Sunday, October 19, 2014

Wondering about so many things ...

not the least of which is the nagging suspicion that my feelings about black identity need upgrading in light of a changing nation and world.

I mentioned after returning from the trip to Atlanta and Tuskegee in August, whether I didn't need to reconsider something that had begun to creep into my theater presentations of late; the feeling that African Americans may be settling for less than we should when we actively promote Black history over encouraging the inclusion of our story into mainstream American history.

The trip south weakened my resolve upon the re-discovery of the richness of Black History while visiting the beautiful red brick campus at Tuskegee University; walking through the George Washington Carver exhibits; through Booker T. Washington's gracious home; riding through the magnificent greenery of the historic 54 mile drive from Montgomery to Selma; standing on Pettus Bridge; etc.  It was so much more powerful than I'd ever imagined.  On returning home I began to wonder just how much power might be lost if our collective truth were to be de-emphasized in any way.

I'm no closer to an answer, but something came up in the course of the tumultuous political campaigns in our city -- of the two candidates in the mayoral race one is white, and the other black.  The white candidate is loosely associated with the Progressive wing of the community, and the black candidate is running a brutal campaign with unlimited corporate financial backing.  The black candidate expresses conservative views on just about anything that comes before the city council, of which both are currently members.  The white candidate might best be described as a political moderate with a good and years-long record of public service. The rough and tumble shape of the election cycle is predictable with few surprises.

However, none of this is the issue that's giving me cause for concern; it's this:

The base out of which the Black candidate emerges is an organization called B.A.P.A.C (Black Americans Political Action Committee).  One day last week as I held a scathing flyer distributed  online by that group in an attempt to detract from the white candidate's reputation,  I found myself wondering what might happen should the white candidate have a base called " W.A.P.A.C. (White Americans Political Action Committee")?

Setting the obvious aside for a moment, I need to say that not that long ago 40% of Richmond's population was African American.  At this point however, according to the last census, 40% of this city is now Latino, with African American families having moved on deeper into the small towns of the upper San Joaquin Valley and Solano County.  The black demographic has been reduced dramatically. There was a time when there would have been a  significant black constituency to try to attract in order to garner political power, but now -- in a non-majority State -- where no one holds the edge, "Black" labeling may be fast-becoming outdated, and will soon no longer be viable as a magnetic force for change.

Were I a member of the large European,  Laotian, East Indian, Asian/American, or Latino subgroups who share this community I'm not certain that I would be quick to align myself with a group so labeled.  It may not be through any sense of disrespect, but given the label Black American Political Action Committee, I just might wonder if its concerns would be broad enough; that its membership would have the capacity to care about my culturally-specific issues.

In a nation on the verge of becoming a non-majority society, coalition-building must become the rule of the day, right?  This is uncharted territory, and I'm only beginning to see the implications through this election cycle. My brain is engaged in some editing, upgrading, changing, and the concept that involves including black history into mainstream American history may be a natural progression, but at this point it's unclear. I may not have time on the planet to see this through to its conclusion, but meanwhile I'll keep gnawing at it.

... maybe that's why I'm attracted to the Richmond Progressive Alliance wing of local politics at this point; an organization less "moderate" than I, surely, but that reflects the wish of what used to be called "Liberals" to act together on those things upon which they can agree (across racial lines) as they cast aside for further discussion those things seen differently; and all in mutual respect. 

I suggest that B.A.P.A.C may want to come into the 21st Century and begin to build anew its political base -- this time with inclusion. The organization may want to re-design its mission, re-think its direction toward something that better reflects the multiracial, multicultural society we're evolving into as a city and as a Nation, instead they appear to be rebuilding the racial barrier earlier generations gave up so much to overcome. This is hardly worthy of their well-meaning organization. The only thing being accomplished by current attitudes (which excludes all others except for black males), brings divisiveness into the unity some have struggled to gain over time.

... and make no mistakes, I see continuing need for African Americans to come together socially and culturally in order to strengthen the ties that bind us as a people. What I'm beginning to wonder about is just how far we can take the Black designation into politics and prevail in a time when it will become more and more necessary to coalesce with others for mutual gain. Maybe we can't stand alone any longer in a fast-changing nation without losing something very precious to the continuing development of the Democracy that we are all trying so hard to bring about.

New thoughts.

Old doubts ... .

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Photo by Shirley Butt
Balancing my career self (with the limitations imposed by the Hatch Act ) ... .

... and my very political private citizen self has been challenging over past weeks.

This election cycle has been so volatile in my city (Richmond, California) since the passage of the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Citizens United which grants corporations unlimited opportunities to participate in -- not only national and state -- but in city elections as well with obscene amounts of money.  Here in our city corporate largesse is overwhelming our local candidates.  We're reeling from the effects of that ruling, and I've been diligent in respecting those limitations, but adamant in expressing my rights to participate in the electoral process as a private citizen.

