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!
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?”
As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. So, I’m saving the chatter and letting you experience my Sunday walk to Rome’s premier organic market for locavores. Known in Italy as un mercato bio – short for biologico – mine is located near the Circus Maximus with loads of local color along the way. Enjoy!
Once upon a time in a country far, far away (in this case, Norway), I had a job. It was my first overseas assignment as a diplomat with the US Foreign Service and I was posted to the Embassy in Oslo to learn the ropes. Well, this blog isn’t about my time there or my job but the backstory is integral to the plot.
Another salient factor is that more than 500 moons ago, I spent an academic year in Italy and I was heartbroken when I had to go back to the States. Italy stayed in my blood, as did a thirst for international travel. What I learned and how I lived during that time were reasons that I eventually decided to become a diplomat.
In any event, Norway was nice, but definitely not as warm as Italy, so I took some vacation time and went to visit some friends and, on a whim, some friends of my friends who lived in Trieste. We wound up meeting them on an impressive estate, situated virtually in the middle of the city. Imposing, automated wooden gates opened onto a small park of sorts with several buildings scattered around the property, including a stable for horses. I tried to keep my eyes from bugging without success.
To welcome us, two people stood outside a contemporary wooden house with immense glass windows covering its face. One was the owner, a widow, and the other was a lawyer from Naples named Gianni who was her boyfriend and lived between her place and his apartment. He was a handsome guy, albeit a bit on the short side, with dark, naturally tanned skin.
He immediately unnerved me by the way he stared my way. I’d seen that ‘look’ so many times in the States from white people. A stare hard to define but indisputably menacing. A stern look that was also curious but seemed to say, “What are you doing here?” In the States, this ‘look’ usually turned out badly. Some racist innuendo. Some way to belittle me and make me feel uncomfortable, as if I didn’t belong at the event where I was sometimes the only black person or one of two or three others. I just tried to ignore him but I could feel that he was on the verge of exploding just like Vesuvius still threatens to do in his hometown. And before too long, he popped! With the verve that Italians are so expert at, Gianni started shouting at me while rubbing and stabbing at his forearm.
“What are you doing in Norway? You have the skin! You have the skin! You have color in your skin! You should be here, not there with no sun and no color and no warmth!” He stared at me and said it again, even more emphatically.
“What are you doing there?”
Well, I really didn’t have an answer for him, other than “Well, I’ve got a job there,” which didn’t make much of an impression and it certainly didn’t placate him. He shook his head but kept glaring at me as if I had somehow betrayed myself.
My expectation of his ‘look’ was so far afield of his intention. I was in a world warp, fully waiting for some snide remark. Instead I was being emphatically told that I belonged in Italy.
The next chapter shocked me even more. I went back to Oslo. He got my number from our mutual friend and started calling. I rebuffed his advances with as much tact as possible but he persisted. He tracked me down once I left for my next assignment in Paris and showed up there one weekend with our mutual friend, insisting that he and I get married and have children! His girlfriend had a grown son, her biological clock had ticked-tocked, and he was desperate for a family. And I mean desperate. Well, the story pretty much ended there but I still hold a fondness for this crazy Neapolitan who finally took ‘No’ for an answer.
Although Milan is clearly Italy’s fashion capital with Florence nipping at its heels, Rome still has its own panache. As I walked home a few nights ago, I came upon two models in front of the newly reopened Hotel de la Ville. They swished and swayed in Andre’ Laug flame red coats, pretending not to be freezing while photographers snapped away.
A friend of mine, Bert Keeter, is Laug’s designer and he had told me of the photo shoot for the atelier’s spring/summer collection but I had no idea they’d be doing part of it outside after sundown.
I took a few photos myself and scurried off, glad to be bundled up in a heavy coat on an especially chilly winter night.
For starters. During the aforementioned trip to Athens, I decided to buy a fur coat because Greece has a centuries-old tradition for making some of the best. It was the 1970s and PETA* had yet to be founded, so you’ll forgive me, ok? I was teaching at a university, had a few extra pennies, and this was a BIG deal for me. A French friend, who was living in Athens, said he’d help me out so we waited until the sun started to set because no one with any sense shops during the day in summer. I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri and thought I knew what hot was . . . until I spent a week in Athens in August.
