(Essay 2) blackbird and a pear tree by Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum

A family story told in art, names, places, denied cultures,

black and sensual madonnas,  diversity of beliefs,

visionary and healing Santa Lucia of Sicily

blackbird and a pear tree book cover (c) 2014, Trent Nahas

blackbird and a pear tree book cover (c) 2014, Trent Nahas

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all share the same ultimate religious beliefs—except that Muslims insist that their prophet Mohammed be honored along with Jewish and Christian prophets, Abraham and Jesus.   This tension over prophets catches fire in the Middle East (west Asia) where the immediate pain is being killed and killing.

In the 7th and 8th centuries CE, Berbers, who had earlier come to Sicily, came again, this time with the large African Muslim migration from Africa.  Berbers, now Muslims,  may have kept their earlier  African beliefs in the equality of all believers and in the political premise that leaders of  Islamic  communities  be selected from among those most authentically pious,  regardless of ethnic identity  (see my preface to Remi Omodele’s book on Ulli Beier).

When Islam was dominant in Sicily, from the 8th to the 13th centuries, bringing irrigation for watering the island’s trees, plants, and flowers, and ice cream for everyone’s delight –and with an easiness perhaps related to the same ultimate beliefs—Jews and Christians either converted to Islam or adopted the Sicilian habit of adopting Arab and Muslim names for tax purposes.

Sicily was similar to Andalucia (whose name I need to investigate) in Spain  in the middle ages when  Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived in harmony  (see Maimonides,  Guide to the Perplexed)—until  a resurgent Christian  papacy aligned with emerging  nation states of Europe initiated ethnic cleansing  ousting Jews and Muslims. .  . then forcing other heretics and dark others (using water torture and other atrocities) to convert to Christianity.

A doggerel jingle (a form of vernacular poetry) from my childhood in a Sicilian and south Italian neighborhood in Kansas City, Missouri, rises from deep layers of my memory:  “In 1492 your father was a Jew. Your mother was a jumping jack . . . and so are you.”

I thought about conversos, those forcibly converted to Christianity, in the Old as well as the New World.  In 1492,  Christopher Columbus,  himself an enigmatic figure,  arrived in the Americas from Europe  and  initiated  the forced conversions and  killings of  native  peoples  already  living  their own spiritual beliefs on the continents of North and South America.

In the 15th century, in Spanish lands in Europe, including Sicily, inquisitors of church and state looked anxiously at forcibly christianized conversos as well as at women healers, other heretics, other dark others, who seemed threatening to Christian rule. And tortured and killed them.

All of this is related to my names. When I was born, I was named for my paternal grandmother, Lucia, and given the middle name Teresa honoring my maternal grandmother’s sister and my mother’s little sister Teresa who died as a child.  The historical Teresa was a conversa, whose Jewish grandfather had been branded with a yellow star and paraded through the streets of Spain.  During the Inquisition, Teresa became a Christian nun.

After the rising of suppressed beliefs in the 1960s, including the Roman Catholic Church’s Vatican II, Teresa was named Doctor of the Roman Catholic church in 1970.  Feminists today look at Teresa’s mysticism, convent reforms, plain-style writings (which cover a number of heresies: Teresa considered Jesus to be her brother) . . . and celebrate her as a feminist foremother . . . as I do.

Sicily is a case in point of the long legacy of diverse peoples persecuted, tortured, and killed under the Inquisition.  The long reach of this legacy hit me when women on a study tour with Wally and me in Spain in 2003   became traumatized at inquisition sites.

In 1060 CE, at the time of the Norman conquest, the mix of peoples in Sicily included romanized Carthaginians of Africa,  peoples of the far-flung Roman empire,  Byzantines of west Asia,  and Muslims of  west Asia and Africa.  Everyone spoke their own Latin dialect. Everyone held a covering belief in Christianity.

Underneath this cover, a number of heretical beliefs simmered….  beliefs enacted in  people’s everyday lives and popular celebratory rituals . . .  triggering anxieties of the inquisitor—anxieties that persist to the present when anxiety becomes  the aggression that is murdering people considered threatening to elites of the U.S. and  “the West”.

Primordial African beliefs, which are considered pagan, have been a constant in the suppressed stories of Sicily and elsewhere.  The dizzying diversity of Sicilian beliefs is suggested in that, in Sicily (and elsewhere), Jews were major figures (Jesus, his mother and father, the apostles) in the story of Christianity. Jews were early Christians in the Christianity that was established under the Roman empire.

After the 5th century collapse of the Roman empire when the imperial seat was transferred to Constantinople in west Asia, people in Sicily met in Christian churches, whose liturgies at the time of the Norman invasion (1060 CE) included the liturgy of Christianity in African Egypt and the liturgy of Syro-Palestine in west Asia—places in today’s headlines where suppressed beliefs have burst into flame.  Places where the CIA hires   warriors to kill in wars whose unconscious beliefs—as well as conscious pain (your child . . . your brother . . . your mother has been killed)—stoke wars of killing.  In numbed aggression, the point is to kill . . . it does not matter why or who is killed.

Yet, suppressed beliefs in healing and renewal are alive, although often hidden, in rituals throughout the world.   In the Semitic regions  of Sicily,  Easter is not celebrated in the doctrinal Christian meaning of Christ crucified and risen; instead, it is given the name of a woman, the Semitic foremother Esther whose name in Italian  is  Pasqua,  which is  also the  italian word for the spring festival of easter . . . wherein death is followed by rebirth. . . and  the horror of  hatred is followed by reconciliation. 