I've agreed not to ever appear at a political event in uniform (a requirement), and to try to avoid ever being identified in my official role as an employee of the federal government.   The local press has been very cooperative and I've been able to enjoy relative freedom to express myself and my political interests with the consent of those to whom I'm responsible.

All that being said, I'd say that I've done pretty well, all things are considered, and -- being photographed with the dynamic Senator Bernie Sanders and two of this year's candidates was accomplished without identifying me at all.  Senator Sanders is a brilliant man, and a great speaker.  His strident advocacy for our shared goals is heartening.

I suspect that I'm firmly enough identified by the amazing amount of public exposure I've had over the past months so that labels would not serve any purpose anyway.

It's a wild ride to November 4th!


Thursday, October 02, 2014

(welders tool is embedded within)
Just every now and then I begin to feel overwhelmed by an increasing amount of public attention ... .

... the past several weeks have been just such a time.  Everything seems larger than life as I'm been living it over the past decades, and waaaaaay beyond the edges that used to hold that life.

I tend to withdraw a bit, do some reassessment of the landscape, and (if possible) gradually move back into the foreground.

A few months ago I received word by a phone call that the Central Labor Council of the AFL-CIO was holding their annual banquet in the Craneway Pavilion -- a vast cathedral-like venue in the Ford Assembly Plant which abuts our Visitors Education Center here in Richmond.  The reason for the call was to get me to hold the date of September 19th since I would  be one of this year's 3 honorees that evening.  Rep. George Miller would receive the Life Achievement Award, and the Legacy Award would be given to me.

The evening arrived and every standing or sitting public official from State, County, City, and from the Labor Movement itself was present in that cavernous room.  Every declared candidate for any political office in this election cycle was also present and accounted for.  It was a grand evening!

The drama of the evening, for me, was not the "Who's who" in that grand space, but that this handmade crystal 15 inch (lighted from within!) beautiful one-of-a-kind trophy was presented by a group of of today's Boilermakers Unionists who stood with me on the platform to make the presentation.

The bronze plaque gives, after many decades, status to the little Jim Crow segregated Union, Boilermakers Auxiliary #36, created under the flawed social system of the early forties -- the time of the greatest mobilization of workers since the building of the pyramids or the Great Wall of China.  By their action (through me) that powerful Union legitimized our participation by closing the circle (finally) with all of us enclosed within.  Rev. Willie B. Smith, Secretary Mahlon Roles and his wife Marguerite, Spencer Jordan, Zola Adams, Christine White, Martha Ford Montgomery, plus thousands of black shipyard workers who gave their all without fairness of opportunity or recognition, and I,  are now counted  as legitimate contributors to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Great Arsenal of Democracy after more than 70 years.  The little temporary office building that held us was unceremoniously torn down immediately at the end of the war, so that past has been obliterated as most or all of those other lives passed into eternity over time.  I believe that I may well be the last one standing ... .

This tribute may have come in my name, but it is really a tribute to today's International Brotherhood of Boilermakers who went back into their past to own that blighted history; to forgive themselves; and then continue to open the way to greater unity.  I'm told that today's Boilermakers is the most racially diverse division among all of today's Unions.

The plaque reads:

    Betty Reid Soskin
         Boilermakers Auxiliary Local #36
in honor of your Home Front service
and your dedication to preserving
a transformative chapter in U.S. history
for women and people of color

(signed by the international president of
the Brotherhood of Boilermakers Iron Shipbuilders
Blacksmith Forgers and Helpers)

In all of our names, I am so grateful for this recognition.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Busy back at work so haven't followed up on my report on the trip to Atlanta and Tuskegee ... .

... but I was trying to wait for my colleague to provide her photos so that I could share them, but she is also back at her desk and hasn't gotten around to making the CD yet.  I brought along my camera but, unfortunately, I simply forget to take photos even when it's right there in my hand.  I guess I just don't want anything to stand between me and an experience.  We'll just have to wait for Sue's pics.

It occurred to me that the one thing I haven't yet reported on is the event that brought us to Tuskegee in the first place, the address for Women's Equality Day at the Airfield.  The truth is that I was so deeply moved by all that surrounded it, that I'm not sure that I could tell you what I said in that speech.  It faded into the background as the other experiences took over every cell in my body.

Moten Airfield is a scant 4 miles from the university campus, and is also a National Park System site, one that has been faithfully restored with impressive exhibits, both of the ghost buildings and those that could be restored. Those no longer standing are represented by skeletal metal footprints in the exact measurements of those now missing.  I've never seen that done before, and it does the job quite well.

