Finding the Black Experience in Italy

A darked skinned woman with dreadlocks and wearing sunglasses leans against a brick wall; she holds open a copy of Igiaba Scego's book Adua in her hands but looks at the camera
Rhonda Collier at the location where Ralph Ellison is believed to have had his studio (photograph by Eric N. Mack)

Rhonda Collier came to the Academy in December 2021 as the inaugural Tuskegee University Affiliated Fellow. An English professor and director of the Tuskegee University Global Office, she has roots in Tuskegee that go deep. Both her parents graduated from Tuskegee University (TU), and her father, a retired Air Force officer, was trained by Tuskegee Airmen. Collier has built a career exploring Black history and freedom narratives in a global context. She has lived and worked in Brazil, Morocco, South Africa, Cuba, and France (to name only a few). While at AAR, she developed the syllabus for a course she will teach at TU called “The Black Experience in Italy,” which will culminate in a two-week trip to Rome. The course will have a lasting impact on young TU scholars.

Collier also undertook her own research in Rome, asking the question: “How do you achieve freedom through literature and art, and how does that work for Black people in Italy?” She interviewed African immigrants, studied works by the Italian writer Igiaba Scego, and visited Black Madonna paintings, of which there are a few in Italy. In the last, she saw a parallel to Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1957 Fellow): Like Ellison’s narrator, the Black figures are “artistically visible but unseen,” she said. Collier also visited Sicily, where the Tuskegee Airmen were stationed during the Second World War.

In eight weeks, Collier made meaningful connections—often sparked by conversations at meals—with members of the AAR community, including Trustee Fred Wilson, 2022 Fellow Firelei Báez, Advisor Justin Thompson, 2022 National Academy of Design Affiliated Fellow Athena LaTocha, and 2022 Terra Foundation Affiliated Fellow Gloria Bell. Collier and Bell discovered they were both researching the African American and Native American sculptor Edmonia Lewis (1844–1907), who worked and lived in Rome. It seemed like fate when Lewis was honored with a US Postal Service stamp in January, just as they were retracing her steps. (After returning, Collier made sure to send some of the stamps to Italy.)

Back in Alabama, Collier misses the opportunity for reflection she experienced at the Academy. “Sometimes the hustle and bustle of American life cheats you of the opportunity to get to the details that you need to accomplish greater things.”

The 2022 Tuskegee University Affiliated Fellowship was generously funded by an anonymous donor. The Academy looks forward to announcing additional partnerships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Press inquiries

Christopher Howard

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Maddalena Bonicelli

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