Monday, April 14, 2014

March in support of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act
Insight ... .

Every now and then I sense a breakthrough and that I'm on a different plane of thought somehow ... and this weekend was another of those rare times.

Though our park has experienced a rising though inconsistent flurry of visitation by people of color, it still has not "caught on" with the local black community.  Not really.  Those who happen in for whatever reasons, leave touched and grateful for the work that we're doing here, but -- for the most part -- our penetration in the community is pretty shallow.  I have to keep reminding myself that - if the population of Richmond was only 23,000 in 1941, this city is 20 years younger than I am!  That figure rose during the war to 130,000 and is only 105,000 today.  That's a lot of strangers coming together to merge lives under tumultuous circumstances.  It's still a community sorting itself out and finding its identity.

I find myself watching the current stormy and often outrageous city council sessions on the public access channel, hoping for some indication that there is a growing consciousness of the National Park System's presence in the community, and of an indication that we're making a difference.  I know that we are, despite the absence of any mention week after week, but it's hard to see through the wild encounters that occur each week.

Then came that flash of insight over the past few days ...

Why on earth would anyone of color want to remember those years of continuing and persistent painful rejection of the African American Home Front experience?  I certainly didn't clamor to find my place in that narrative.  It found me, but only after a dogged determination on my part to connect with it.

That the National Park Service came to town to unearth that heroic history of Rosie the Riveter, "women's emancipation into the non-traditional work force;" the "Henry J. Kaiser, the Bunyan-esque shipbuilder industrialist" saga; and the genesis of groundbreaking social progress made at the time -- it's bereft of stories of the involvement of blacks except in a negative context.  Why on earth would anyone want to be reminded of those struggles that would last for at least two more decades? And then, only after many lives would be sacrificed in the struggle for equality.

I suspect that this work has only barely begun, and that other stronger black voices will be needed before the gains made can be incorporated into our continuing strides toward full equality.  Recognizing the advances made through our work-- supported by the mission of the National Park Service -- may be the most we can achieve.  By so doing we may continue to serve as a model for the rest of the nation that still lags behind in the social progress set in motion here over 70 years ago, and that still radiates out into the rest of the country from the Greater Bay Area.

Maybe that's what I need to hold in mind in order to continue the work without suffering disillusionment and burnout.

Every now and then I see a light go on behind the eyes of some young African American in the audience, and feel the warm glow of success.

... Just need to continue to look for that, I guess.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

What on earth is there about Minstrel Shows these days ...

... and why are they hounding me so?

But my adventure as guest speaker at the Blackhawk Guild's monthly meeting in Danville turned out incredibly well, with enough goodwill to spare.  In fact, I'd say that some line was crossed yesterday that probably de-toxified the entire matter of Minstrel shows for all time

Maybe this is what young rappers are saying; something that I've failed to hear, about their ability to move past the "N" word by owning it and by using it deliberately thereby stripping it of its power.  We elders continue to be so traumatized by it and continue to cringe each time it gets used in our presence -- even when that use is couched in some arts or cultural context.

It happened to me yesterday at the Blackhawk Auto Museum -- a most magnificent edifice housing the collection of the most luxurious automobiles on the planet!  What a dream it was just to be there under that dramatic lighting -- with so few descriptive words to draw from that could possibly express the splendor of the Museum or the two floors of glamorous million dollar vehicles that had been once owned by Hollywood celebrities and other Titans of the World in their opulent lives of Eras past.

I'd been invited by the Museum Guild to make a presentation before their membership in a
monthly meeting.  Never having visited this wondrous place, this venture into the world of privilege  turned out to be beyond my wildest dreams.

The audience was beyond respectful, but was really warmly welcoming to both my granddaughter, Rosie, and her Ranger grandmother, and at the conclusion of my talk stood on their feet in an enthusiastic standing ovation!

The highlight of the day, and the greatest triumph, however, was not that moment, but a bit earlier when I stood beside the legendary stage and screen star, Al Jolson's, grand convertible to have a photo taken (Aha!  The Minstrel!).   I found a gaggle of giggles rising in my throat that threatened to take over my entire body in a grand guffaw that would surely have embarrassed Rosie!  But the setting; the event; my role in it; the historic WWII period that my talk deals with, and that comes so alive in the present -- all combined to suddenly illustrate how hopelessly ridiculous it all is!

I am by now so far past any semblance of that negative history that it has lost its power to inflict pain.

The irony in considering how a white man (a Jew in this instance) could be catapulted into such stardom by blackening himself to parody a person of color -- a creature who at that time was barely considered human -- and to do it so successfully that he would be able to live such  a  life of luxury speaks to something I'll never hope to fully understand.  I can still hear him singing, "Mam-my, how I luvya, how I luvya, my dear old Mammy," and I now remember that the child I was at that time liked his act!" 

