to explain to them that "Faccetta nera" is a song from the twenty-year reign of Mussolini, but the women ignore him, lost as they are in the frenzied rhythm of the oom-pah-pah. They like the song, they feel some sort of forbidden pleasure in singing it, and they continue, indifferent to how they might be hurting Ba’s feelings.
But do people who sing it really know what it means? Do they know where that song comes from? How it came about? Do they understand all the references?
I personally consider "Faccetta nera" to be an Italian paradox. Every year, almost always during the summer or at the start of autumn, some controversy erupts concerning "Faccetta nera." Either because someone sings it or else because some teacher (it recently happened with a group of nuns) plays it for the kids at school. And promptly rivers of ink flow, ranging from open condemnation to a sly wink of tacit support. And the whole matter is swallowed up in a tide of blah blah blah that often leaves us indifferent. Videos of the song can be found online in various versions and all you need do is take a tour of the comments on YouTube to get a clear idea that those who sing it know nothing of its history.
In fact, there is a profusion of gratuitous lines in the commentaries like “Fascist and proud” and “Long Live Il Duce.” But do the people who write these things realize that Benito Mussolini hated "Faccetta nera"? He’d actually tried to get it banned. To his mind, it was too half-breed in nature: it sang the praises of the union between the “races,” and that was something inconceivable in his imperial Italy, which would soon after pass the race laws that deprived Jews and Africans of rights and life. The Fascist regime, in fact, had in the 1930s begun a long march to conquer Ethiopia and gain overseas possessions just like the other colonial powers (France and Great Britain). Certainly, the war that Mussolini waged against Ethiopia was anachronistic, truly something out of time. All the same, it was extremely bloody. In just a short while, Italy did what it had taken other powers a hundred years to do. The Italians unleashed an unprecedented wave of violence on Ethiopia in order to subjugate it. They even used poison gas on civilian populations, in open violation of the Geneva Convention. Mussolini wanted to establish his empire in order to prove to the other European powers that his Italy, too, was mighty, powerful, and white.
But in fact, it’s for the color black—the “nera” in "Faccetta nera"—that that regime is remembered today, and perhaps this is the greatest paradox. Fascism, which saw itself as white and European, is associated with a popular ditty that sang the glories of a “carnal” union with the Black subjects it intended to subjugate.
Let’s take a step back. Not many know that "Faccetta nera" was first written in romanesco, the dialect of Rome. It was penned by Renato Micheli, who planned to present it at the 1935 festival of Roman songs. The lyrics are riddled with the complete array of the period’s colonial propaganda. The newspapers and newsreels were full of Africa. The Italians were literally bombarded with African imagery from dawn to dusk. The children in their young Fascist balilla uniforms had memorized the names of the cities that Italian Fascism had set out to conquer. And so names like Mek'ele, Dire Dawa, and Addis Ababa became familiar to young and old alike.
Italian colonialism didn’t originate under Fascism, but rather with the liberal government that followed Italy’s unification and preceded Fascism. Still, in the 1930s there was a substantial acceleration in Italian efforts to conquer colonial possessions. Mussolini wanted Africa, Italy’s place in the sun, and in order to get it he had to win over the Italians to the cause of empire. From such satirical publications as Il travaso delle idee to the mainstream Il Corriere della Sera, everyone was mobilized. One of the favorite themes emphasized in the propaganda was slavery. The newspapers were rife with pictures of enslaved Ethiopian men and women: “It’s their own government doing this to them,” they explained. “It’s the perfidious Negus; let’s go free them.” (Negus is an Amharic royal title, used for the king of Ethiopia.)
The war was almost never presented to the Italians as a war of conquest, almost always as a war of liberation. The mechanism isn’t all that different from what we saw in the twentieth century and what we continue to see today. Let’s go free the Vietnamese! Let’s go free the Iraqis! Let’s go free the Afghans! Only to take and exploit their land, in the end, as we know too well.
"Faccetta nera" originates in that context as a song of liberation. A song, at least in its author’s intentions, that somewhat wittily sang the praises of a sort of “union” between Italians and Ethiopians. From the lyrics, however, we notice immediately that the Italian in the song is not interested in going to free Ethiopian men—only the women (somewhat like what happened recently in Afghanistan, where outsiders set off to fight a war to free women from the burqa). And the Italian in this song wants a union with African women, and only with them. A sexual, carnal union.
For that matter, this stereotype had already been circulating for some time on the Italian peninsula. The myth of the Black Venus dates back to well before Fascism. Africa has always been viewed by its colonizers (and not only by the Italians) as virgin land to be penetrated—literally. Or as the colonial writer Mitrano Sani put it in 1934 in Femina somala, referring to his lover from the Horn of Africa: “Elo isn’t a person, she’s a thing [. . . .] that must give up its body when the white man has carnal yearnings.” An available land, in other words. And this availability often translated into the physical possession of the women of the place, through such forms as concubinage, marriages of convenience, and often outright rape.
