What’s wrong with her?

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late. Before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate. You’ve got to be carefully taught. From South Pacific by Oscar Hammerstein II, sung by a young American lieutenant who falls in love with an island girl during World War II and initially can’t overcome his ingrained prejudice.

South Pacific promotional poster from 1958 via originalposter.co.uk

I’ll never forget that song because my father taught me the lyrics when I was six or seven or eight. All part of my upbringing and inculcation into what I would face as a black person in the United States of America, and a lesson on the stem of racism and stereotypical thinking. “No one’s born prejudiced,” he’d say. “Someone has to teach it.”

I’ve seen the South Pacific movie many times, most recently a few years ago in Rome where I live with my Italian husband. I started crying almost from the opening credits because I knew that all the dreaminess and romanticism of the film, albeit wrapped in blazing Technicolor, would not outweigh or shroud the embedded unfairness and tragedy. The young lieutenant (pictured below in a still from the movie) decides to abandon his life back home, marry his love but is killed in action before he can. The main characters, however, will end up together but not after racial strife.

20th Century Fox/Getty Images

Barely able to speak, I called my husband at his office. “Gaetano, please come home as soon as you can?” I croaked out.

He did and we watched the film together; I wanted him to understand a little more about American prejudice and how even national boundaries doesn’t contain it. He watched in silence, not knowing exactly what I was talking about until the female lead, Nellie Forbush, a Southern belle, runs from her French suitor, a wealthy plantation owner, after he introduces two local young children. Initially, she swoons over them (Aren’t they adorable? Those big black eyes staring at you out of those sweet, little faces) and then asks, “Are they Henry’s? (the butler)”

“They’re mine,” he responds. A widower, he’d fathered them with his wife, a local woman. Nellie is appalled and flees, with her silk organza dress flowing behind her.

I looked at my husband and said, “See! That’s how it is.”

“But what’s wrong with her?” he replied. “He’s got two pretty little kids and he’s rich.”

I had to explain in somewhat explicit detail Nellie’s reaction. Since he dipped in the well of a woman of color, she certainly wasn’t going to let him dip in her well. My husband was still perplexed.

“She’d never have children as good-looking as those! She’s not all that.”

So, here’s an Italian man dismissing the looks of what would be considered the most desirable ‘type’ of woman in the States, appreciating the nut-brown offspring of a Frenchman and a Melanesian woman, and puzzled by all the fuss. In this case, the optics played a greater role than anything else for him.

Gaetano, thoroughly perplexed

What a Way to Olio!

Ordinarily in November, we make our annual pilgrimage to Civitella del Lago for a year’s supply of first cold pressed olive oil. It’s become a standard day trip and while I hate to admit it, I’ve become a bit nonchalant. A nice ride through Umbria, sometimes stopping, before or after we stock up, for a delicious meal somewhere. But Italy never ceases to astound and 2019’s journey left me admonishing myself for giving anything in this country short shrift. I will divulge, however, that I chided my husband for neglecting to mention the Michelin star-worthy restaurant just across the street from the oil press.

An astounding little restaurant with an indescribable view (photos above and below), Paolo Trippini serves up anything but traditional fare. Paolo’s dad started the business and his son is now in charge. We were the only patrons that afternoon because we arrived toward closing time but no matter; the chef and staff were at our disposal. When I walked in, my mouth fell open and I left the same way but was saddened a bit by how far the restaurant is from Rome.

Non preoccuparvi (Not to worry), Paolo told us. He’s opened a second spot inside Eataly in Rome!

Just me, Gaetano, and that view.

Bergdorf Goodman Versus Hermes

Not long ago during a visit to New York City, I went to Bergdorf Goodman in an attempt to buy some stockings. OK. Why Bergdorf’s, one of the most expensive stores on the planet when CVS is my US stocking shop of choice? It happened to be my birthday and one of my substitute ‘mommies’ had taken me to a posh lunch. (My mother passed in 2007 but I have two women (pictured below with me) who’ve known me all my life and have graciously allowed me to adopt them.) Afterwards, she gave me $50 as a birthday gift and told me forcefully.

“Now, you go to Bergdorf’s and buy yourself something for fifty dollars that you would never spend that much on.”

No, it wasn’t stockings that first came to my mind. It was lipstick. Why? Because a good friend was with us and she immediately said,

“I have just the thing.” She whipped out a lipstick by Guerlain that cost $50 (tax excluded). Candy apple red, tucked inside a case with not one but two mirrors (including a pop-up). Beyond perfect! She and I hustled over to Bergdorf’s. I got it and happily paid the sales tax from my own pocket.

I then remembered that I needed a pair of stockings for an event that night. So, the make-up salesgirl escorted us to the Wolford stocking boutique. Pricey as well but the only hosiery available at Bergdorf’s and after all, it was my birthday.

