Born in 1945, lifelong Glen Cove resident Vinny Basile, 74, said he grew up in a time in which racism was normalized in the city. The youngest of 16 children growing up in Glen Cove’s Orchard neighborhood, he said he was brought up racist, raised to think white people and black people could not and should not coalesce. Although everybody in his family saw the world through a prejudiced lens, Basile said he saw it in a different way, because he is blind.
Basile said he was born with glaucoma and had his left eye removed when he was three. By the time he was seven, he had lost his eyesight completely.
While he said he was terrified of losing his vision at first, Basile said it ultimately turned into a blessing. He said it motivated him to teach himself how to play drums, forming his first band, Vinny and the Venetian Blinds, when he was 13. This passion for music stuck with him for life, he said, as he has made a living performing as Vinny St. Marten in clubs throughout the world.
However, Basile said the greatest gift that came from his blindness was given to him as a 15-year-old at Glen Cove High School. He said a fellow classmate, a boy named Roy, was assigned to escort him throughout the building. The two became fast friends, he said, enjoying the time they spent together inside and outside of school.
It was not until two months into his friendship with Roy that Basile was asked a question by another classmate: “Why are you hanging out with that black kid?”
Basile said that, because of his blindness, he had no idea Roy was black. This was a major turning point in his life, he said, because it made him realize that racial identity does not determine a person’s character. From that point on, he said he was determined to defy the racist practices he had been taught and use his unique perspective to help others come to the same conclusions.
Basile also recalled meeting a boy named Walter, who he said was born with a disfigured face. He said other children were cruel to Walter, but he befriended him nonetheless, a relationship which he said also would not have happened if not for his blindness.
“I met these two people, Roy and Walter, and they did more for me than any school or any therapist could do for me,” Basile said. “Being friends with them and having an incredible relationship with them are stories that need to be told”
“I feel sorry for a lot of people who have eyesight,” he added, “because that’s the crux of a lot of problems.”
Through his career as a musician and a motivational speaker, Basile said he has made it his mission to bring people together, regardless of their differences.
Elysa Sunshine, 69, said she has been Basile’s musical partner for 45 years. She said Basile’s self-awareness to grow out of his learned racism is one of his best qualities and something which has made making music with him a joy.
“The unique perspective that he brings is that he admits to being racist when he grew up,” Sunshine said. “He illustrates events in his life that made him rethink all that and that kind of honesty is what we need today. [It’s] what we’ve always needed.”
Glen Cove resident Darlyne Genova, 73, said she has known Basile since she was 15. Although she grew up in Sea Cliff and attended North Shore High School, she said the two met through mutual friends despite coming from seemingly different worlds. She said racism was not nearly as present in Sea Cliff as it was in Glen Cove in the 1950s, and she said Basile defied the prejudice expected of white people in Glen Cove at the time.
“Vinny did not have that experience,” Genova said. “Even to this day in his life, he is the most giving, open, honest person. He recognizes everybody by their voice and judges people on their heart and soul.”
Basile said his message is as important now as ever given the large societal focus on race relations in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police. Although it was written 15 years ago, he said his song “Think About It,” is the perfect representation of how he tries to raise awareness and fight racism through his music.
“What would we do if our eyes were are closed, can you tell me?” Basile’s lyrics say. “Would we hate what we see if we couldn’t see what we hate?”
“The song and the message in it has been relevant for a very long time,” said Sunshine, who wrote the song alongside Basile, “and sadly, today I think it has a particular importance.”
The song can be found by searching “Think About It Vinny St. Marten” on YouTube. Basile’s music and motivational programs can be found at www.vinnystmarten.com.
Basile said he is encouraged by demonstrators who are fighting against racism today, something which he said gives him hope for the future.