Black History Month (BHM) is an initiative that is now in its fourth year at the EUI. How did the project start? What was the motivation?
The idea of organising BHM at the EUI came from personal motivations and chance encounters. When I first came to the EUI in 2018, I was struck by the quasi-absence of racialised people, especially people of African descent. When I arrived, I met only one fellow researcher who identified as Black. Despite the presence of researchers and faculty members coming from all parts of Europe and the Institute’s self-proclaimed diversity, the EUI appeared to me as more racially and ethnically homogenous than any other university I had gone to before.
The idea of organising BHM followed my encounter in 2020 with Justin Randolph Thompson, a media artist and educator whose work seeks to give visibility to Afro-descendant cultures in Italy. In 2016, he co-founded Black History Month Florence (BHMF) and, since then, every February, a wealth of initiatives addressing the history and legacy of Black people and Black cultures in Italy and beyond have taken place in cultural institutions and universities in Florence. I was inspired by the creative work done by Afro-descendant artists, scholars, and activists I met through the BHMF’s local and international network. It fostered the desire not only to be personally involved, but also to bring BHM to the EUI.
As a researcher in history, I saw this as an occasion to talk about the past and present experiences of Black people in Europe. But more importantly, it also gave me the opportunity to invite experts whose scholarly work challenges White supremacy, Eurocentric epistemologies, and institutional violence rooted in a form of colourblind racism that is so characteristic of Western universities. BHM at the EUI is not primarily a celebration of Blackness or European diversity: It aims at triggering discussions on lingering racial issues, a topic often difficult to address in White-dominated academic spaces. The fact is that we ideally should not need a Black History “month” – the questions of systemic and structural discrimination (of all kinds) and social justice at large should be a permanent concern for scholars. It is a matter of academic ethics, not research topics.
What do you consider the highlights of past editions?
The first event organised at the EUI in collaboration with BHMF was a 2021 roundtable with Shelleen Greene (UCLA), Angelica Pesarini (NYU-Florence), and Lucia Piccioni (EUI) about the portrayal of race in Italian culture and the way non-White bodies have been depicted in cinema and anthropology. In 2022, thanks to my colleagues Fartun Mohamed, Ruth Gigkpi, and the staff of the EUI Library, the project was scaled up to involve many members of the community. Researchers in the History Department launched a Black Histories blogpost series on EUIdeas, and Radio Cavolo broadcasted interviews of EUI members. We also had a lecture by feminist Professor Françoise Vergès and an interdisciplinary event on the (in)visibilities of Blackness in Europe with Bolaji Balogun (University of Sheffield), Michael McEachrane (Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights, Sweden), Marie Moise (Stanford University, Florence), and SA Smythe (UCLA).
Following the success of the 2022 edition, the project kept expanding. In 2023, we organised a keynote lecture by Dr Olivia Rutazibwa (LSE and EUI alumna) on “Decoloniality, epistemic blackness and academic rigour” and the screening of the short Il moro, the Black Duke of Florence in presence of film director Daphne Di Cinto. We also curated an exhibition about the history of Black presence in Europe, “Scholars, paupers, artists, fighters: Black lives in Europe since 1500,” that intended to challenge the Whiteness of European historical imagination by presenting the life trajectories of characters of African descent, traditionally neglected in the writing of the continent’s history.
What are you planning for this year? And how do you see the future of BHM?
The programme for February 2024 features several exciting events including a roundtable “Curating the past: the power of archives in shaping black narratives” organised in collaboration with the Historical Archives of the European Union about the role of archives in shaping knowledge of the past and the question of epistemic (in)justice in relation to Black European history. A panel of experts and practitioners including Professor Natasha A. Kelly (UDK, Berlin), Lisa Anderson (Director of the Black Cultural Archives, UK), Mitchell Esajas (Manager of the Black Archives project in Amsterdam), and Justin Randolph Thompson (Director of Black History Month Florence and The Recovery Plan), will address the concerns and challenges for Black archival practices. Another highlight will be the keynote lecture by leading scholar in Black European Studies Professor Kehinde Andrews. Besides events, we have been working on a poster exhibition “Black realities: confronting racism in Europe” that will be on display across EUI buildings during the whole month.
As for the future of BHM at the EUI, it will certainly depend on whether the new generation of researchers will take over and continue the work we initiated. BHM at the EUI started as a bottom-up initiative and I strongly believe it should remain in the hands of those concerned, that is to say members of the community that identify as Black or Afro-descendant. I noticed in several instances that projects such as BHM are easily confused with institutional diversity policies. Although BHM may contribute to bringing forth so-called “diverse” people and perspectives, in a White-dominated space like the EUI, there is a high risk for racialised minorities to be spotlighted as the ethnic quota the institution is proud of. Tokenism can happen with the best of intentions when there is a lack of understanding of the hidden mechanisms of discrimination and marginalisation at play within an institution.
Another important point I would like to mention about BHM at the EUI is that the discussions and reflections we intend to trigger are going way beyond the topics of race, racism, and Blackness. The events and activities we have been organising are not strictly destined to researchers whose academic work are connected to these themes and approaches. Organising BHM within the EUI academic setting is a way to raise awareness about the enduring coloniality of academic knowledge production - an epistemic and political issue shared across topics and disciplines.
Photo by Jazmin Quaynor on Unsplash