In addition, the hangars have been restored and are rich with blow-ups of the Airmen, including everyone who served in any capacity (pilots, mechanics, instructors, etc.) now being considered "Tuskegee Airmen."   This was no surprise since our park considers anyone working on the Home
Front in any capacity as a "Rosie."  I was told that one woman who is seen in one of the giant photos huddling under the wing of a plane with pilots -- a mechanic -- is still living in the area but was too frail to attend the event.

The audience was made up of NPS staff, volunteers, and at least two elected officials, one who with his spouse, had driven all the way from Mobile (a 3-hour drive) to attend.

We visited the historic hangars, followed by a sumptuous lunch in the Sky Club where young  officers had gathered for recreation -- with a jukebox of the times playing music of that era.  We would then take off for the drive along the historic Selma to Montgomery Trail and Pettus Bridge where another stunning NPS visitor center has been established in a rehabilitated bank building.  What had escaped notice by virtue of the tragic and dramatic events of Bloody Sunday was the serene beauty of the Alabama river that meanders lazily below in silent testimony to those long ago horrific scenes.  The nation responded with shock and shame, and those images on our television sets changed the fate of what had been a seemingly failed social revolution up to that point.

The town of Selma appears to have changed little over the years; and could be well-used as a movie set of that painful era.  One would hope that the same would not be said of those still living there.

... and I just noticed that the report on my talk has gotten itself buried again.  Maybe I'll just have to let it all simmer until it's ready.  Maybe by the time Sue gets back to work from her backpacking trip at Yosemite and can transfer the photos from her camera to a CD.  Maybe then I can recapture the part  that I played in last week's journey ... maybe.  But when put in context, my contribution was probably the least important aspect of a memorable trip back in time.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Home for a few days of extended vacation before returning to work ...  

and still feeling the effects of having plunged back into a past of so much pain -- but with a sense of victory as well.

I believe that I will find new power in the words to "We shall overcome" after having experienced the Montgomery to Selma Historic Trail with Superintendent Christine Biggers of the Tuskegee Airfield site.  Seeing it all through her eyes so enriched the adventure and brought such vibrancy to our day together.

To see Berkeley's Tuskegee Airman Wendell Lipscomb's photograph among the trainers of pilots was a strong reminder of how closely-lived was my world to that history.  I knew Wendell, and was aware that he'd served his country in that way, but more because he returned to the University of California afterwards where he became a noted psychiatrist specializing in the development of programs to combat and control alcoholism.  To see his huge image exhibited on the wall of Hanger #1 made it all surreal.  Our Armed Forces chose the best and the brightest, obviously, men who didn't disappoint, but served their country with honor and distinction as the "Red Tails".

When I slipped into my handsome red Tuskegee Airmen's jacket (a gift from Christine upon our departure), it was in honor of Wendell, Kenneth "Bunny" Hernandez, Francis "Frank" Collier, and Les Williams (of San Mateo) -- all airmen I'd known at the time, and dated before the US Army Air Force discovered them and accepted them for service.  I must have been all of 17 and 18, in my last year of high school and eager to enter adulthood.  On May 24 of 1942 -- months after war was declared -- I married Melvin Reid whose friends were already enlisted and serving.

It appears that the Air Force and I had similar tastes in men!

Now to spend some time processing those unforgettable days of last week, and sorting out just how to incorporate the new learnings into my presentations.  I'm no longer inclined to downplay Black history in favor of blending it into American history "since it was something we all lived."  Not sure how to do that -- but my talks will surely have to be edited in some way to include some new thinking.  The issue is far more complex than before these new experiences.

After all, I've been saying all along that when we give up our complexity, we sacrifice much of our truth.

This is where those words get tested.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

On Tuesday we started the day by visiting the National Park Service Visitor Education Center to see the George Washington Carver exhibits ... the founder of Tuskegee University ... .

... a most beautiful campus of all red brick structures -- bricks made of native materials and by Tuskegee students over the years.  It is not only a magnificent campus, but every brick stands for independence, morality, steadfastness, and pride -- and from the verdant grounds to the stately trees -- everywhere one looks is living history.

Over the years since former slave Dr. Carver founded this historically black college, it has stood as one of the most highly respected institutions of higher learning in the nation.   The Dr. Booker T.
Louis Charbonnet
Washington home on that campus was a revelation for me.  It suggested a more gracious and elegant lifestyle was lived by black leaders of the day than I was aware of.  I learned more about these two men than I'd ever known before.  I recalled that my paternal grandfather, Louis Charbonnet,  a noted engineer and millwright of New Orleans had studied his crafts through correspondence courses from this very institution.  Over the next few weeks I plan to check through the Tuskegee archives for those records.  This experience added to my sense of being the link twixt then and now.

