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!
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.
“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.
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!
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?”
“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.
During Holy Week a few years ago, I stopped by the Church of the Gesu’ — the Jesuits’ mother church in Rome — and saw yet another interpretation of Mary’s grief, a striking sculptural assemblage this time.
As Easter approaches, my mind wandered back to last March when I went to the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma to hear the revival of a composition, written for a dear friend.
Twenty years ago, when immigrants from Africa first began arriving on Italy’s shores, the Oscar award-winning composer, Nicola Piovani (Life Is Beautiful, 1999) wrote the music for his rendition of the Stabat Mater, a 13th century Christian hymn to Mary’s grief, in collaboration with Vincenzo Cerami (lyrics). Derived from the first line, Stabat Mater dolorosa, which means “the sorrowful mother was standing,” numerous composers (Scarlatti, Rossini, Dvorak, Poulenc) have written their versions.
Composer and lyricist took an unusual view when they created La Pieta’ expressly for Amii Stewart, a soul and jazz singer who lives in Italy and is known widely for her rendition of Knock on Wood. Two 20th century mothers in mourning for their sons became the protagonists. Ms. Stewart played the role of a woman in the developing world who lost her child to famine, desolate in her inability to feed him. The other part, written for a lyric soprano, is portrayed as a wealthy woman more engaged with consumerism than with her son. The piece was compelling years ago and is still relevant today.
I attended the sold-out, single performance. What a thrill!
A few years ago, the end of 2016 to be exact, I went shopping with an Italian friend of mine, named Maria Teresa. She prefers to go only by Teresa because as she explained, “Every girl in Italy has Maria somewhere in her name, so I drop that part.” We did more gabbing than grabbing since neither of us was in the mood. That year had been a hard one for many reasons, not the least of which occurred for me on November 8th in the United States as well as all the skullduggery that preceded the ‘vote.’ On this side of the pond, Italians were more than fed up with the political shenanigans and also wishing to sweep out the incumbents.
In any event, Teresa needed to buy a birthday present. We wandered into Tech It Easy, a tech store with all sorts of gadgets and gizmos that make you think you really need them. This chain also has a lot of well-designed items, some of which are actually useful. We came across a set of paraphernalia for a lobster party for six: red-trimmed white bibs with embossed lobsters across the fronts; lobster shell crackers in the form of, you guessed it, lobster claws; long-handled, dual-ended seafood forks and scoops; and even sturdy, pint-sized wooden hammers just in case the crackers didn’t do the job.
My friend wisecracked, “Who would need these? Who fixes lobsters at home?”
“We did,” I immediately chimed in. “When I was a kid, my parents and their friends had lobster and champagne parties.”
“Really?” she said. “I’ve never heard of that here.”
“Black people couldn’t go into most restaurants and sit down and eat back then, especially the highfalutin’ places. But we could buy the lobsters out of the back door or from markets and prepare them at home. Everything was segregated in my hometown but they had so much fun at those parties. More fun than the white folks did sitting in those fancy seafood restaurants, I bet.”
My Italian friend’s face fell. “That’s so sad. That you couldn’t go out to eat.”
“Yeah, those were tough times but they made the best of them.”
Teresa still didn’t understand. She watched me smile and laugh as I reminisced about those times. I told her how one couple, ‘grown-ups’ I emphasized, loved to dance. They knew all the latest teenage dances and the highpoint of these evenings was when they strutted their stuff and did the “Madison,” (instructions below) the “Bop,” and the “Stroll,” with or without music in the background.
She finally gave me a half-smile but I could tell she would never really understand how black folks back then had real fun under such constraints, all the while marching and protesting and fighting for equal rights. For her, it was tainted and for me, too.
But I still remember how excited everyone would get anticipating steamed lobsters, a cup of piping hot melted butter for dunking, baked potatoes, crispy cole slaw, a brightly colored mixed salad, and endlessly popping champagne corks. And all in the comfort of our homes. They could get as loud and happy as they wanted to and they did!
It’s always controversial; it’s always over-the-top; it’s always messy; it’s always astounding; and it’s always tiring, challenging and frustrating, especially when you’re asking yourself. What is the point? Or Is this really art? For me, however, the Venice Biennale is never disappointing — until last year’s.
Overly stocked with video art, I found myself desperately in search of work that embodied any of the above adjectives. The films were too long or too short or boring or annoying or downright offensive (not that the word offensive isn’t oftentimes used in reaction to work at the biennales). A notable exception was the Canadian entry, One Day in the Life of Noah Plugattuk, a movie by Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk that described the true story of an attempt by the Canadian government to relocate his people during the 1950s.
