New Sorrento Sant’Anna Course Unearths Musical and Other Historical Connections Between the Black Mediterranean and the Black Americas

By Dane S. Claussen, Ph.D., MBA
Manager of University Relations
Athena Study Abroad

“Mediterranean Nero” is one of three captivating and interdisciplinary cultural studies courses offered to study abroad students at Athena’s program in Sorrento, Italy hosted at Sant’Anna Institute. “Nero” is, as its syllabus says, about the “repressed and hidden histories of a largely silenced Black Mediterranean” and its “unsuspected dialogue” with the “Black Atlantic”—Haiti and other parts of the New World.

Course instructor Dr. Alessandro Buffa says in his syllabus that the course uses primary historical documents to discuss the “Masaniello revolt of 1648 in Naples; the Haitian Revolution of 1799; the international dimension of Black Power; the racialization of urban space and contemporary migration from Africa towards the Mediterranean” and much more.

Buffa explained to Athena’s Passport that the course is ideally suited for the Sant’Anna Institute because “Sorrento and the bay of Naples in general are key points in discussing and analyzing the history of a Black and creolized Mediterranean.”

He said the course’s title comes from it being “inspired by the work of scholars such as Cedric Robinson, Iain Chambers, Paul Gilroy, Robin Kelley and Abu Lughod. Each of these authors helped us to make critical connections between the Black Atlantic and the Black Mediterranean and to explore the subterranean history of modernity. To put it simply, the Black Mediterranean refers to a form of globalization that preceded European hegemony. A Black and creolized Mediterranean existed before the Black Atlantic. Only later, with the expansion of Europe and the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade in the sixteenth century, was the history of the black Mediterranean repressed and silenced.”

Buffa continued, “Before this historical erasure Islamic culture was part of a World System that stretched from India to West Africa and parts of the Mediterranean. Although the idea of a Black Mediterranean was repressed, it has continued underground. Today, it has dramatically returned with the massive migrations from the southern shore of the Mediterranean towards Italy and other European countries. The Black Mediterranean also refers to how the Mediterranean has been perceived by African American intellectuals. For example, the poet Langston Hughes embraced a concept of the blues more as afro-diasporic music than as an exclusively African American expression. He was struck by the similarities between blues and flamenco.”

Likewise, Buffa said that the course

“encourages the role of imagination in historical studies” and that it should attract any and all students interested in “world history, African American history, cultural and postcolonial studies, migration and ethnic studies, diaspora, race and racism.”

In addition to imagination, Buffa said, “We will think critically about historical events but always with a dose of good humor!”

Required readings for the course include Janet Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony: The World System, A.D. 1250-1350 (1989); Iain Chambers’s Mediterranean Crossings: The Politics of an Interrupted Modernity (2007); Michael Denning’s Noise Uprising: The Audio-Politics of a World Musical Revolution (2015) Brent Hayes Edwards’s The Practice of Diaspora (2003). Robin D.G. Kelley’s Freedom Dreams (2003), Melani McCallister’s Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, & U.S. Interests in the Middle East since 1945 (2005), Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh’s The Many Headed Hydra (2000), and Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (1983) 

Suggested readings are Martin Bernal’s Black Athena (1987) and Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic (1993).

Buffa said that all of the required and suggested readings “challenge nationalist historiographies.”

Since the starting point of the course is the Naples Revolt of 1647-48, Buffa takes pains to explain the historical importance of an event most Americans surely have never heard of. He says, “It was one of the first proletarian revolts in the world. This revolt led by fisherman Masaniello was also one of the examples in which multiethnic crowds organized together in struggle. It anticipated other revolts of the Black Atlantic like the Haitian Revolution of 1799.”

Buffa’s course (reflected in his syllabus) includes numerous intriguing words and phrases, one being “roots of Afrofuturism.” He explains, “It is a kind of fugitive culture that looks backwards in order to find a better future,” adding that it “originated as a response to the ‘geography of containment’ that limited the possibility of movement in the Plantation South during slavery.”

The course syllabus also refers to “US interests in the Mediterranean.” Buffa explains, “United States hegemony in the postwar years has been persistently present. Although the Allied troops only occupied Naples between the 1943 and 1947, the US presence in Naples and the Mediterranean remained very strong until the 1990s and the ending of the Cold War. During that period many structures were confiscated by the Allies to create jazz clubs. Jazz had already reached Naples during the 1920s thanks to the continuous exchange between Italian Americans and African Americans in New York and New Orleans. Yet, jazz as a stable soundtrack in Naples only really arrived during World War II and the Cold War.

“I argue that in this encounter there is more than a simple importation of black American sound, but also an encounter between the black Atlantic and an already creolized Mediterranean,” he says.

The course focuses heavily on peoples with African origins in the USA and in the Mediterranean, but it also includes the 1993 documentary, “Latcho Drom,” about the Romani (also known as Roma or Gypsies). Buffa says his multicultural, international approach was influenced by “two magisterial books: Mediterranean Crossings by Iain Chambers and Noise Uprising by Michael Denning. Chambers in his book offers us a multilayered history of the Mediterranean connecting the different shores of the Mediterranean focusing on unexpected encounters between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Denning rewrites the global history of music listening to the sounds that emerged in port cities of the Black Atlantic, Black Pacific and the Roma Mediterranean.”

Some of the course’s sounds come from a musical group called Almamegretta, the name of which, Buffa says, comes from an old dialect in the moment when the vulgate was replacing Latin. It means ‘anima migrante’ (migrant soul). The sound of Almamegretta is influenced by British trip hop, Jamaican roots reggae and dub. Through the pause of dub, its reverberation and echoes, they rewrite the history of the Mediterranean as part of a broader modernity. One of their songs was inspired by Martin Bernal’s book Black Athena. Here music itself becomes a language of social history.”

Students taking the Mediterranean Nero course, perhaps especially Americans, will discover, as Buffa quotes Linebaugh and Rediker’s book, “connections that have, over the centuries, usually been denied, ignored, or simply not seen, but that nonetheless profoundly shaped the history of the world in which we all of us live and die.”

Buffa holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history, with an emphasis on African diaspora, globalization and modernity, from Stony Brook University, where he taught the course, Blacks in the City. He completed graduate seminars in African American cultural history and the Black diaspora at the CUNY Graduate Center and Columbia University, and he worked as assistant to Iain Chambers, director of the Center for Gender and Postcolonial Studies at Naples’ Orientale University. Buffa’s published research focuses on black culture and music in New York and Naples.

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