The saleswoman sauntered over and when she asked me what shade I needed (in a pronounced Eastern European accent, I might add), I showed her my leg and she got in my face, and said, “We don’t have anything for you,” then turned on her heel and walked off.

I was speechless and my friend (a white woman) turned red with anger. Ordinarily, I would have gone to the manager and pitched a hissy fit but my time was short. So, I wrote to Bergdorf’s online customer’s service explaining what happened. After about six weeks of silence, I wrote to Mr. Jim Gold, President of Neiman Marcus group which now owns Bergdorf’s. Furthermore, I added that I lived in Rome, Italy where the local Wolford store accommodates me and all my friends of varying hues. I deduced from the difference between the two shopping possibilities that Bergdorf’s was not interested in women of color as clients, even though the pool of potential shoppers in New York City is phenomenally larger than the bathtub sized number in Rome.  

I got a mildly apologetic note from the General Manager of Bergdorf’s, inviting me and a friend to have lunch in Bergdorf’s rooftop restaurant the next time I came to New York. Now — I live in Rome and get to the States at the most once a year, right? Next time you jump across the pond, come on down to Bergdorf’s for lunch.

Let me now compare an experience that a black American friend (who also lives in Rome) had a few years ago at Hermes in Paris (before Oprah Winfrey’s unfortunate non-visit). In short, a saleswoman told her and her daughter to wait until she finished with another client and they did, patiently, for about a half hour (the store was packed). My friend finally inquired and was informed that the saleswoman had gone to lunch.

So, my friend also wrote a letter. The store apologized in short order in writing, included one of its signature ‘foulards’ with the letter, and told her to advise them when she was planning her next trip to the French capital so they could send a car to the airport to pick her up and escort her directly to their flagship store.

Not the foulard, but two of my own for illustration

Now, I certainly wasn’t expecting a plane ticket but maybe a couple of pairs of hose…to match my skin tone?

You be the judge.

When We Were All Together

Once upon a time, not too long ago, we were all together on the streets of Rome, celebrating the 2020 New Year. Open air concerts, replicas of ancient buildings, block after block of parades of fanciful creatures, site specific installations, video art, dance performances, fire-fighting damsels braving some impressive pyrotechnics, and more with thousands of spectators all crowded next to each other.

Thanks to the Comune of Rome, beginning New Year’s Eve and running through the following day, we all drank, ate and were very merry. Oh, for the days of yore!

And So, Where Are You From?

I got invited to speak at Oxford. Yes, Oxford as in the oldest university in the English-speaking world! I spoke there several years ago in October during their Black History Month since the United Kingdom celebrates it to coincide with the school year opening. I still pinch myself whenever I think about it. Was I really asked to talk about my book, my life, and my ideas? Yes, yes, and yes, thanks to a chance encounter with an Oxford co-ed of color when I spoke about my book at the American Library in Paris. She rushed up after my remarks and insisted that I come to Oxford for a similar talk.

Oxford University, UK, the oldest university in the English-speaking world (Image by Alfonso Cerezo from Pixabay)

“Uh? Well, yeah, I can do that. Just tell me where to sign!” I thought to myself. She took my contact information. “I’ll be in touch,” she said and left as quickly as she had approached me, without my getting her email so I could follow up.

After more than a year, one of her colleagues from the university’s African and Caribbean Society wrote me with an invitation. And as I thought earlier – just tell me what I have to sign.

I arrived by bus from Heathrow and was met by a quite jolly co-ed and her friend who would be my ‘handlers’ during my two and a half days on the history-packed campus. As they escorted me to my dorm, I peppered them with questions; the most pressing for me was “Well, where are you from?” And then, I was nonplussed.

One told me that her mother’s side came from Ghana and her father’s from Nigeria. “Granny’s still in Accra and we talk to her all the time. We get our recipes from her because they are still the best,” she laughed. The other replied, “Daddy’s from Cuba and me mum’s from Antigua.” Both of these girls had visited their relatives more than once.

Why was I speechless? I expected to hear, London or fill in the blank town in England; just as black Americans in the States would have answered, Cleveland, New York, or Paducah, when asked.

I wove delight and wonderment into my speech that night by emphasizing how lucky they were to know where they came from, unlike so many of us black folk in the States who don’t know much, if anything, about our roots.

During the following reception, I asked as many as I could the same question. I swilled down every country, every subtle difference in accent, and every nuance of comportment. It was a heady experience because I felt their sense of place in the world. Yes, they were British but they were so much more than that.

I had to chide them a little, however, because they had used a photo of Josephine Baker in her French Red Cross military uniform to advertise their BHM activities (below) and didn’t know who she was and certainly not where she came from.