My path to understanding this has not been easy.  Easter 1988 in Trapani, Sicily I was thrown into perplexity trying to understand the mysteries of the black madonna.  On Thursday and Friday of holy week before easter, she is carried all over town.  After her son is crucified she goes to a tent where other women join her in mourning for her son.  On Saturday, the black madonna is carried from church to church . . .  looking for her son.

Easter Sunday 1988, far from home and by myself, I went to Caltanisetta, a former Muslim town renowned for its magnificent tile stair case.   Watching the local easter ritual, L’Incontro performed in front of the Catholic church, I was shaken.  The carried icon of the crucified Jesus meets the icon of the black madonna when the son lifts the corner of his mother’s nightgown.   A Sicilian woman watching my puzzled eyes said to me, this is “la fantasia meridionale”  . . . leaving me to think on this Sicilian-male fantasy with oedipal overtones. ..  returning to the womb of the mother.

In 1060 CE, when Christian Normans came to Sicily, the majority of the population was Muslim.  Under Norman rule, many Christian monks in Sicily moved to Calabria. Those who remained in Sicily were “Arabized Christians.”  An African Coptic community lived near Palermo.

Under the Muslims,  the highly fluid nature of Sicilian society  is suggested in that Muslim men who married Christian women customarily brought up their female children as Christians and raised their sons in Semitic faiths— Jewish and/or Muslim.  In Sicily, older women—Christian, Moorish, and Jewish—wore (and still do in non-modernized parts of the island) the shrouded garb of Muslim women; so do Christian nuns.

A few years ago, at a feminist conference in Italy where I spoke on a black madonnas panel, a male professor of Islamic Studies advised that for monotheistic Islam, the black madonna conveys human inability to see her. . . (a statement that has stimulated me to think about gender and monotheism).  The professor advised that one can only have transient, hidden, often disguised, glimpses of her many different forms.

Different forms may be glimpsed in different icons of different churches.  Before the Norman conquest, diverse Christian churches of Sicily celebrated with three different rites: Latin, Greek, and Saracen (p. 175, C. Chiarelli, A History of Muslim Sicily. Malta, Mid Sea Books Ltd, 2011, written by a Sicilian of Muslim inheritance who lives at Ricalmuto).

Jews  coming to Sicily  after the destruction of the Temple in 57 CE settled   in different places:  Palermo, Agrigento, Catania, Messina, and Siracusa as well as  in Comiso, Noto, Ragusa Ibla, Chiaramonte Gulfi, Modica, and Erice.  Jews as traders held commercial and religious contacts with Africa, Asia Minor (what I call west Asia), and Greece.

After Muslim conquest of Sicily in the 8th century CE, Jews of Africa moved to Sicily, settling in Erice near Palermo and Trapani as well as on the north coast at Patti (Tindari), Termini Imerese, and Messina, and on the south coast fronting Africa, particularly the province of Ragusa Ibla in the southeast with African ancestry and west Asian connections.

In the early 1970s, my experience encountering the black madonna of Tindari heated my intense involvement in the women’s movement in Italy.  This feminist activism followed a decade of 1960s activism in the U. S. for the African American civil rights movement . . . coupled with   anti-war demonstrations against U. S.  imperial invasion of Vietnam. All of this merged after 1969 with my attraction to liberation theology, where some of us in the U.S. were attracted to Marx whom we considered a Judeo-Christian prophet.

Around this activism in the U. S. and in Italy, two images arise.  The active volcano of Mount Etna in Sicily, personified as an enraged woman erupting with fire creating golden and black lava . . . and the 1960s bumper sticker in Berkeley, California . . .  “God is Black and is she pissed.”

An Assistant Professor of History  at San Francisco State who joined  students on  strike demanding African Studies ,  I was fired  by president Hayakawa,  the after  Thanksgiving  in November1968.  Wally and I went to Italy in 1969.  We watched 5 million workers marching in the streets and women carrying banners declaring, “There is no revolution without women’s liberation. There is no women’s liberation without revolution. ”

Thereafter, intensely engaged in the Italian women’s movement, I tracked feminists back to the towns of their mothers and grandmothers, where I encountered the passion of popular veneration of black madonnas. 

In 1991, back in the U.S., I had just completed my Black Madonnas in Italy, when in the great urban fire, our home in the Berkeley hills burned down to the ground.  As we fled, Wally saved the computer hard drive holding my manuscript.  A distinct impression I held at the time was that she (the black madonna) had burned our home down.

Yet afterward.  . .  the book was published in 1994 by a university press, won an international New Left award in 1997, and my scholarly work entered a highly productive period after 2001 . . . writing and publishing Dark Mother: African Origins and Godmothers, teaching in the innovative graduate school, California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, founding an anthology series, She is Everywhere, and lecturing abroad on my books now translated in Italy and France.

To be continued. Read part 1.

Read Meet Mago Contributor Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum.

2 thoughts on “(Essay 2) blackbird and a pear tree by Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum

    • Dear Lucia,

      If you see the end of your essay, you will see many buttons under “share this.” Choose the print button and you can save and pint out your essays. I were you I would do that. Wonderful to have your essay in Return to Mago! Helen Hwang.

      Like

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