Two - Due
Martin Luther King Day.
I remember the fight that took place when this Federal Holiday was originally proposed. During that time I wasn’t all that connected nor aware of politics or economics. It took me until my tenure in Brazil, a six year period for me, to begin to see America outside of the propaganda that we were all bombarded by through all kinds of messages, both spoken and unspoken.
Yesterday, I spoke of the overblown and abused Pentagon budget and how it is so common, except for a handful of politicians brave enough and honest enough to speak out about it. This is because we are not encouraged to question. We are encouraged to hold up DEFENSE as a sacred, untouchable part of our existence. It is not! As in so many things in our society today, it needs much adjustment.
I had a personal revelation about such distortions and why they are a part of us an of our so called freedom to be ourselves when I reflected upon myself as a child.
I remembered how as a kid there were two areas that I had somehow embodied prejudices that were frequently around me. One was in being Sicilian and the other around being a Roman Catholic. I would hear periodically about different artists, mostly actors some musicians, who were Roman Catholic. When I did I recalled how I felt a very distinct reaction to that fact. When I would become aware of their religious affiliation I would feel and hear the automatic acceptance resonate within me. “Oh, their one of us!” I would think with great glee, feeling that somehow I was connected to them and that they, like me, were special because I too was a part of that structure. When I relived those reactions and felt them as echoes from my childhood, I was deeply amazed of my childhood point of view. It suddenly occurred to me just how prejudice I was about such things.
The other that I then reflected upon was the reality of marriage. When a family member would marry, I would have a very strong positive reaction when I would become aware that both parts of the couple was Sicilian. If they were, the marriage seemed perfect to me, somehow MORE correct and acceptable than if it was a mixed couple. As I grew I remember how I was puzzled by the fact that my cousin Teresa, was married to an person of Irish descent, Larry Garris. Larry was a great favorite of mine. He was a lot of fun, very intelligent and I watched as he, his wife and my parents demonstrate just how were very fond of each other they were. We would be in each others presence very often. Both my father and my mother were quite positive about him and I reflected upon how although he wasn’t Sicilian, my Grandfather Gaetano and Grandmother Rosa, would treat him with great respect. My Aunt Mae and Uncle Dick his mother and father-in-law were also very fond of him. He worked with them at their furniture store which was the place where I held my first job.
Both of these facts from my past shocked me - for the awareness that had some how just come upon me put me into a position of serious contemplation. I had to face the fact that in terms of religion and culture I was a bit of a bigot. Now, I was only a kid, but, it still put me in a place of true self examination. I had never imagined that I had been so brainwashed, but, I was. The brainwashing was more of a reflection of my religious perspective. Catholics are the real religion and every thing else is still catching up. Protestantism was OK, yet I was very aware that they had split from the Holy See and regardless of being somewhat similar were not US. In spite of the inner reaction that I experienced, I never made a big deal about it and yet, as I grew and began to become interested in girls, I still held onto the facts that my union had to be both Sicilian and Catholic.
The joke was on me as life continued. I believe I only dated one Sicilian woman, when I was at Yale. It didn’t last - we got along well enough, but, it simply didn’t work out. And, most of the time, if I did encounter women of a similar cultural reality I found them too similar to my mother. Jeanette, my mother, was a very strong woman and presence. She did her best to rule with an iron hand and for a long time was quite successful. Although she seemed to hold sway over my brother and sister, I being the oldest, was destined to stand up for myself. Which caused many battles over and over again. Typical teenager rebellion as well as a manifestation of the common situation where one’s off spring see the world from a different viewpoint because of the inescapable fact that the world and therefore life was different than when the parents were growing up. Different world, different environment, different music, ever expanding definitions of morality were in fact tearing at the fabric of my parents reality. Given that they no longer lived in the original Sicilian reality - being part of a very small town, with much safety due to strictly enforced religious and cultural expectations. I didn’t fully understand this until I found myself in Sicily for professional reasons. I realized one day while walking around the town and it’s narrow cobblestone streets with homes on either side, just how on top of each other they all were. One could hear conversations from each and every house. Which simply hammered home the reality of how my grandmothers and grandfathers had grown up. Their move to the new world, and the fact that they did not live in a ghetto, such as Little Italy, meant that they no longer enjoyed that homogenous society complete with many protections, especially when it came to childhood activities and behavior. Hence, my mother doubled or tripled down on discipline and required strict obedience. Her hyper control of us, was to make up for her sense of insecurity, in the absence of the protective village structure. In the end, we all became our own persons, however, it was somehow easier for me than it was for my siblings. I left at 18 to go to college and basically never returned.
