Gabriele Proglio, Camilla Hawthorne, et al. (2021). The Black Mediterranean: Bodies, Borders and Citizenship. Palgrave (MacMillan: Cham, Switzerland).
The Black Mediterranean owes its inception, not just its 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 it’s the descriptor of blackness 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 later in this review—not only an unkind portrayal of Africans that subscribes to the trope of the begging bowel but a misleading narrative that enforces the very order the book claims to challenge and somehow redefine. Indeed, while the argument in The Black Mediterranean raises a genuine concern for the immediate fate of hundreds of thousands that cross the sea seeking a new start, it evidently remains stuck in the phenomenal at the expense of the phenomenological. The phenomenological character of the discussion, which is barely broached upon by the contributors in this volume, testifies how African refugees/migrants are pitied against proletarianized white Europeans.
The editors-contributors (all of them occupy that double seat) are unhappy with the ways in which Fernand Braudel, the celebrity historian of the Mediterranean, in his majestical oeuvre assumedly “fails to acknowledge slavery” and the role of Africans in the making of contemporary Europe. (2) Other than relativizing Braudel’s findings, the ambition from The Black Mediterranean is to hit two birds with one stone. The first is the rewriting of European history in a fashion that further stigmatizes Europeans’ guilt should European governments 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 false omnipresence in both Europe and Africa. This review helps readers to grapple with the book as its essays do not only fail to address the immanent structure of the phenomenon known as illegal immigration but succeeds in suppressing any sensible discussion that may propagate towards the motoring principle beyond the phenomenal and spectacular: drowned bodies and discriminated livelihoods. The fact that nearly all contributors note little beyond victimhood in the immigrants’ experience of racism in various European governments’ approaches illustrates how they fail to register what Hegel cautions from the immediacy of sense-certainty. Indeed, people remain in the dark vis-à-vis the immanent and dictatorial structure in which illegal immigration invests its tell-tale story, the one brimming with manipulation and power interests.
The Black Mediterranean is comprised of three parts: Borders, Bodies, and Citizenships. Each part counts three chapters where each delineates 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 “Became” 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. 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 came 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, leading a mostly pariah life in 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 labeled 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. Progilo’s undertone suggests that he is keeping much of his unorthodox understanding to himself because the dictatorial structure in which immigration is framed buries a key distinction between those Europeans who cash in from welcoming immigrants and those whose lives are further immiserated. The latter are forced to compete with the new arrivals from the South Mediterranean to make the semblance of a living, hence how their resistance is disfigured as racism.
Giulia Grechi's “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 common humanity, the author's selective memory of the colonial past can be traced in simple commodities ordinary Italians lavish in daily, which 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”, meaning "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) Neo-abolitionists, according to Saucier, misunderstand the crisis of Black bodies in the Mediterranean basin in the sense that modern-day slavery discourse participates in annihilating the humanity of black bodies making the crossing. At heart, racism is an ontological annihilation, the principal evil that should be reversed. Abolitionists’ self-congratulation from rescuing black bodies in the high seas should be postponed until a much more meaningful rescuing becomes a common incident: reversing the frigid reception of immigration that systematically awaits illegals after landing on European soil.
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 future legalization, the condition which spells out extended delays of legalization (that is, impermanence) intensifies marginalization steps further, aggravating these migrants’ limbo situation. Long-term exploitation becomes possible as the victims keep expecting legalization if they prolong exploitation just one more time! The fieldwork 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 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, or perhaps dishonest. Suffice it to know that in the wake of the 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 big capitalists: large farmers, building contractors along with service providers such as hotels and restaurants. This policy, counting among which the system known as “Caporalato” or that underground or shadow economy of paying between €2.5 to €3 per hour, gave capitalists unprecedented leverage over organized labor and unions in Italy. Racism in this context becomes the 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 across as rambling but readers can underline a genuine exasperation with the structure of marginalization equally embedding forms of the 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 the 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 the 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 the 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. (2) Without an open-door policy operating in an immanent fashion, would-be immigrants would have no choice but to contest immiseration by challenging the neocolonial structures in their respective homelands.
Khalil Saucier finds neo-abolitionists at fault for highlighting the political economy that renders slavery visible in Tripoli, Libya, and other parts of the world. (106) When closely considered, abolitionists should be blamed for not highlighting the political economy enough. Overall, in its plea for integrating migrants and refugees in bourgeois spaciotemposphere, The Black Mediterrenean becomes a litany whereby Africans maintain their role as the eternal victims while European capitalists perpetuate their onslaught on Africans. 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. Such an immanent structure bearing on the false omnipresent creates the conditions for temporary and circular migrations. Indeed, stronger and more exclusive visa regimes shape the form of “evasionism” which any sensible observer may find wanting and seek to contest the entire structure, not just the exclusive visa regimes, from the perspective of the impoverished Africans.