When, as a boy, fourteenth-century Italian humanist Francis Petrarch first obtained a manuscript of a work by Latin writer Cicero, he noted that he was enchanted by the sounds of the words even though he couldn’t understand their meaning.
I’ll never forget reading the poems of Langston Hughes for the first time when I was in junior high school. I didn’t understand what they meant at the time. But I knew that they were meaningful. And his works continue to inform me and shape my intellectual life today.
In high school, I read his autobiography, The Big Sea, over and over and over again. And I dreamed about following his footsteps through New York to Europe in the early 1920s.
A passage from that book came to mind (again) today as insults continue to be hurled across the English Channel and Atlantic Ocean. (Yes, they’ve started to call me names, too.)
In the excerpt below, the author recalls his first visit to Italy. He and his friend Romeo traveled to Romeo’s home, Desenzano, on the shores of Lake Garda.
In the wake of the unfortunate episode of a few weeks ago, the poet’s account of his visit give the reader remarkable insight of how Italy’s attitudes about race have changed since the rise of fascism there.
- The night we arrived was Sunday and the whole village had gone to the movies. There was no one home at Romeo’s house and he had no key, so we left our baggage piled in the doorway and went to the movies, too. It was one of those theaters where the screen is at the front of the house beside the front door, so you come in facing the audience Just as we came in, the house lights went on between reels, as they were changing the film. The place was crowded, but as we entered and the people saw us, the whole crowd arose and began to make for the doorway. Soon they became a shouting, pushing mass. I didn’t know what they were saying, for they were speaking Italian, of course, and I didn’t understand Italian. But Romeo and I were swept into the street and surrounded by curious but amiable men, women, and children. Finally, Romeo’s mother got him through the crowd and threw her arms about his neck. I gather that almost all of the people of the village were Romeo’s friends, but I didn’t know why so many of them clung to me and shook my hands, while a crowd of young boys and men pulled and pushed until they had me in the midst of them in a wine shop, with a dozen big glasses of wine in front of me.
- Later that night Romeo explained to me that never in Desenzano, so far as he knew, had there been a Negro before, so naturally everybody wanted to look at me at close hand, and touch me, and treat me to a glass of vino nero. Romeo said they were all his friends, but hardly would the whole theater have rushed into the street between reels had it not been for me, a Negro, being with him.
On August 30, 2013, the online magazine Qui Brescia published an article about a dispute between a Northern League (Separatist) township council member, Rino Polloni, and Desenzano’s mayor, Rosa Leso, a member of Italy’s Democratic Party (they are both bloggers btw). According to the report, the council member has accused the mayor of not protecting the citizenry from African men who frequent the beach there. She has responded by saying that they have every right to be there — like everyone else — as long as they abide by the rule of law. The police department’s current monitoring of the beaches, she maintains, is sufficient to ensure public safety.