Traveling While Black

The good, the bad, and the ugly.  How race does or doesn’t affect your experience abroad…

Edisa Weeks on Traveling While Black in Firenze


A feature that bothers me about Firenze, especially in the old town around the Duomo, is there are no trees. Except for a few scattered parks, it is a completely stone city of narrow winding streets, ancient buildings, expansive plazas and imposing sculptures. The sculptures are predominantly of men and the few women depicted are either being abducted or rescued by a man. I consider trees a necessity in cities as they provide oxygen, filter polluted air, reduce stress, provide shade, lower the temperature and as a result help conserve energy. In the old town there is an occasional flowerpot or trellis of vines decorating the façade of an outdoor restaurant, but no dirt, no trees, no deeply rooted plants. I don’t know if the lack of trees is a result of the streets being narrow and the buildings densely packed, or because tree roots in search of water can displace the cobblestones lining the streets and wrap around water pipes, breaking them; Or if it is a form of pest control, i.e., making sure there is no exposed dirt where rats can burrow, propagate, and spread disease; Or perhaps it is a way to encourage people go to church. None of the old buildings have air conditioning and churches are a cool place to sit and escape the heat. Whatever the reason, I miss seeing a tree and decide to explore the area east of the Duomo where several parks are listed on the map.

It is a long walk to Orto Botanico park. I find a bench to sit on, but Orto Botanico is a drab, uninviting park, without much foot traffic. I contemplate moving on, but want to give my feet a rest. As I am pondering my next move a small silky black dog approaches and plops under my bench. The man attached to the dog tells me her name is Lola. We talk. He is from southern Italy and just returned from a long bus ride visiting his mother and sister. I am surprised to learn that dogs are allowed on buses.

I find out the man is a philosopher, specializing in ethics and human behavior. He would like a job working as a professor in a European University. He is 38 years old. He is single. His last relationship ended six months ago. His father is dead. He doesn’t earn a lot of money. He has been in Florence for a year working a construction job, as he can’t find work in his field. He doesn’t like the Italian education system as it involves a lot of nepotism and waiting for a person to retire or die, so a position will open up. He is working on his third paper for publication; this one discusses whether people are a series of chemical reactions, as neuroscientists would propose, or an arrangement of memory, behavior, environment and spirituality, which is what he proposes. I mention that I am in the park because I wanted to see trees. He informs me there is a nicer park, would l like to walk there? When I stand up he is taken aback by my height, and mentions a few times that without my danskos or “platform shoes” we would be the same height. Which is delusional. He is not a tall man. The sidewalks are narrow and it is hard to walk without occasionally touching, however nothing blatantly inappropriate. He mentions a few times that I can come back to his apartment, or that “he is my tree”, which I ignore. It dawns on me that he might think I am a prostitute. We cross Piazza San Marco and Piazza della Independencia and finally reach Firenze Fiera park by the central train station. It is a pleasanter park with a pond and fountain in the middle. There are children, dogs, people playing ping-pong, and several disabled people with their caretakers. The park features a small open-air cafe with a DJ spinning old school records (Run DMC, Jacksons, Prince). The man asks about the tattoo on my ring finger and I figure it is a convenient time to talk about my husband, let him know I’m married and I’m not going to his apartment.  He is quiet for a moment. He is especially taken aback when I tell him I am 44 years old. He thought I was about 27/28. He has a sister my age… It is getting dark, so we walk back to the Duomo area. He mentions that his neck is stiff, and asks if I am good at massage… No way am I massaging his neck.  I tell him it is not my skill set. Lola is panting heavily and looks thirsty. He declares she is fine and can wait till they get back to the apartment. I pour water from my canteen into my hand for Lola to drink. She is hesitant and then drinks eagerly. We reach an area that I recognize so say good-bye. He gives an overlong hug, and tries to kiss me on the mouth. I decline. He suddenly holds my face and abruptly, forcefully sticks his tongue in my mouth. Disgusted I pull away and walk away feeling violated.  Yuck, so much for principles and ethical behavior. Maybe that’s why he mentioned several times that he does not earn a lot of money, so as a “prostitute” I would not charge high fees.

The next morning in the vicinity of the train station, I walk by an African woman walking alone. A short distance behind her there is another African woman strolling down the street. Both have heavy make-up, high heels and wear tight short dresses. The two women assess me, and although I nod at them, they do not nod or smile back.

