The Italian “Race Laws” and the Representations of Africans

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Italian Race Laws against “non-Aryans” were promulgated in 1938 by Fascism (1922-1943). In 1937 a first “race law” prohibited a local concubinage between Italian men and African women (madamato). In 1939 life in the colonies became completely segregated.
For several reasons, Italian historiography tended to exclude colonialism from national history. Until the end of XX century, Italian colonialism (that lasted from 1880s to 1947) was not the object of study and public discussions in Italy (there were some exceptions though: Del Boca, Rochat, etc.).
Italian Race Laws were not only the result of political alliances, but also the product of XIX and XX century anthropology. The different theories of anthropologists Sergi and Cipriani depict the changes that occurred in the 1930s, as far as the representation of Africans and their legal status are concerned.
Literature may help us to highlight this complex cultural phenomenon. Even if not much studied yet, novels set in an African “colonial” background (letteratura coloniale) were written by relevant writers (Marinetti, D’Annunzio, Bacchelli). By studying interconnections between anthropology, historiography, and literature, we can understand how Italian attitudes towards Africans changed during the 1930s, and why some representations of Africa persisted in all XX century Italian culture and literature (see Emanuelli, Pasolini, Moravia).
By picturing East Africa as a land full of possibilities, Fascism made the African “adventure” appealing to young Italians. The expectation of meeting sexually available women was an important factor. “Erotic and love novels” set in East Africa were widespread in Italy before the promulgation of Race Laws. Their forgotten authors (Appelius, Mitrano Sani, etc.) embraced different racist or race-oriented perspectives, but they all accepted “carnal knowledge” between “white men” and “black women”. When Race Laws banned “mixed race” contacts, the African erotic novel disappeared, but left its hidden heritage in Italian culture.


Keywords: Italian Race Laws, Letteratura Coloniale/Colonial Literature, XIX and XX Century Anthropology
Stream: Anthropology, Archaeology, Cultural Studies, Humanities
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: , The Italian “Race Laws” and the Representations of Africans


Dr. Giovanna Trento

Independent Scholar
Rome, Italy

I hold a master in Migration Studies and a PhD (2008) both in Anthropology (Ecole del Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris) and in African Studies (L’Orientale, Naples). The title of my PhD thesis is Pasolini et l’Afrique – L’Afrique de Pasolini. Panméridionalisme et représentations de l’Afrique postcoloniale. I work internationally both as independent scholar and journalist. I’m currently co-curating a conference to be held at the universities of Rome, La Sapienza and Tor Vergata, focusing on Italian Race Laws and their literary repercussions. I lectured in Canada, US, France, Israel, and Italy. I was granted with a research mission in Senegal in 2004. Among my publications in English, French, and Italian, the most recent is: Trento, G., Oublier et récupérer ? L’ « héritage » du colonialisme italien en Afrique de l’est, in Jewsiewicki, B., Auzas, V. (eds.), Traumatisme collectif pour patrimoine : regards sur un mouvement transnational, introduction by Henry Rousso, Institut du patrimoine culturel / Presses de l’Université Laval, Québec 2008.

Ref: I08P0943