“She’s from my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri!” I told them, trying my best to appropriate Ms. Baker’s je ne sais quoi.

For more information on the Society, please click here.

For the complete article I wrote on cultural identity, please follow this link.

Cornell University Must Have Some Very Deep Pockets

For the next few lifestyle pieces (bloggettes), I’m delving into my cache of photos from before the lockdown to help take our minds off the current crisis. Endless and priceless experiences to share, this particular one comes thanks to Cornell University. Its overseas program in Rome offers students of architecture, fine arts, and liberal and urban studies the incomparable opportunity to learn in the historic Palazzo Santacroce (pictured below).

We were lucky enough to be invited to Cornell’s student exhibition in late 2019. Besides the stupendous surroundings and the students’ impressive output (images below), I have to say that I was really astonished by the temperature inside the building. It was very warm! Now, I’ve lived in Rome for a while and the heat, well, let me just say, I usually wrap myself in a couple of sweaters even when the thermostat is on high at home, and I always go out layered up to brave unpredictable temps at parties, etc. But oh, no, not at this reception.

And as you can see from the photo below, the art studios are about two stories high and hot air rises! But somehow it remained at ground level (this takes real bucks) and we were actually able to walk around without our coats, drink cold beverages, and not sneeze!

Sometimes it’s Exhausting Being Black — Anywhere

La Fenice Opera House, Venice

To quote Fats Waller, “One never knows, do one?” when an ‘issue’ with racial overtones will pop up and demand to be addressed. In this case, it happened when I took a chance and went to the 2017 Venice Biennale in November just before it closed. Why so risky? La Serenissima, as this city on stilts is still known, begins to flood in the fall . . . and that means having to walk above the murky sea waters on hastily erected duckboards and yes, many warn, withstand the smells that waft up from the tide! But with the art exhibition about to fold, I decided to go come hell or high water.

Coincidentally, a dear friend from Little Rock, Arkansas, who resides in Vienna for reasons you’ll soon understand, happened to be in Venice as well. By chance, we found each other via a Facebook post. (When FB helps, it is righteous!) Kristin Lewis, a highly regarded and supremely divine lyric soprano of color, was rehearsing Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera at the La Fenice Opera House.     

Kristin was not having such a good time preparing for her performance and asked me to “please come to the theatre tomorrow. I need your help!”

Now, this concert hall holds a special place in my heart because I heard Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie each perform there when I was a student in Italy (as I stood in the nose bleed section) and I was anxious to revisit it. My knowledge, however, of opera could fill a thimble but she insisted that my opinion would be valuable. I couldn’t imagine why until she explained her dilemma over dinner that night.

In short, a 30-something Italian director, who was making a name for himself as an operatic iconoclast, had decided to refashion the piece to accommodate Kristin’s ‘color.’ Yeah, you read me. So, he’d added slavery and slave hunting and slave hanging and you name it to the setting — Boston. Kristin played the lead, a freed slave named Amelia. She was fine with all the reimagining (stay with me here) until she found out that when her character has to go to a dangerous place to find some herbs in order to break the love she has with her (white) husband’s best friend, the (white) earl and governor of Boston, she must sing an aria over a dying slave and hastily leave him to expire as soon as the count shows up! The black man has just been cut down from the hangin’ tree, by the way. 

“Yeah, honey,” I started, “if this was in the States, we would all be saying, ‘um, um, um. She left that poor, half-dead ‘brother’ to die alone while she ran off to her white lover man. Shame on her!’”

Kristin and I had a good laugh about that but agreed that she would have to figure out a more compassionate way to depart. She encouraged me to speak to the director.

Moi? Are you kidding?” 

With Kristin in the orchestra section of La Fenice

“No, really. He is very open and I’ve broached it with him but I need some support.”

So, the next morning, I approached the registra himself and he actually listened to me. When he responded to my concern, however, I knew we had a problem.

 “Amelia really wouldn’t know much about the dying man because, after all, she worked in the house and he was a field hand.”

“Not quite. She would’ve known all about him,” I began but the director was called away by an assistant and that was the extent of my two cents’ worth.

Well, all’s well that ends well. By the time that Kristin had called her sister, a professor of religion at Southern Methodist University, who had enlisted the aid of two Black Studies professors at different colleges, and the five of us came up with numerous solutions, we found one that worked.

Kristin wrapped her head in a turban a la’ Leontyne Price but made of African fabric. Then, after her aria, she unfurled it and laid it along the dying man’s body before she left him for the earl.

And a collective sigh of relief was heard from Venice to Dallas to New Jersey to Alabama to Rome, where I was during the run of the opera. We were relieved to have gotten ‘there’ but not after much hand-wringing and rattled nerves and feeling like we had to not let down the race and certainly not that dying black opera singer.