We made our way through the muddling market that tumbled forward and backward along cobblestone streets. As the sunlight dove into the Aegean Sea, electric light bulbs strung along the streets took over its job. When I finally found ‘my’ coat, we sat down with the store owner and bargained politely over steaming coffee that soothed my throat and surprisingly didn’t spike my temperature. Once we agreed on a price, I cheerfully handed over my credit card.
“Sorry, Miss, but your card doesn’t work.”
“But,” I stammered, “that’s not possible. I know it’s good.”
George (yes, his name was the ubiquitous George so many Greek men are named) then explained that there was a spending limit on my card for any single purchase. I was beaten, I thought.
“That’s all right,” he continued. “You can wire me the rest when you get back to the States.”
“Huh? But you don’t even know me.”
“Oh, but I do. Everything I need to know about you is written on your face.”
Well, that just about knocked me off my feet and into the mountain of fur coats piled up behind me. I immediately thought of how many times my colored ‘face,’ had gotten me kicked out of a restaurant or gotten me called the ‘N’ word, or gotten me turned away from a movie theater growing up in my own backyard. And here I was in a very foreign and distant backyard with a complete stranger telling me that my face was all he needed as collateral.
“That’s so kind of you but isn’t there another way? I’d really like to pay you now.”
He rubbed his brow, took my card and disappeared but returned quickly with a fellow shop owner waving a receipt for me to sign.
“We’ll split the amount in two. You sign his and mine.”
With my coat bundled up in a shopping bag, I left but not before hugging them both.
I’ve thought of that incident time and again. In fact, it resonates whenever I experience this type of color-blind kindness abroad. Don’t, however, take me for a Pollyanna. I know the times they are a-changing and Europe ain’t what it used to be. But it still happens. Trust me.
Gail Milissa Grant
*PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, founded in 1980)
I’ve been traveling the world for decades, making stops (long and short) in more than forty countries. As a black person from the United States of America, I defined myself as a black American whenever I was asked until late one summer night in Athens’s Plaka neighborhood. I proudly announced my provenance to our waiter. He, however, wasn’t having it.
“No!” he insisted. “You are a black international!”
That stuck with me. He saw me untethered to any nation. Although that’s an appealing idea (especially in this present-day climate), I feel firmly attached to my country and my peculiar vision. No matter where I am on this planet, I perceive the world through a black American lens.
I’ve chosen Nightingale Noir as my moniker because of the bird’s creative and seemingly spontaneous song and I aspire to bring my stories to you similarly while keeping them noir. My recollections will include tales from the past as well as current opinions as I continue to travel the globe and wander around Rome, where I’ve lived this time since 2001.
And why should you care? Well, if you are a black American, I hope you do because ‘we’ have a particular way of observing, born out of our inimitable history and out of our complicated relationship with the United States. It colors how we live, think, and move about our country. And how does it inform us when we voluntarily move outside our borders? I intend to present how one black person views the world from overseas. I also hope this will encourage you to travel and ‘see’ with your own eyes.
And if you are not a person of color? Why should you hitch a ride on my wings? The issue and effects of ethnicity are pervasive, no matter where you are. I grew up during the heart of the modern civil rights movement in the United States, shepherded by parents deeply committed to and actively engaged in its evolution. Then I launched into a career of international, cultural diplomacy. I offer you a rare opportunity to explore my unique world view — through the prism of race and geography. I believe my stories will offer unexpected insights, some surprises, and even some humor — to open up your perspective. Granted, my blog is international in scope and not grounded in the “black experience” as it is lived daily in the United States. If you, however, choose to follow me, you will see how even when one roams the globe, this paradigm travels alongside.
By the way, my blog will wonder off its black track now and then. Whenever something strikes my fancy (be it a stroll past astounding Roman monuments on my way to the city’s premier organic market or my take on the Venice Biennale or running into an haute couture photo shoot on the street where I live), I’ll include it as well.
Hope you enjoy the ride! Join me tomorrow for my first blog.
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