Like most of the public, my family, too, enjoyed Al Jolson, at a time when childhood innocence made me oblivious to any darker meanings of his performances.  But then I can remember my family gathering around the radio to listen and laugh at the antics of Amos 'n Andy, Lightnin' and 'da' Kingfish (Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, two white men in black face), not ever considering that these characters were being seen by the nation as representing all black people, and that  life and death national policy was being made based on those images of our being sneaky, lazy, untrustworthy, and -- most of all -- hopelessly stupid.   In my world colored people were laughing and enjoying them, too, but as comic characters in a play.  In the old radio show, The Goldbergs, Molly surely was beloved by everyone without anyone assuming that she was the Jewish community personified.  In another generation and at a somewhat higher level of culture, artists like Elvis Presley and Mick Jagger et al would just skip the burnt cork and continue to expropriate black culture in their successful bids for fame and fortune.

... but I really suspect that, yesterday, the ambiance, the obvious positive energy expressed by really good people who were open to my words -- expelled whatever doubts that may have existed in that grand space.

Love wins another one, as unlikely as that may seem ... .

I'm looking forward to the Guild's visit to my world, in late spring.   

Sunday, April 06, 2014

It's not easy bein'  green (with envy, that is) ... .

I've been wondering just why Phyllis Gould -- whose persistence with successive presidential administrations over many years sent her pleas for recognition to the White Houses of Presidents Bill Clinton (twice), and George Bush (twice), but in the Obama years, only through the highest ranking white person in the administration, Vice-President Joe Biden?  Is it really possible to "dis" the Leader of the Free World and have it go unnoticed?  Apparently so.  I suspect racism rising from the entitlement that goes with white privilege, but it was just a fleeting glance of an idea -- and I suspect it rose from envy.  But why Joe Biden and not the President?  What other explanation could there possibly be?

Then I remembered that I'd written a post on April 23, 2004, when invited to Washington as a member of the delegation seeking congressional support for our park.  Our superintendent was Judy Hart at the time, and I was acting as a consultant to the park under development.  We were to testify before Congress, I believe, and I was to be the guest of Rep. George Miller.  It would have been my chance to visit the White House, right?
Has there ever been a more awkward embrace?

I refused to participate explaining that I did not accept George Bush as my president, and therefore would not attend.   It was shortly after the Supremes selected him to be our president after the debacle of the Florida challenges. Of course, it wasn't racism, but was it any more justified than the suspicions I'm laying on Phyllis?  Could it be simply that I was uncomfortable with there being only white women in this delegation, and no women of color -- for whatever reason?  The National Park Service would surely have preferred this were not so, but it was a private adventure, so there was no choice in who those representatives would be.  But this delegation surely was an accurate representation of life as it was lived in the WWII era.  Being historically correct is painful, even when that is not what was intended. These things are really complex, and often tainted by hidden factors.

It may be enlightening to check the archives for that post of 2004 (see the archives for post of April 23rd).

I don't know the answer, but the fact that I've made such a big thing of rejecting the label of "Rosie the Riveter," declaring that this was a white woman's story and not mine, may be a contributing element in this twisted tale.  I would have only agreed to go as a ranger, and even now -- would surely not have attended as a Rosie had I been invited.

There, I've said it.   Feels better to not have to carry such feelings around in coming weeks.  I like these women, and am genuinely happy for their good fortune.  It must have been a glorious week for them!

And -- tomorrow two huge Semi's will arrive from the East Coast.  They'll pull up to unload the permanent exhibits -- and we'll be opening another chapter in the development of Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park.

The Blues, the Envy, Climate Change and Rising Sea Levels will all be forgotten as we embark on the next round of park development!

I can hardly wait!


The Rosies took the White House by storm ... and I'm envious as hell!

You've all read about the five Rosie the Riveters who (through the hard work of Phyllis Gould, one of the group) had wrangled an invitation to the White House through Vice President Joe Biden.  It turned out to be a once in a lifetime grand adventure for 5 deserving elders who served their country well by answering the call when needed in the wartime workforce during WWII.

Phyllis is one of the Rosies who are still serving as volunteers at our Visitors Education Center in Richmond.  They're on site from ten until two o'clock every Friday to interact with the public and share their history as the first women hired into non-traditional roles during WWII.  She has been working on getting invited to the White House and national recognition since the Clinton Administration -- through two Bush terms -- and now into the present.  Vice President Biden finally responded positively, but the invitation didn't cover travel expenses so several agencies stepped up to sponsor their adventure, including Virgin Airlines who booked only female pilots to fly them -- first class -- to Washington where they enjoyed a week of festivities!

And, folks, I do truly appreciate your concern that I was not included in what was a private party, but I've had more than my share of notoriety over past years, which included an invitation to witness the Inauguration of President Barack Obama, and though I've had my recent moments of envy -- I'm not the only crayon in the box, and this one was not meant for me.

I'm taking comfort in the fact that so many of you were outraged at what they believed to have been an oversight of the White House.  Not so.  