It occurred to me while lying awake that first night (with every nerve-ending vibrating!), that the National Park Service might best serve the cause of racial unity by insistence that young rangers of European descent -- where possible -- spend at least 6 months on such historically black college campuses -- on detail -- where they can have the experience of being in the minority in order to learn about white privilege.  Yes.  White privilege probably can be best learned experiencially in a context where there is no question about social, intellectual, and educational equality.  Since the National Parks have created these visitors centers on such sites, putting them to such use could be life-changing for rangers-in-training in ways that cannot be taught otherwise.  What an opportunity for learning such experiences could provide.

It is impossible to not feel that -- for the past hundred years we, as a nation, have been trying to fix black folks.  It's quite possible that it's not black folks who need fixin'.  Thinking back over the past half-century it seems that black folks have shown more compassion, respect for human rights, fearlessness in the face of indescribable cruelty in many cases, and have done so while insisting upon the right to lives of peace and productivity in a country in which they firmly believed, but which has never seen fit to fully accept their participation in the process of full citizenship. 

Maybe it's time to start fixin' white folks.

Tuesday's 4-mile trip to the Tuskegee Airmen's field from the campus; the 54 mile drive to Selma to stand on Pettus Bridge; visiting the heart-wrenching exhibits of the heroic marchers of 50 years ago; the drive back to the Capitol at Montgomery with Jefferson Davis's statue guarding the entrance; the old Confederate White House just a block away with Morris Dees' Poverty Law Center another half block from that; with Dr. Martin Luther King's Dexter Chapel just across the street from the Capitol; stopping at St. Jude's where the church and convent hosted the marchers and a concert featuring Joan Baez and Harry Belafonte at the time.  The marchers had been allowed to pitch their tents on the expansive lawns of St. Jude's while preparing for the historic March for Freedom.

The proximity of all of these historic sites of opposing forces was something I was not prepared for, and the realization of it -- when it is full-blown in one's consciousness -- was an emotional experience not ever to be forgotten.

On the drive along that stretch of highway I was reminded that -- what is now a divided highway with 2 lanes in each direction with a grassy neutral ground running full-length down the center -- it was at that time a narrow 2 lane country road with no shoulders to retreat to, and with the marchers competing with hostile motorists along the way ... for 54 miles which they covered in 4 days, only to be confronted by Sheriff Jim Clarke and his fire hoses and police dogs ... .

It all became more real than is comfortable in the telling ... .

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Where to begin?

Landing at the Atlanta airport is an adventure of great significance -- and had it not been for the fact that I was escorted by Sue Fritzke, deputy superintendent of our 4 parks --  I may have had to spend the rest of my life riding up and down on the most amazing set of escalators on Planet Earth!  Wiser heads had prevailed, and the decision to not allow me to descend on Atlanta alone was fortunately made by caring staff.

We arrived early Sunday evening and spent the first of several sleepless nights of anticipation of the most spectacular set of experiences one might ever expect to live through.  It was an emotional roller-coaster that threatened to overwhelm me at almost every turn.   I was on the verge of tears much of the time, and before full recovery could take place -- another heart-stopping moment would occur!

I'm not sure that anything could have prepared me for the 3 days of unimaginable heart-rending vignettes that I will be re-living for a very long time.

Ranger Judy Forte, Superintendent of the NPS King site was a gracious host who set everything aside to provide personal guidance to a far larger King campus than I'd ever imagined existed.  She was joined by Ranger Tim.  There was the National Park Service site (shown above); the Martin Luther King, Jr. family site that adjoins it; the Birth Home -- with more than hints of the gracious lifestyle of the elder King family.  The  lovely home has been faithfully restored and lovingly preserved.  We visited the fire station with its fire engine of the times; the original Ebenezer Baptist Church where the elder Pastor Martin Luther King, Sr., had held forth, but that now rings with the familiar recorded voice of his illustrious son; the tragic hero of our times.

The rangers who escorted us were unstintingly generous with their time and well-versed in the stories, large and small.

The King campus is so much grander and the stories so much more comprehensive than I'd had any reason to expect.  There were undiscovered aspects to stories that I thought I'd known before.   The previously mythical has now become real.  I've now stood in the places where those lives were lived; and things will never be quite the same.

I am so proud and grateful to be associated with the National Park Service in these years when Civil Rights history is being given its due after being marginalized for decades.  But I'm re-thinking my recently-proclaimed statements to the effect that "history should not be ghetto-ized, but that black history needs to be blended into American history."  Such a statement may be more glib than reliable.  Not so sure about this any more, but more about that later.

Got to meet the only person I could claim to know in Atlanta (one I'd only met online).  Lisa took time from her job (only 5 blocks away from the King Center) to meet me.  We'd connected some years ago when engaged in a genealogy adventure.  Again, that feeling of the magic of technology that brought the virtual together with the actual -- and I could feel the friendship of long-standing in the embrace -- feelings that transcend the "real" and moves it onto another plane of existence -- one that I may not live long enough to ever fully understand.

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