Feminism, Religion, and Politics in Italy
by Professor Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum (Author)
Black Madonnas is a prize-winning, deeply researched, historical study demonstrating ancient goddess origins of Black Madonnas, subversive peasant customs and rituals surrounding images of Black Madonnas, and their contemporary transformative cultural and political implications.
In the 1993 edition, I considered Black Madonnas a metaphor for a memory of the time when the earth was believed to be the body of woman and all creatures were equal, a memory transmitted in vernacular traditions of earth-bonded cultures, historically expressed in cultural and political resistance, and glimpsed today in movements aiming for transformation. Since then my understanding of Black Madonnas has been deepened by geneticists finding that the origin of modern humans is Africa, that primordial migrations from Africa carried a belief in a sacred dark woman to all continents. Black Madonnas may be considered a metaphor for healing millennial divisions of gender and race in concerted world movements for justice.
DARK MOTHER OUT OF AFRICA
Comments by Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum
My research in the cultural history of Italy for Liberazione della donna. Feminism in Italy (1986) and Black Madonnas. Feminism, religion, and politics in Italy (1993,1997) uncovered a pervasive memory of a dark mother and her values: justice with compassion, equality, and transformation.
This finding converges with the archeomythology of Marija Gimbutas documenting the civilization of the goddess in Old Europe, Elinor Gadon's demonstration of the ubiquity of signs of the goddess in prehistoric art, Judy Grahn's metaformic theory relating menstruation to women's creation of culture, and thousands of studies now blossoming in the field of women's spirituality.
When studies in women's spirituality are placed alongside recent developments in genetics and archeology, notably the research of L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza in genetics and Emmanuel Anati in archeology, a change of paradigm is visible.
Genetics, archeology, and cultural history confirm the african origin of modern humans; demic migrations (wherein migrants take beliefs with them) out of Africa to all continents after 50,000 B.C.E point to Africa as the matrix of the earliest known divinity — a dark mother.
Work of ot her cultural theorists—notably Antonio Gramsci on the significance of folklore as transmitter of values, notably the "buon senso" of all peoples, and Noarn Chomsky who considers our genetic endowment to be "a memory of our earliest existence"--has encouraged me to formulate a working hypothesis:
The memory of the prehistoric dark mother, and her values --justice with compassion, equality, and transformation — appear to remain vibrant in subordinated cultures, and in the submerged memories, perhaps, of everyone.
This working hypothesis is explored in my forthcoming godmothers~ african origins la dea madre ~ le comari wherein, as a historian, I place the themes in a narrative, beginning with signs of the dark mother --red ochre paint in caves of south Africa 900,000 B.C.E., the pervasive pubic V in the rock art of central and south Africa 50,000 B.C.E. when africans migrated to all continents, the similarity of prehistoric rock art everywhere, and the common theme of creation stories of peoples of all five continents: an original harmonious homeland, which Anati locates in the verdant savannah of central and south Africa.
The significance of Cavalli-Sforza's theory of demic migrations out of Africa is explored in cases of (a) migrant africans at Har Karkom in the Sinai who created the "oldest religious sanctuary in the world" 40,000 B.C.E. , the place that later became Mount Sinai, foundation place of judaism, christianity, and islam. (b) descendants of african migrants in Sicily and Malta and creation of the megalith temple civilization of a sacred woman in Malta after 3800 B.C.E. (c) canaanites, descendants of africans in west Asia whom greeks called phoenicians, who, from bases in west Asia and Africa, carried icons of the great mother (Isis of Africa and her anatolian and canaanite images -Cybele and Astarte) all over the known world in the millennium before the common era. Although established judaism, christianity, and islam eliminated the dark mother from religious doctrine, her memory appears to have persisted in vernacular, or everyday, cultures of the three religions, beliefs that may be glimpsed in rituals, stories, names, festivals, and uprisings.
In addition to stressing the significance of everyday culture (which suggests sources from graffiti to bumper stickers), my methodologies in the search for the goddess, whom I call the dark mother, fastens research to a particular place, in my case Sicily --island of the Mediterranean that has been called a metaphor for Italy, and probable metaphor for emerging global radical democracy. For this research I have looked to (a) local historians. In Sicily, local historians, from Diodorus Siculus to present day historians, pay serious attention to popular beliefs. Major sicilian popular beliefs include belief in african origins and the dark mother as the earliest divinity.
The underside of dominant cultures studied in (b) representations of the memory of the dark mother in images of black madonnas of Europe, (c) popular stories about saints; e.g., Santa Lucia, whom the church expropriated for patriarchal doctrine, yet memory of the african dark mother, and her values persisted in popular stories and rituals about santa Lucia whom people identify as a santone (great saint) along with prehistoric divinity Cybele and christian Maria. .
