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laura blackness
April 08, 2024

In Italy, being a black transgender woman still means fighting to have one's existence recognized

The voice of Laura Bernie Amponsah, interviewed by Chiara Pedrocchi

Blackn[è]ss fest is the first festival in Italy proposing a re-elaboration of the Afro-descendant universe. Events and roundtable discussions to reflect on the concept of blackness, following a path of decolonization of language, and to discuss topics such as the effects on mental health of racial profiling, discrimination, racism, but also music, cinema, media, and representation.

Voice Over Foundation has chosen to accompany the festival on this journey and to tell its story throughout the year, through the voices of those who are its protagonists. 

Interview with Laura Bernie Amponsah, writer and Communication student, protagonist of the Blackn[è]ss fest.

Q: Hello Laura, can you tell us who you are and what you do in life?

A: I'm Laura, I'm 27 years old, and I study Communication Sciences in Bergamo. I do various jobs, including street sweeping, and I've been doing Poetry Slam for a few years. In these events, poets compete by reciting their verses. I also move among various activist collectives, although I don't define myself an activist: I believe we should all be activists. Through these spaces, I consider them places that allow me to exist.

Q: What does it mean today to be a black transgender woman in Italy?

A: It means fighting every day to have one's identity recognized and trying to create spaces where one feels accepted: one's existence depends on how willing people are to accept it. Most of the time, it means having to assert oneself. And even though sometimes it may seem intrusive, inappropriate, it's what marginalized people, as political entities, have to do. Others perceive your body as different, inferior, and they use it as a tool to feel superior and assert their power in the world.

Q: At the 2023 Blackn[è]ss, you participated in a panel titled "The Current State of Wokeness," where the term Wokenism refers to the process of becoming aware of the social injustices suffered by minorities, particularly black ones. How woke is Italy right now, and what is needed for things to improve?

A: In my opinion, the term woke has an individual connotation, so for me, as an individual, observing my life journey, I realize that at a certain point my eyes were opened. In addition to this connotation, there is a political one, which is used both by the media and the consumerist system, and which continues to use the term wokeness as a trend, riding the wave of rights battles to then create needs to profit from.

There is a white and Western feminism that is necessary, there are battles that we carry on that are still unresolved. In Italy, the right to abortion, for example, is constantly in danger, but there is never an open and constant dialogue that includes other marginalized women, such as racialized ones, upon whom the freedom and emancipation of all are built.

Take the case of migrant women living in Italy: often working as caregivers for the children of white women or the elderly, they do a double caregiving job because when they return home, they also have to take care of their own families, so they don't have the choice of whether or not to do caregiving work. At the same time, there are women in global southern countries who are never included in the feminist discourse, and when they are, it's discussed with a colonialist gaze. As if to say that without the support of the West, global southern countries cannot access civilization, implying that there is only one civilization, namely the Western one.

Q: Earlier, you mentioned that you also do Poetry Slam: what role does writing play in your life? How does writing become a vehicle for storytelling and identity construction?

A: Writing is a fundamental part of my life. Since I had access to the internet, I have always shared material and managed blogs. For me, writing has always been a kind of observatory on my identity. For example, for many years, when I had blogs, I always wrote in the third person. I went on like this until I was almost twenty. As I transitioned from the third person to the first person singular, it was as if a real awareness of my image in my head occurred, and it also materialized in reality. Poetry helped me a lot because it provided me with imagery and metaphors to make things clear to myself that I didn't have the courage to say. It was through writing poetry that I first used the feminine referring to myself: it was as if the world lit up, and I saw it in color for the first time.

Q: When you perform in front of many people doing Poetry Slam, what do you want to convey to those who listen to you?

A: First of all, I want to confront them with my body. A little less now because the more I go on, the more I accept myself, and therefore normalize myself in the eyes of others. But initially, this was precisely the goal because many times how we believe others see us depends on the fact that we have internalized a view of ourselves that does not match reality. Initially, it was real training to make the world see me for who I am. And, nowadays, when I perform, I feel like I'm there with an awareness, it's about taking up space with my body, a body that I consider political. I know I have the right to express myself in a space I have earned.

Q: Have there been any books or reference texts that have marked your journey? Any writer who has been a point of reference?

A: A very important book in my pre-adolescence was Bianca Pitzorno's "Extraterrestre alla pari", which tells the story of an alien visiting Earth. Since in its world there are no genders, the alien comes to Earth to study humans and specifically gender relations. When I read it at 12 years old, it was the first time I didn't feel crazy anymore: I was finally validated by something that exists, and that was written by an adult.

In high school, I started reading more consistently, and my reading block ended with the discovery of John Irving, an American writer who also writes novels for adolescents or young adults. I really identified with what he wrote, also because of his very authoritative way of writing that I associated with the evangelical tradition in which I was raised, although it was not evangelical writing. In his books, he talked about sexual relationships and teenage discomfort. It was a starting point, it helped me not to be afraid to delve deeper into literature and not to fear its ability to generate possible imaginaries.

Indeed, starting from here, I had the opportunity to imagine my possibility of existing. Then I became very passionate about American literature, and I discovered the Beat Generation, Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs. The latter, in particular, created bizarre worlds through writing. It was as if he recomposed this world. I didn't understand anything, but it was beautiful to read because it was full of images that, despite their oddity, comforted me. He created this monstrosity that, from one point of view, scares me, but from the other, I somehow feel drawn to it. And then there are African American authors that I discovered later: bell hooks, Audrey Lord, and Maya Angelou. They were the authors from whom I think I was raised as a woman.

Q: How important do you think spaces like the Blackn[è]ss Fest are in Italy right now?

A: I think they are essential because it's as if they somehow perform the function that Poetry Slam had for me. For Afro-descendant people to have a space where their existence is not constantly questioned, perhaps not directly but even just with micro-aggressions, with a subtle glance. Seeing many Afro-descendant people who see themselves in the same way you see yourself, having that space for sharing: I think it's very important, and for me, it has meant a lot.

Q: Future projects and struggles?

A: Definitely continue to reaffirm the sense of belonging to the world as a black and queer body. And then continue to stand alongside my comrades in the Collettiva Riot in Bergamo, made up of non-binary people socialized as female. We are an intersectional, anti-capitalist collective, with a transfeminist lens. For now, we try to create alliances within the city of Bergamo, for example, by trying to organize a festival. And then I have to finish university. And continue to look for new possibilities of existence.

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