All you need to do is take a spin on the Internet or at the Porta Portese market in Rome, or in any other Italian flea market, and you’ll see the photos of this abuse. I recently saw one in David Forgacs’s book Italy’s Margins: Social Exclusion and Nation Formation since 1861 (Cambridge University Press, 2014), where an Eritrean woman is being held stationary in a “crucifix” position by a number of smiling Italian sailors, who have probably just raped her or are preparing to do so.
In this sense, "Faccetta nera" is a sexist song, not just racist. A popular ditty that conceals a clear reference to sexual violence behind a fantasy of liberation. It’s no accident that at a certain point the lyrics say: “Our law is the slavery of love.” Themes that can be found as well in other popular songs of the period, such as Africanella or Pupetta mora. But also in the more sophisticated (and earlier) Aida by Verdi: Aida too, like Little Black Face (which is what "Faccetta nera" means), is a slave and the only way she can be redeemed from her condition is to become the object of a man’s desire.
Once it was written, "Faccetta nera" knew no peace. Micheli was unable to present it at the festival of Roman songs. It was only set to music later by Mario Ruccione and sung by Carlo Buti, who made it a hit. But its first appearance was at the Teatro Quattro Fontane in Rome (now a movie theater). There a young Black woman was carried onto the stage in chains, whereupon Anna Fougez, a star of the theatrical revue of the time and a Pugliese-born woman performing with a French stage name, draped in the Italian tricolor and swinging a sword, set her free. From that moment on, the song took off.
Italian legionnaires on their way to Africa to fight in Mussolini’s colonial war sang it, and it became one of the great successes of the twenty years of Italian Fascism, along with Giovinezza (Youth) and Topolino va in Abissinia (Mickey Mouse Goes to Abyssinia). But Micheli’s initial lyrics didn’t meet with the regime’s approval, and it meddled repeatedly. The reference to the Battle of Adwa was immediately eliminated. The regime found it intolerable that an Italian defeat should be commemorated in any way, especially the first battle won by an African country against the forces of European imperialism. Also eliminated was an entire verse that described "Faccetta Nera" as “a sister to us” and a “beautiful Italian.” A Black woman, in the regime’s view, simply could not be an Italian. That would imply rights of citizenship that Italian Fascism was far from extending to the conquered Africans. Rights of citizenship that, by a treacherous twist of historical irony, seem equally elusive in the present.
Despite those changes, the song continued to irritate the regime, but it was too popular to be taken out of circulation. The Fascist government tried to make it disappear and in one particularly clumsy attempt, invented a "Faccetta bianca" (Little White Face), with words and music by the team of Nicola Macedonio and Eugenio Grio. A song in which a young woman bids farewell to her legionnaire fiancé at his departure for Africa. A little white face you could imagine by the hearth, submissive and virginal:
Little White Face, when I left you
that day on the pier, there by the steamship
and together with the legionnaires I embarked,
your dark eyes showed me that your heart
was every bit as deeply stirred as mine,
as your hand was waving farewell!
Clearly the competition was an unequal one. The Italians were attracted by the sexual availability that the other song promised: freedom and the regeneration of the Italian male through the abuse of a passive Black body. "Faccetta nera" was also at the center of accusations of plagiarism. The case actually went before a judge.
But this song has a lot to tell us about present-day Italy. The Black body is still at center stage. A desecrated body, often presented on the evening newscasts as a ghost or an invisible corpse of the seas. But it’s also a body that’s desired, unattainable. A body that we see printed on our sugar packets and that winks at us from a television studio, squeezed into a black latex bodysuit. A body that is used and abused. A body that is always expected to be beautiful.
The Abyssinian woman cannot be other than the beautiful Abyssinian woman. She cannot be ugly, defaced, crippled, sick, or unavailable. Her body lives through a number of paradoxes. On the one hand, it’s yearned after, on the other, it’s insulted, denied, imprisoned. In modern Italy, the Little Black Faces aren’t only those with Black skin: all you have to do is wander off the tracks of what society considers “normal,” and you’re likely to be considered easy, accessible, rapeable. Are you bisexual, are you transexual, are you a punk, are you vintage, do you fall outside of the standards of what’s normal? Then your body becomes common property. A body to be liberated with rape, with subjugation.
And perhaps it is in this subtext that we find the key to the song’s ongoing popularity. Italian society still carries with it an array of male sexist baggage it can’t seem to shake off, and that more often than not it’s unable even to mention.
But instead we ought to talk about it, especially in our schools.
I speak a great deal about how important it is to let young people hear this and other Fascist songs. I’m increasingly convinced that only an in-depth study of Fascism, with all its attendant baggage of misery, stereotypes, propaganda, and sexism, can serve to prevent a recurrence of it. The real danger lies in forgetting. Through a close analysis of "Faccetta nera" it might be possible to deconstruct its text, decolonize the minds, de-Fascistize society, reform our political culture, which has by now made the Other into the scapegoat by definition, the safety valve for everything that’s wrong with our society. It would be a genuine leap forward to be able to talk about it with some equanimity. A leap forward for this Italy of ours, a country that so rarely faces up to itself.
© 2015 by Igiaba Scego. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by Antony Shugaar. All rights reserved.