(Essay 4) 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

An earthquake and an ancestral and contemporary story of grandmothers, mothers and fathers, kids, sisters and brothers, cousins, and 100 kinds of pizza 


The earthquake in late August 2014 in Napa shook Californians and others.  After eldest son Naury mopped water from a broken tank, he continued researching and planning the September family trip to Sicily gifted by their eldest son Josh.  His wife Barbara researched hotels, restaurants, and wine festivals.

On September 4, some of us were flying across the ocean on the jahrseit of Wally’s passing in 2012.   We landed in my ancestral region of Palermo where the 60,000 BCE painting in the Addaura cave confirms African origins and migrations to every continent in the world by that date.

Naury’s birthday, September 6, we arrived in a villa outside Palermo where 2 days later there was a procession of the nearby black madonna of Tindari, along with fireworks and celebrations of other madonnas.

On this north coast of Sicily we were staying on a major African primordial path into Europe and Asia as well as returning paths from west Asia and Europe.

On September 9, we celebrated the birthday of Josie, daughter of Sabrina and Peter, granddaughter of Barbara and Naury, and my eldest great-grandchild . . .  I have three:  Josie (8), Adam (5), and Charlotte (6 months).

In 2001, in a restaurant a few yards from the sanctuary of the black madonna of Tindari, women in our Dark Mother study tour exclaimed when they saw an etching of naked African Amazon women on horseback arrowing invaders.   In 2010, when Wally and I visited the sanctuary the etching was still there.

During this first week of our explorations in Sicily, we often passed Termini Imerese, birthplace of my maternal grandmother, Giuseppina.  Like everybody on earth, Nanna was of African origin; later, her Lombard antecedents of north Italy came to Sicily in the 12th century CE with Christianizing Normans.  In the late 1890s, Nanna came from Termini, an orphan brought by Za Teresa to Kansas City, Missouri where she married Nannu Joe who had come a few years earlier from Palermo.  Nannu Joe’s forebears were semitic Canaanites before they became Christians. My sister Joie and great granddaughter Josie are named for Nanna Giuseppina.

Both my Nanna Jay Jay (name her grandkids gave Giuseppina) and my Nanna Lucia (for whom I am named) were Sicilian immigrants to Kansas City, Missouri, with their own Sicilian versions of Roman Catholicism.   In the U.S, Nanna Lucia, to whom each of her 4 sons brought reports on their families every Sunday, lived with a daughter. Nanna Jay Jay lived in a beautiful house on Benton that Nannu’s earnings had built; he was “horseradish and coconut king” of the city market of Kansas City who sang the market call on a radio greengrocer program.

Every Sunday, Nanna Jay Jay’s 7 tempestuous daughters, one franciscan son, and their kids came for pasta cu sugu, a family ritual with lots of noise and arguing … until Nanna Jay Jay, tired, sent everybody home.  I loved staying weekends and summers in Nanna’s blue and white serenity; she went to church every day and read the Bible, which my godmother, Aunt Mary gave to me when Nanna died.  My other grandmother, Nanna Lucia, intrigued me.  She carried a parrot on her shoulder who spoke earthily in Sicilian dialect.  (See previous books about my immediate family.  See section below for discussion of my Nanna Lucia.)

In our September 2014 journey in Sicily, I reflected on the succession of ancestors across this top coast of Sicily—a  major primordial paleolithic  path  of Africans,  then neolithic farmers after 10,000 BCE from Anatolia (west Asia “land of the mothers”),  Canaanite traders, ca. 800 BCE from west Asia and Africa . . .  classical Greeks of Magna Graecia came in the decade before the common epoch and colonized the island . . . African Hannibal of Africa  came in the Punic Wars with elephants that crossed the Alps.  Imperial Romans defeated Africans and Greeks. The Sicilian story unrolls farther with Jews and Christians,  Semitic Black Muslims from West Asia and Africa,  Normans and other Europeans later called northern Italians, French, Spanish, Germans, Scandinavians . . . along with visitors from west and southeast Asia  . . . all venerating different forms of everyone’s  ultimate mother.

In 2014, wherever my Italian speaking had earlier migrated, my mother tongue came back on this journey with my family to my ancestral land. So did memories.

On this northern coast of the island,  after Wally and I  had visited the black madonna of Tindari , we went to the nearby  town of  San Fratello (Saint Brother) named for  a male black  saint:  San Benedetto di  Fratello  detto  “Il Moro” (Saint Benedict of the city called Brother )  Black Muslim from Africa,  called Moor.  On a Christian prayer card, the black saint holds a white child while white children with black hair play at his feet.

San Fratello is the twin city to Palermo where Santa Rosalia, (saint variant of the madonna) with a black hand, lies in state atop Mt. Pellegrino (pilgrim mountain). In the 1980s, we watched two groups enacting easter rituals of San Fratello that baffle anthropologists—one enacting the dominant Christian story and the other group performing a counter ritual.

The participants in both groups were Christians.  The counter celebrants were probably of Muslim inheritance who had been forcibly converted to Christianity . . . who dance around town on Saturday of holy week with musical instruments and noise makers drowning out the music of established rituals.

Afterwards, everyone dined together in a restaurant where we joined them.  I noticed that some counter musicians wore black cloaks embroidered with a black madonna.  I asked, why the black madonna?  The response:  “Not just the black Madonna—all madonnas.”  In the city of Saint Brother in Sicily, all madonnas—black and white—are equal.   Color is a marker, but it is the meaning of all madonnas (black and white-washed) that is important:  mother of everyone.

In the 12th century CE,  Palermo, seat of the Holy Roman Empire, was the center of the western world in a  court  gleaming  with artists, poets, Jews, Muslims,  and heretics . . .  before the Roman  Catholic church aligned with emerging European nation states and began ousting semitic Jews and Muslims  in 1492,  in the run-up to the Inquisition persecuting and killing  heretics and other  dark others who threatened Christian rule over everyone.

In 2014, our guide for Palermo was a woman of Jewish ancestry, who gave us a subaltern (Gramscian term) view of history (“Garibaldi should have stayed home; Sicily was rich before unification in 1870”) . . . heartening me because I have a similar way of teaching—a cultural outsider researching and telling truthful stories, encouraging everyone to tell, or enact, their own stories.

On our 2014 journey, the skipper of our leased yacht guided me up the narrow gangplank while the crew chanted, “Forza Nonna!”  My kids swam in the waters of the paleolithic Addaura Cave while I could not stop tearing—sun lotion in my eyes—the first time I had been able to cry since Wally passed.   Our boat was docked in the marina of the Villa Igeia (named for goddess of healing) where Wally and I had earlier stayed.

At Trapani on the west coast of Sicily we were lifted by funicular to Erice where sailors from time immemorial have climbed the mountain carrying wine for priestesses of the temple of love.

To be continued. Read part 1, part 2, part 3.

Meet Mago Contributor Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum.

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