Cultural Epiphanies

I am probably using the word epiphany loosely, but I am trying to get at that encounter with another culture when the culture gets to you and you get it. It opens you up to a different world.

I’ve had four I can think of, one of which changed my life’s direction in so many ways.

The first I’ll describe has to do with music. I had heard Native American music on recordings and had not been able to grab ahold of anything that had any meaning for me. But when I went to the Hopi reservation several times and was present at the sacred dances and got to know some of the dancers, the force of endurance and the slow build-up of intensity hit me. It’s odd how that doesn’t come across in filmed performances, at least not for me. BTW, I don’t know how it is now, but this was back in the very early sixties, 60, 61.

Another eye-opener for me involves music only slightly. My dad would sometimes say something in Italian, just the name of a food, or he would sing a song. I was always struck by the way his mouth seemed to change completely. It did, of course. He went into an Italian mode of buccal muscle movement and transformed his articulatory apparatus.

The epiphany came b/c I always thought my dad’s ways were peculiar to him – his movements, speech, attitudes, and so forth. Very late in life, I watched an episode of The Sopranos – and there was my dad in every one of those guys. The language – most of it foul – the gestures, the flaring temper, the humor, the dress, the walk….. everything.

Now my dad grew up in Youngstown, Ohio of immigrant parents from Molise. The NYT about 10 years ago said Youngstown was the only city in the U.S. still run by the Mafia. My dad always hated those guys but he knew them (Phoenix and Tucson were retirement places for a lot of Mafiosi) and played golf with them. What struck me when I watched The Sopranos was how totally cultural my dad’s ways were. I had never known other Italians, so I thought that was just the way my dad was. I could never get him to watch an episode but it might not have done much good…………..

When we had my father-in-law watch The Apostle, we were sure he would recognize the culture of East Texas so richly displayed in that movie. Both Blacks and Whites were depicted in the most culturally realistic ways imaginable in that movie. My wife was raised in a Black Pentacostal church, starting in East Texas and moving to Phoenix. We marvelled at how accurately the movie portrayed that culture.

But when my father-in-law watched it, he prayed along with the preacher. For him, it was real life. When the preacher, Robert Duvall, prayed, my father-in-law would get right in there with him. There was no separation into “performer” and “audience” for him. When folks are in trouble, you pray with them, and that’s what he did. The whole notion that these were Hollywood actors performing their roles so perfectly they seemed just like real folk passed him by; to him, they were real folk.

That leads me into the next epiphany: entering into a Black church, something I had never been exposed to. Like so many people of my social class in the 50s, I had met very few Black people. A couple of kids in schools in the North, none in the South, of course (Texas, Alabama, Arizona, not even in California). What I saw and heard in that church was exactly what I had studied in my anthropology classes. Somehow, I didn’t connect what I read about with what was going on under my nose in South Phoenix. But there it was: the music, the language, the kinesics, the food, everything.

Spending three years attending that church two, three, four times a week and getting to know the people well gave me a different perspective on things. That’s probably hard for someone under 55 or 60 who hadn’t seen segregation to grasp – what it would be like to live in the same town with several thousand people you never saw, whose lives were on a different trajectory from your own, and so forth.

One of the things that amazed me about my wife was her intellectual qualities. By intellectual, I am not referring to intelligence but to intellect, the ability to remove yourself from expectations and orthodoxies and look at things plainly. I took her to see Black Orpheus and she immediately saw that the Candomble ritual in the movie bore great similarities to what went on in her church: women dressed in white dancing in a circle to drums producing complex rhythms leading to spirit possession. She saw it immediately.

The epiphany regarding the church was simply that here we had a culture unique to North America but with ties to Latin America, the Caribbean, and West Africa which thrived amid a very different culture. How did that happen? I’ve spent a good deal of my life working on that conundrum.

A very minor epiphany occurred when I went to Russia and encountered the cultural trait I had read about of greeting you only once in the day. Most Americans will say good morning to someone more than once if they run into them a couple of times separated by a few hours. Not in Russia.

Another time-related issue is seen esp in Mexico where if you say Good afternoon and it’s not time yet, you’ll be called on it or at least people will check their watch and correct you if you’re off by a half-hour or so.The epiphany there is that these traits you read about in books really exisit.

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