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.

Can’t Express How Glad I Am

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 I Don’t Get Asked Outside the USA

“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.

Amara & Dana

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?”

Strolling Home

Andre’ Laug photo shoot Hotel de la Ville Rome, Italy

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.

Gail Milissa Grant

What’s in a Face?

Gail Milissa Grant

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.

Plaka Shopping Athens

“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

Fur coat shopping Plakka Athens

*PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, founded in 1980)