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Dr. Kyenge’s Crusade


In 1933, the writer Arna Bontemps, a fellow member with Langston Hughes of a collection of writers, artists, and musicians that history has dubbed “the Harlem Renaissance,” in recognition of the creative contributions they offered to the world, penned a moving short story called, “A Summer Tragedy.”

The piece describes the proud, yet humble attempts of a southern sharecropper, Jeff Patton to dress himself in his threadbare best Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes; his wife, Jennie helps him with tying his bow tie–even though she is blind. Jeff’s fingers are crippled with arthritis. His wife makes her way out their cabin with a stick to guide her way. They find their way to their decrepit car.

As they travel down the road, their conversation has a somber tone. Jennie keeps asking her husband if he is scared. Why this question? The couple have decided to commit suicide. Their five children have died and Jeff has suffered a stroke. The couple cannot bear the thought of not being able to care for each other. The story ends with the image of the old car hitting the water of the stream with the two old proud sharecroppers sitting upright until the car sinks.

This death with dignity saga had its modern day global reprise in Italy last month. Two researchers at the Prevention Research Center at Stanford University described the despair felt by a married couple in a seaside town in Italy who were overwhelmed by their efforts to survive on a monthly pension of about $650 that went to the wife who was 68 years old. The husband was 62 and not eligible for any assistance. The former construction worker was a victim of the Italian government’s attempt to balance the budget by raising the retirement age.

Unable to pay their rent without a safety net, the two senior citizens hanged themselves. When the wife’s brother, who was 73, heard the news, he drowned himself in the Adriatic Sea–an echo of the Bontemps’s tale.

These tragedies have peculiar resonance in the global economic spin that the world’s nations have conjured since about the same time as the triple suicide in Italy, Cecile Kyenge, an eye doctor and Italian citizen originally from Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was named the first black government minister in the nation of Italy. Her title–Minister of Integration.

Her appointment was met with racist vile vitriol reminiscent of the chants and shouts of a Klu Klux Klan lynching: One Italian member of the European Parliament said that Dr. Kyenge – appeared to be “a good housewife but not a minister” This official’s attempts to vet the doctor’s qualifications to minister to the Italian people’s needs seems sadly out of touch with reality.

His nation’s futile attempts to pull the euro zones third-largest economy out of recession remain on ice as rising unemployment and falling living standards crank up the insecurities. that drove the three senior citizens to kill themselves last month. The doctor is married to an Italian native–if she lives in a dwelling, she could properly be called a housewife. But she has been trained to help humans see better. Her vision is not just limited to the corneas and retinas of the eye.

The 49-year-old eye doctor said she believes hostile attitudes stem mainly from ignorance:

“I am not ‘coloured’, I’m black, it is important to say that, I emphasize it proudly.”

“We need to break down these walls. If you don’t know someone, skepticism increases, discrimination increases. Immigration is a richness. Differences are a resource.”

Dr. Kyenge’s attempts to grant citizenship to immigrant children born in Italy at birth rather than the current policy of forcing them to wait until age 18 may well supply laborers with a vested interest in providing a vigorous labor base and tax base to provide for Italy’s rapidly growing cohort of pensioners.

In this light, she has comparison with the solder and political leader Hannibal who after his mythic military conquest of Rome by climbing the Alps on elephants and maintaining an army in Italy for ten years was forced to return to his native Africa after a Roman attack. However, few historians note that after those conflicts, this commander, who some argue was a dark-skinned man, enacted political and financial reforms to enable the payment of the war indemnity imposed by Rome. Perhaps the racist male chauvinists of Italy can argue if he was a homemaker not a minister.

Frederick B. Hudson is poet, screenwriter and educator.

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