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!
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.