Curiously, my Sicilian soul grew and grew as I identified more and more with that part of myself. I watched with interest as I understood that I was the only one who would bend that way. Again, this was normal for me for I was the first grandchild from both sides and so I swam as a young child in a sea of love from my four grandparents. They showered me with their full beings and I bonded with them completely. It defined me, much more than my parents did. All four of my grandparents were with me until I was 23 years old. My last grandparent passed when I was 42 years old. The results were that I had a deeply rich life and spent much time with these four exotic people , who were born at the end of the 19th century and the very beginning of the 20th. Also having contact with my great-grandfather Lorenzo Gusmano, until I was 16, meant that I became more deeply aware of an 19th century aesthetic. It’s no wonder I have set many of his poems to music.
So, what does all of this mean, especially on a day like today.
I have been recognized for all of my adult life as a liberal. I never took this on, since I didn’t care about politics, however, my long hair and obvious open and artistic lifestyle made it easy for “non” liberals to label me. So be it. Longhaired hippy liberal was something that I heard often. I, frankly, didn’t care and then later on after coming back from six years living over seas, started to have fun with it.
This means, that I was someone open to other cultures, other colors, other languages, other sexual and sometimes gender identities. This openness put me in direct conflict with many from my gene pool. The older I got, the more I recognized the differences. Whereas my parents were extremely impressed by those who had amassed riches, I was non plussed by them all. Often, I would keep my distance for I simply wasn’t impressed. At that point, since I had dedicated my life to art and the pursuit of a career as an orchestral conductor, I was quite aware of what my heroes lives were. Few of them had great riches, in spite of their great artistic accomplishments and so, the monied simply didn’t matter to me. Once in a while they turned out to be interesting people. However, most of the time this just wasn’t the case. Not the people that ended up in my parents inner circle. Yet, it wasn’t my place nor important to my existence to take exception. It was their life and their right to choose their friends.
With Black Lives Matters having become such a large part of our Covid experience this year, I took this opportunity of self examination to look at myself from that standpoint. I had not discriminated nor segregated myself from any person because of color, creed or even age. I only kept my distance from those who would oppress my way of being. But, it was rather important to me to examine just what my real attitudes towards American Black Culture. Even though I had had many of friend of African American descent and sometimes directly African I didn’t consider myself someone who was prejudice. This was the reason why I was so shocked when I came upon the realities that I found inside of me as a child. I think the reason why it didn’t take that perspective is two fold. First, I was rebellious, and had to be my own person, so it was easy to choose to be the opposite of my parents. Secondly, the fact that one of my best friends when I very young was a kid named Guy. I remember he had 6 fingers and toes and showed me where, as a child, his parents had had his 6th digit on both hands removed. When we moved upstate to Mahopac NY, which was the end of our relationship and it made me sad. I never approached him as an African American even though he was. He was my friend, plain and simple and so his “race” and “color” never entered into it.
I once heard a powerful speaker relate that part of the reason there was a white/black conflict for centuries was because white people saw black people as the reflectors of the darkness that they, the whites, held within their own souls. It was an interesting concept and still sense that there is some truth to this. If I have learned anything, it’s that fear is something that holds on and will mold us if we do not truly face it and take charge of our choices.
