‘Brown Babies’ in Postwar Europe: The Italian Case (c. 1945-1960)

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Max Weber Lecture by Silvana Patriarca (Fordham University)
Badia Fiesolana, 18 November 2015

Summary brief by MW Fellow Katharina Lenner (RSCAS)

Silvana Patriarca’s lecture focused on the continual racial construction of the nation in post-war Europe through the story of mixed race children born in Italy during or after World War II. These ‘brown babies’ – a term used at the time by African Americans to avoid the racial term ‘Mulattini’ (little mulattos), and adopted by Patriarca – were mostly children of European women and non-white allied soldiers. Their story has not attracted much scholarly attention to date, and archives have only recently been made available to the public. Yet as Patriarca pointed out, uncovering their story gives insight into the spectrum of attitudes towards race found in post-fascist Italian society, as well as into the oft-neglected role of the Catholic Church in shaping them. The story of the ‘brown babies’ serves to remind us of the persistence of racist currents/thought in post-war Europe, in spite of the ostensible distance European societies took from racist practices under fascism.

Brown babies were born in all countries visited by allied armies, among them  Britain, Germany, France, and Italy. They also formed part of the racialized imaginary of post-war societies, their presence considered by many to be a problem in need of a solution. Those with darker skin were often abandoned by their mothers. The stigma attached to their ‘illegitimate’ birth – which could not be hidden due to their skin colour – only compounded the troubles of women already socially ostracized for having relations with (black) American soldiers during or after the war. In Germany, these children, born as they were to ‘enemy’ fathers, furthermore served as a reminder of military defeat and were part of ‘national-sexual humiliation’, as Patriarca termed it. In Italy, meanwhile, one popular theory held that the United States had deliberately sent its black soldiers there, out of some sort of vindictive spite.

As elsewhere in Europe, the popular image of brown babies in Italy was one of foreign bodies that will always remain foreign, in spite of their Italian citizenship (which they received if they were not acknowledged by their fathers) and baptism. One outcome of the preoccupation with these children was the ‘Tammurriata Nera’. Set to a Tarantella rhythm, this popular song about a back child appeared in a variety of cultural spaces and is known to generations of Italians. Related depictions appeared in a popular movie ‘Il mulatto’, which also circulated outside of Italy and was translated into various European languages.

In her lecture, Silvana Patriarca particularly highlighted the strong institutional and ideational presence of the Catholic Church as a specific feature in the Italian experience of the ‘brown babies’. Through its homes for abandoned children, it strongly contributed to shaping the childhood experiences of the brown babies.

In tracing the way the fate of these children was debated among the Catholic clergymen, Patriarca showed how established notions of Whiteness and racial purity persisted in the post-war Catholic Church. Reflecting Italian society at large, the Catholic Church had officially distanced itself from fascist legacies. Racism was primarily attributed to the Nazis and secondarily to fascism, making it possible to engage in self-absolution and self-exoneration.

Yet old elites and ways of thinking remained in place. Many clergymen, according to Patriarca, saw brown babies as intrinsically different to the rest of Italian society. They advocated educational segregation and subjected brown babies to various forms of examination. They also attempted to use the church’s global network to relocate these children to countries where they would supposedly be more accepted. Such ideas found their way into cultural output, for example the release of movies portraying the disappearance of the black children.

In summary, Patriarca has innovatively used the story of the ‘brown babies’ to trace how conceptions of race transformed or remained the same in post-war Italy and, more broadly, Europe as a whole. This study, she argued, and others along these lines could substantially contribute to overcoming limited perspectives that reduce and relegate racist ideas and practices to fascism. Furthermore, they could illustrate the central role of the Catholic Church in perpetuating racial prejudices in the post-war period.