The Ghanaians exhibited for the first time and their space, created by Sir David Adjaye (who also designed the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture), stood out. El-Anatsui’s work dominated with his hundreds of thousands of found objects woven into massive curtains (images below). Talk about sustainable art!
And I also thought The Netherlands did a great job of honoring modernism’s clean, slick lines while incorporating elements of the Maroon culture of its former colony (Suriname) and celebrating decorous feminists of color. Quite a feat! Check out Remy Jungerman (first and second images below) who designed the former work and Iris Kensmil (third, fourth and fifth images below), the latter, both of whom are of Surinamese descent. For the names of the women depicted, click here. The artist sent me to the history books to find about some of them.
The show stopper for me, however, was the sculpture of Martin Puryear, who happens to be a black American and who represented the United States in its pavilion. Each of the eight pieces engaged but I found two of them especially compelling: A Column for Sally Hemings, which drives a stake into a pristine Doric column (first photo below), evocative of the entry columns of the building’s Jeffersonian design, and Aso Oke. a lattice like bronze (yes, it’s amazingly made from bronze) interpretation of so-named Nigerian headwear (second photo below).
I’ve included some other images that startled, amused, and provoked thought. But, alas, they were few and far between.
To have gone to the 2019 Venice Biennale! Why? Because I got to see an exhibit by AfriCobra (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), the black artists’ collective formed in Chicago in 1968. When I taught at Howard University in the late 70’s, I worked with a number of the founding members who had created a black aesthetic to supplant demeaning stereotypes found in mainstream white culture. Their work was arresting, fresh, and technically superb, but to some extent, ignored — certainly by the mainstream art establishment. That certainly didn’t faze them and this group is still going strong and is considered to be the longest continually active artist collective/commune in the United States.
I almost jumped for joy when I saw AfriCobra listed on the official program. The Biennale has grown so large that many countries’ exhibits and collateral shows have to be housed outside the main grounds of I Giardini and L’Arsenale. But no matter. The prestigious Ca’ Faccannon displayed it and Christie’s Auction House described it as one of five “must-see exhibitions at the 2019 Venice Biennale.” How’s that for these extraordinary artists finally getting their due! Here’s a smattering of what was on display except for the last image which, I’m happy to say, is only on view in my home.
“What are you?” Yeah, that’s right. That’s the one question I never get asked when I am outside the United States but one that has followed me around for years when I’m at home. I guess I look like a biracial person to some people but 99% of black Americans seldom think that. They know what my roots are and easily identify me as one of our tribe.
White Americans, however, are often discombobulated by my appearance because I don’t fit into the box they have labeled ‘black’ or once upon a time, ‘Negro’ or ‘colored.’ I think it stirs some latent fear of the American bugaboo, miscegenation, so they would rather reduce me to an object. With that one question, I become a thing. It’s not “Where are you from?” or “What do you do for a living,” or “Where do you live?” or even “My name’s John. What’s yours?” I’ve gotten it on airplanes, at cocktail parties, and especially from seemingly well-educated, white people whom one would think would know better than to ask.
I’ve lived abroad a lot (this time in Italy since 2001for the past eighteen years) and have been mostly immune to ‘the’ question because when I visit the States now, I am in a cocoon of family and close friends. But that doesn’t mean that ‘the’ question isn’t still alive. At a meeting of fellow expat Americans in Rome not too long ago, I met a student who, to me, looked like a girl of Italian descent, although it turned out she was biracial. She told the gathering that she was actually stopped on in the middle of a 5th Avenue sidewalk by a woman who asked her, “What are you?”
Ok. Now let’s return to this side of the pond. Not only have I never been asked “What are you?” the most intriguing question I’ve gotten has to do with my children. I don’t have any but that doesn’t stop people who don’t know that from assuming that my Italian husband’s daughter from his first marriage is our offspring. And she has long, straight blond hair and see-through blue eyes! Or that Roberto Bolle (the world renowned Italian ballet dancer with whom I had a photo taken) is my son!!! I’m flattered because they are both comely but I’m also flabbergasted.
Once again, let’s compare that to what I have been told by white Americans about my two nieces. They both do look white because my brother married a Caucasian woman and they came out, well, read some Gregor Mendel for the particulars. (Europeans obviously are familiar with him.) In any event, when they were little girls and I would proudly show their photos, white people would invariably flinch and say (and I’m quoting verbatim here), “They can’t be your nieces. They’re white!” To them, this is beyond their limited comprehension of reality.
They might as well have said, “What are you? Crazy?”