I find I am stared at a lot in Italy. As a tall black woman with a big fro and walking by myself – I am an unknown.  I could be a tourist, a prostitute or “Brown Sugar” as several of the vendors called out to me…

I perused the web and found out that prostitution is legal in Italy, however organized prostitution and brothels were outlawed in 1959 in an effort to eliminate organized crime’s involvement. As a result prostitutes have to work the streets or out of their homes. I also found out that there are an estimated 20,000 African women, specifically Nigerians, working as prostitutes in Italy. Apparently, Nigerian women began appearing on the streets of Italy in the 1980’s, when the fear of AIDS rendered “drug-addicted Italian girls no longer attractive propositions on the prostitution market.”  (From the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute report on the Programme of Action against Trafficking in Minors and Young Women from Nigeria into Italy for the Purpose of Sexual Exploitation). Nigerian women now constitute 60 percent of all immigrants working in the commercial sex industry in Italy. Albanian women are the next largest group.

According to the same United Nations report, when women arrive in Italy, a Madam keeps them in nearly slave like conditions. Their documents are taken away and kept as a guarantee. If they refuse to cooperate or attempt escape, they are harshly beaten as examples or threatened with reprisals against their families. Girls are made to work until they can
pay off their debts, plus the costs for their room and board and any other fees the traffickers tack on, which can be anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000. It can take women between one and three years to repay these debts to their “sponsors.”

I am not against prostitution, I actually think it should be legalized, however it is one thing if a person has voluntarily chosen to enter the field – like sex worker and porn star Annie Sprinkle, Grisélidis Réal, Jenna Jameson or Tristan Taormino. It is a completely different scenario if a person is an illegal immigrant without resources and coerced into sex
work. The risks involved with street prostitution for Nigerian women in Italy are huge! AIDS, lack of health care, no legal representation, deportation (which can result in retaliation against the victims’ family for not fulfilling the “pact” that obliges women to repay the cost of their transportation to Europe), social ostracization when they return home, and especially the chance of being raped, brutalized or killed by either a client or trafficker.

What angers me about the situation is the exploitation of the poor and disenfranchised, and that 195 years after Sarah Baartman died, (Baartman was the “Hottentot Venus.” A Khoisan woman from South Africa who was exhibited as a “Freak” in 19th Century Europe for her large rear end and elongated genitalia), the black female body is still being objectified, sexualized and de-humanized in Europe. What makes the situation insidious is there are no images in Italy of black women as educators, lawyers, doctors, mothers, architects, artists, business owners or politicians, to counter the image of black women as sexual objects or sexual deviants.

Reflecting on Lola and her owner, I was annoyed that the man’s needs and assumptions overrode any principles he may have. He was not at all concerned about who I am as an individual. If I had been paying attention, I would have seen that Lola was a red flag. For a little dog, Lola didn’t have much personality. She had beautiful silky black fur, but no spunk
other than an occasional stubbornness when she wanted to sit down or pee. She had no awareness of cars or traffic. I got the sense she is not played with or spoken to or what I would consider to be truly loved. She is taken care of, but not cultivated. She is clearly attached to the man but I would propose out of necessity, not love. I wondered how much of what the man told me is true. He had never heard of Thomas Paine – which doesn’t mean much, but as a philosopher I would think Paine would be among the writers studied. Based upon his nebulous principles, I hope he never gets a teaching job.

What keeps human trafficking going is poverty, greed and war coupled with high profit margins and low risk to traffickers. The penalties for trafficking in humans are much lower than the penalties for smuggling drugs or weapons. If, as a global society, we could reduce poverty, regulate greed, and emphasize principles of respect for all people – maybe
Nigerian Women could choose to vacation in Italy rather than being coerced there to work, and maybe a tall black woman in Firenze would simply be a tall black woman in Firenze.

Edisa Weeks is a Choreographer and Director of Delirious Dances. She teaches at Queens College in Flushing, NY. From June 29 – August 2, she was in Italy teaching at Alambrado Dance Festival in Firenze (Florence), and at Prodanza Dance Festival in Castiglioncello

For more information on trafficking check out:

The United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice
Research Institute report on the Programme of Action against Trafficking in Minors and Young Women from Nigeria into Italy for
Purpose of Sexual Exploitation

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