Sunday February 5, 2023
By Bernice McDaniels
Parallel lives in the Eternal City
“The Color Line” by Somali-Italian writer Igiaba Scego is a richly-layered historical fiction structured by the voices of two Black women living in Rome during different centuries. Our contemporary is Leila who, alongside her friend Alexandria, works to create a celebratory exhibition of 19th century painter Lafanu Brown.
Lafanu is the novel’s center. Around her, Ms. Scego creates an intricate mural of scenes and figures, living along that ever-present, socially-constructed line where color’s view is further complicated by things like nationhood, gender and sexuality. Just as the theoretical color line, demarking segregation, behaves in real life, Ms. Scego’s narrative is undular and bleeding, a river spilling over its banks and yet managing to hold at the same time. Ms. Scego documents the characters’ many crossings of these lines with deep attention to detail, honesty and bravery.
The book is translated from the Italian language by two American men, the recently-deceased John Cullen and Pittsburgh-born Gregory Conti. As a Black woman reading the book via the translation of two white men, I had crossings of my own to do. I had to trust that when someone uses the n-word in a non-American context out of step with the transatlantic slave trade, that word is being used with clear guidance from Ms. Scego. I must trust that each moment in this novel, written from across an ocean and time, is being delivered to me the way a caring cousin in the novel itself delivers hard-but-real messages about a loved one.
This trust does not come easily for Black women. And as I continue to read, I recognize that Igiaba Scego knows this. She knows that readers like me will be looking for this. I do not have the privilege of an objective view. I am like the ghosts Ms. Scego mentions keeping appointments; the ones characters chase only to find they were looking for themselves the whole time. As I read, my trust is full. Ms. Scego guarantees this with an adeptly written ambitious assembly of dynamic women who hail from many areas of the African diaspora. Their lives and those of their European counterparts are written complicated and intense.
Dr. Sarah Parker Remond and Sculptor Edmonia Lewis are the inspirations for Lafanu. Remond was an activist who desegregated an opera house in the mid 19th century, worked and traveled with Frederick (Bailey) Douglass, and then became a medical doctor in Italy. Lewis, a sculptor of Native American and Afro-Caribbean heritage born in upstate New York, survived a brutal mob attack at Oberlin College and later forged her life as a premiere artist in Rome.
These women’s experiences are merged and reshaped to become Lafanu’s. Much of the Lafanu Brown origin story will ring true for readers familiar with the lives of these two remarkable women, who like Lafanu end up making decades-long lives for themselves in Rome.
Rome appears again and again as a focal point with Ms. Scego powerfully applying exigent strokes of the eternal city throughout the novel. Rome stands in sharp relief to other places in violent conflict like Dogali as well as comparable cities like Florence and London.
As Leila and Alexandria reflect on Lafanu’s life, they recognize the residents and visitors of her Rome bear striking resemblances to ones they know. Ms. Scego builds a delightful contemplation of history and its connection to the present and forward. Just as Lafanu is faced with decisions about managing her patrons and commissions in an art world not created for women of color to succeed, Leila and Alexandria are also faced with navigating an academic structure not built for them, labor practices not dedicated to their equity or health, and a rapidly changing Rome. They realize Lafanu’s story is integral to their own thriving — and that of so many others.
Lafanu embodies Remond and Lewis’ experiences as well as those of women whose stories are not preserved in archives but rather in hopeful family phone calls, faces of statues like Four Moors Fountain or Baby Sue’s ancestors lost to the ocean.
Lafanu’s ability to make a life, despite so many things attempting to kill her and failing, forms the backbone of “The Color Line.” What do we want for the women of this novel? Perhaps Lucille Clifton offers us an answer. Ms. Scego gives us Lafanu Brown, emphatically stating for the record, “won’t you celebrate with me.”