As Gimbutas, Gadon, and others have pointed out, the memory of the goddess persists in (d) art, (e..g., for my theme in godmothers see Masaccio and black sant' Anna behind her whitened daughter Maria). The memory may also be glimpsed in (e) lives of remarkable women, e.g., santa Teresa who taught "silent prayer," enabling others to keep their beliefs away from inquisitors. Most important, in my view, are (f) lives of peasant women; e.g., sicilian comari who lived on the flanks of the Monti Iblei named for the dark mother, who resisted patriarchy in everyday rituals, and defied the injustice of religious and secular powers during carnevale.
(f) Submerged beliefs may also be glimpsed during epochal moments, notably celebratory times (carnival) and popular uprisings and demonstrations. The longevity and pervasiveness of the memory of the civilization of the dark mother was evident at Comiso, in the Monti Iblei, in 1983 when women of the world gathered to denounce Nato nuclear missiles and to announce a denuclearized world without hierarchy and without violence.
Extending moral, cultural, and political implications of the memory of the dark mother from women to all persons considered other, I explore european histories of jews, moors, and heretics, as well as of women persecuted as heretics, lesbians, healers, et al., suggesting that others of Europe shared commonality of belief in the dark mother, and commonality of persecution.
Adopting comparative history of Italy and the United States as a way of closely understanding the meaning of the dark mother and the dark others who venerated her, I place european inquisition persecution of dark others alongside persecution of dark others in first settlements of europeans in what became the United States. American "exceptionalism" is confirmed in persecution of dark others... genocide of native americans, genocidal enslavement of african americans, banishing and hanging dissenting women, and subordination of all peoples considered dark, a category that included latin americans, jewish americans, irish americans, asian americans, italian americans, et al.
Looking at history from the perspective of dark others, the history of the United States may be regarded as a history of subjugation of dark others, which in the 20th century became empire abroad and social control of dark others at home. A methodology for understanding patriarchy and submerged cultures may be comparing beliefs of dominant white male elites in U. S. with beliefs in vendor songs of sicilian immigrants lauding the dark mother and her values. Social control of dark others in the U.S. in the 20th century has used intelligence tests to maintain the hegemony of white male elites, and animal laboratory conditioning techniques to manipulate the religious beliefs of dark others, conditioning the dark underclasses to beliefs needed by dominant white male elites to sustain their cultural and political hegemony.
Studying historical transformative moments, the decade of 1960s in the United States, , for example, may be regarded the rise of dark others. Documented in student papers and my notes during the Free Speech Movement at the University of California at
Berkeley and the strike of third world students at San Francisco State College, african american and third world leadership (for whom the memory of the dark mother remains vibrant) inspired the participation of the young, and others, of all ethnic groups who also have the memory, although it may be more submerged).
Studying cultures where the memory of the dark mother, and her values, is very close to consciousness Italy for example, may be the country to watch as a laboratory in radical democracy for the 21st century. Popular transformative movements in Italy that remember the dark mother include the women's movement, men's nonviolence initiatives, and student resistance to patriarchy while creating green paths around the earth.
Global meaning of the memory of the dark mother was glimpsed at the international conference of women in China in 1995, when the world's women honored the marginal women who kept her memory and values for more than two millennia, and committed themselves to work for the memory/vision of a green and just earth.
Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, Ph.D., is a multicultural historian whose Liberazione della Donna: Feminism in Italy won an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation in 1987. Her subsequent exploration of submerged beliefs and negated cultures, Black Madonnas: Feminism, Religion and Politics in Italy (Northeastern University Press, 1993; Italian edition, Black Madonnas. Femminismo. Religion e Politica inItalia. Bari, Palomar Editrice, 1997) has been acclaimed by scholars ranging from Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School to feminist scholar Donna Haraway, poets, multicultural historians, anthropologists,sociologists, and cultural theorists. A Gramscian Marxist study of vernacular beliefs, it has been called "a daring multi- and supra-disciplinary work," "groundbreaking," and an "inspiring analysis of submerged knowledges for contemporary democratic movements." In October 1998, Lucia Birnbaum received the prestigious Valitutti Award for non-fiction for Black Madonnas. In 2001, she published Dark Mother: African Origins and Godmothers.
In 1996, for her books and work for a just world, Dr. Birnbaum was inducted into the International African American Multicultural Educators Hall of Fame. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Italian Research and Study Program for the International Area Studies at UC Berkeley.
Lucia holds a doctorate in European and U.S. history from the University of California at Berkeley. A founder of the Peace and Freedom Party in 1967, she was an assistant professor of U.S. history at San Francisco State University, a few days from achieving tenure when she was fired for participating in the student/professor strike against racism and imperialism. Thereafter an independent scholar, she frequently travels to Italy for research and teaches and lectures in the U.S.
In May 2002, Lucia was awarded Serpentina's Enheduanna Award for Excellence in Women-Centered Literature.