Today I heard speakers who gave me a new perspective of what Martin Luther King was doing. In fact, he was working to fulfill to legacy of those constitutional amendments which had been passed in the time of Lincoln to right the wrong of slavery and the idea that blacks were 3/5ths of a person. I had previously learned that the reason there was this mathematical formula had to do with an economic assessment of each slave owners assets, for they were property. How amazing. Further, at some point I also realized through study that the Sicilians in this country were also easily repelled by the darker skinned cultures because of their own history. The Arabs, also known as the Moors, were in fact mixed and sometimes black. This culture and connection continued throughout the island as many Sicilians intermarried with Arabs. My own cousin had kinky hair. Given that we have been “humans” for so many generations going back into pre-history, we have in fact, all aspects of all races within us. So this stupid reality of white supremacy truly made no sense to me. And the manipulation of different cultures in this country goes back to the English and what the leaders of Jamestown did with bonded whites, slaves and the indigenous peoples they eventually almost exterminated. When 9/11 came and so much hatred of the Arab world was pumped up by that reality, I took the position of irritating many who complained about immigrants and Arabs in particular. First I would tell them that I was made up of 100% Sicilian blood and then would gleefully remind them that within my blood was surely Arab and African genes mixed within. You never hear any one shy away from the fact that some Sicilians have blue eyes and blond hair. Their ancestry goes back to the Normans, who had a heavily mixed northern blood lines, some of whom were from the Viking raids etc. No one freaked out about that. However, the more southern blood lines were clearly something that embarrassed them. Very odd indeed
I decided something today. I’m not longer going to suffer fools lightly who speak against other cultures. Period. I’m not going to allow it on my facebook page, nor am I going to allow it in my presence. I’m sick of this hatred and am done accepting it, even for social reasons.
Another one of my listening experiences today brought me the chance to experience a very eloquent female authority point out something I never understood. She expressed the fact that we’ve only been a true democracy since 1968. This is due to the fact that with the passage of both the 1964 and the 1968 Civil Rights Legislation, only then did every one have full rights as a citizen. Reflecting upon a too often ignored fact that we are only free if we are ALL FREE. We forget about segregation. Different bathrooms. Different hotels. Different restaurants, etc. etc. etc. How disgusting. Even some great black artists, actors and musicians were treated like servants depending upon which part of the country that their touring itinerary caused them to enter.
Another speaker expressed how President Johnson, after he was elected in 64, now for his own term, was pushed by the people to pass both of those bills. This reminds us that we too have to push. We have to push Biden, in the same was the Roosevelt was pushed to create Social Security. Can you imagine your lives without this guarantee - as imperfect as it is?
How astounding! How many of you realize and accept the fact that democracy for all, only exists in our history from 1968 on. Wow. Extremely powerful.
I’m sure I have more self examination to go through as I look at other realities and prejudices within me. Truth is I do this all the time, so it’s nothing new for me to do such work. If you require such self examination, and only you know, I encourage you to do this. For, it truly makes a difference by causing a very powerful expanding thrust to the textural reality of your life experience.
A very funny reality hit me squarely between the eyes during one of my residencies in Vizzini, Sicily. There was this yearly feast that happened in my beloved paese, and amongst the workers employed to set up and strike this event were many Africans. A friend and I were wondering around the area of the feast, late one night as the tear down was underway. We started to talk to some of the workers, one of whom was cooking for his crew. It was basically rice and beans with some chicken, a traditional dish from their country and we were offered a seat on the floor as they sat around the fire and the large bowl of food. We took our places, but, as I watched them begin to scoop out the food with their hands!!!, I told them I was too fat and we all laughed. I was not interested in eating with my hands, nor eating food from their hands and that surprised me. I hadn’t been that finicky, my father certainly was, and suddenly I was him! HA! It was a big lesson to me. There’s always more to learn about yourself.
Well my friends, we have some wonderful legacies in our country. There is so much potential. There has certainly been progress, but, as this past year has shown us, it’s time to be real. If you want a democratic way of life, get over your laziness and engage. Push your representatives to serve our needs. It’s time for Universal Health Care, it’s time for a living wage, it’s time for real taxation on the rich and the corporations and it’s time for every one to be involved. Democracy DOES NOT WORK, when left to the leaders. And that leads me to something I hope to speak about tomorrow. It’s time for us to lead. If you prefer push, no worries. It’s time to give up the eternal search for political leaders the right moment for all be involved, having a hand at steering the direction that this next year will take.
Imagine what we could accomplish if we all take advantage of this opportunity.
As always, Thank you all for being here with me today. Thomas