The Malian immigrant Soumaila Sacko was murdered by the gunshots of a white supremacist in Calabria, Italy, on June 2, 2018. This piece was originally performed at a conference in Palermo days after Sacko’s murder. Italy’s prime minister at the time, Matteo Salvini, affiliated with the Lega Nord, was known for enacting far-right policies related to residency and citizenship, including restricting Italian borders and strengthening corrupt political relations with Libya to control the Mediterranean Sea. The title echoes Salvini’s statement on the day of Sacko’s murder: “Per i clandestini è finita la pacchia” (“For illegals, the party is over”). His rhetoric implied that people who migrated to Italy had it good, similar to Ronald Reagan referring to Black American women as “welfare queens” during his first campaign for president of the United States in the mid-1970s.
Now that I’m dying, my face becomes everyone’s.
Now that I’m dying . . . first, I become a thief, then a victim of hate, then a thief again, then a hopeless nigger, a nigger without recourse.
But at the end of this sad, sad merry-go-round, that renewed stay permit absolves me of all of my sins. It will prevent me from being buried under the label Illegal Alien.
I can already hear their voices in my head. The voices of journalists and lawyers, those who reek of politics and wear starched black suits.
They’re so arrogant.
Their skin is white and pure. Their skin seems as if it doesn’t have secrets. But it’s lying, it does have secrets! Just because it seems clean doesn’t mean that it’s not dirty, that it doesn’t have a few secrets.
Don’t trust appearances or what they say. I didn’t trust them then and I don’t trust them now. I see them handle my suffering violently and carelessly, as though it were burning embers, red with blood and unsettled rage, to be extinguished and drowned with water and salt, water from the sea.
Italy saves me. Italy sentences me.
Now that I’m dying, my face suddenly becomes everyone’s.
But I don’t know you, or you, or even you. And I don’t know you and you, or even you. I don’t know any of you.
You, down there, demanding justice for me, pronouncing my name with the wrong accents and rhythm, your eyes are too calm to really picture me.
You simply can’t—white man over there—stand on my side. Because you’re alive, and I’m still dead.
Because we walk side by side, and you hope that maybe one day we can all look alike and be equals, but History has made us and divided us.
Now that I am dying, something strange is happening around me. My face exists, it’s real. When I was alive, I worked so hard that I forgot how it felt to look in the mirror. Photos of my face are everywhere now. People use images of my face on social media and on the news to condemn and judge me. They do it to prove to themselves how poor and desperate I was. What a “migrant” I was.
I remember my small, narrow face a bit differently, though. Not as niggerly as everyone else now sees it, but thinner, more delicate, and invisible.
I was so young, and they chose to use the worst photo of me, but that’s not really who I am. I’m not a person who goes out with messy hair or who has a face that looks like they’ve been sleep-deprived their entire life.
Those who feel pity looking at my stunned face should have seen me when I took to the streets with my brothers and we protested with the essential workers’ union.
We were farmhands, so we raised our fists and went on strike, even if we were tired and aware of our feudal landowners’ hatred in that valley of Gioia Tauro—where we were and still are slaves—we shouted that in this foreign country yes, we were workers, not pack animals ready to be slaughtered.
We continued to shout:
That our work counts just as much as a white man’s.
That a Black man has the right to a safe work environment, a welcoming home to rest his head, and fair living conditions in an impossible world.
That we had to stop these new slave owners from combing these vast plantations with their short-barreled guns.
We protested that we were men. I, Soumaila Sacko, was a man. Truly I tell you, this tough, arid land called Calabria, which humiliated and keeps humiliating me, is not what killed me.
Because the skin that I leave on this land will become separated from my flesh and blood sooner or later. Time will make it happen, death already has. And then what? People will forget what it meant to mourn for a migrant who isn’t rooted to any place—just as the word implies—and who hears his life described as an obscure, weightless cloud, empty and irrelevant.
A migrant is like a cloud that’s pushed by a wind that blows from afar. It gets stuck and lands, but never grows roots anywhere.
So, I was not a migrant. None of us are.
I’d like you to stop calling us migrants from now on, because it’s here in Italy we have ended up, on your shore. You don’t see us, and when you do, you project your uncivilized, heart-of-darkness fantasies onto us.
But if you drink and breathe and sweat and love in a country that is no longer yours, then you are not a migrant. You are a man.
Different, maybe, but still a man. No longer a migrant.
Tomorrow. Tomorrow is already here. Other men and women will die just like me. Maybe in even worse ways.
And they, too, will leave behind nothing but their skin: marvelous, imperfect, thick, delicate, the color of the earth that we tilled and nurtured so that it would give us back the beauty of life.
We are farmhands, but the people who loved us, and were able to resist this assassin that is Europe, will breathe life into our skin. It won’t be our weak and broken flesh that gives us our lives back, but rather the deep, hot breath of those who believe justice exists, even for a Black man who walks on his own two feet.
A Black man who doesn’t crawl, but walks.
The nigger is dead. It’s true. But maybe “he was stealing.”
“He had a legal stay permit.”
The motive? They speculate that it was “revenge for a theft.”
First published in 2018 in the author’s blog, Kasava Call, and in La macchina sognante. © Djarah Kan. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Candice Whitney. All rights reserved.