Congratulations to Phyllis on her persistence in finally gaining the recognition she's been seeking for so many years!

Feeling depressed -- and far beyond the ordinary late winter blue periods that have dogged the dark days all my life ... .

This one seems different somehow ... deeper and less focussed ... .

It started one dead of night when I woke suddenly in a sweat -- though the room was cold.  Maybe it was related to something from the National Public Radio program that penetrated my consciousness as I slept.  I'd fallen asleep in the middle of listening ... but the words had risen from some place within me.  It was not something I'd heard someone say.  I knew that.  It was a primary original truth.

The words are still ringing in my brain, "... I will not believe that the world is serious about climate change and rising sea levels until some agency has published the carbon footprint of War.  That was it.

Those few words thundered with authenticity in my brain.  They stayed with me all day, and all the days since. 

At one point -- in an attempt at ridding myself of the hopelessness they've triggered -- I posted the sentence on Facebook.  Then to Twitter.

... and still they echo through all else.

Peace, be still ...

Sunday, March 30, 2014

This post will require some experimenting ...

You'll need to go into the little white search bar (left side, above the banner and my photo) and enter the words, Minstrel Show.  That will bring up a post of January 1, 2004 that shows a picture of my son, Rick, in his early years.

To show that this history is still being lived and that revelations still crop up from time to time, this is noteworthy.

Only last week -- after my talk in the theater -- a young University of California graduate student lingered behind as the audience was leaving.  She asked if she could have a few minutes with me during which she mentioned that she was working on the dissertation for her doctorate -- the subject of which is Minstrel Shows of the Fifties.  That was enough to cause me to invite her into our staff break room for a brief conversation.

It was then that I learned, for the first time, that my experience was but one instance in what had been a program being distributed at the time by a national company that specialized in producing kits (costumes, scripts, instruction manuals) to schools all over the country for Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) to use as fundraisers. 

She told me that in her research she'd found a number of letters from African American parents who were deeply offended and were attempting to get the NAACP to provide some defense against a practice that was fanning the flames of racism, and doing grave harm to their children.

After having run across this 5 year-old account on my blog during her research, she told me that mine was the only example she'd found of someone facing -- head on -- this horribly destructive program.

Until that very moment I'd assumed that the nightmare was a purely local phenomenon -- my hostile neighbors  expressing their abject ignorance.

Would I have faced into that storm had I known that this was a Goliath, a local version of an evil national industry so much larger than could be seen at the time?  Was I protected by my innocence so that it wasn't the courageous act she may have believed it to have been?  I truly don't know ... . 

She's agreed to bring a copy of her dissertation when completed.  It should shed light on a shameful though fascinating period in our history -- in this seemingly never-ending struggle toward full equality.

... and why the tears?  It was so long ago, and surely I've now grown far beyond their reach ... .

Then so has Rick, though it's only because he died far too young in a thinly-veiled suicide after a self-destructive life probably contributed to by those early years of sadness and rejection, as have so many of our children. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Betty goes international!

Received a package several days ago from Japan, which stirred much interest among staff -- and some amusement by at least one staff member -- me!

It's written in Japanese and was sent by a young professor who visited our park about two years ago when she was on a tour of "Small Museums on the West Coast of California."  I do remember her well.  She was present when I gave my talk in our little theater.  This charming young author and her husband were traveling together, and quite obviously shared her interest in the subject they were gathering information for.

The 5-page article is about Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park, and includes several photographs (one of the Rosie Memorial, another of the Visitors Center, and this one of Ranger Betty.

Haven't the foggiest notion of the content since this "reading-from-back-to-front" book as is done in the Far East --  and written in Japanese -- it is beyond comprehension for this ranger -- but tomorrow I'll hand it off to Flora Ninomiyo who will surely be able to get the article translated for me through one of our mutual friends in the Japanese Americans Citizen's League (JACL) and the suspense will have ended.

Meanwhile ... . 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Lost in the crowd ... a strange turn in a still-evolving historical record ...

Traveled to Monterey on an assignment as a presenter at the National Conference of Public Historians, with mixed feelings.

Firstly, I'm surely not an historian, but simply a survivor of the era of 1941-1945 memorialized by the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park -- a primary source sharing personal history.  That's an odd role to fill since audiences have no idea what to expect of me -- and I have no idea about the "Rules of Engagement," and that makes a considerable difference. 

There were probably 1000 conferees, all in meeting rooms scattered throughout the Monterey Convention Center, and all "of a world" that is alien to me, but reminiscent of the years of my marriage to Bill Soskin.  I don't think that I ever made my peace with the world of the Academy, so there was some dissonance present in the mix.

The day before leaving for Monterey I'd received an answer to a mystery that I've been living with for some years, and it colored my experience considerably.

If you'll check that little search bar at the top left side of the screen above the banner, enter the words Port Chicago, and you'll bring up (among other posts) this photo of a burial ceremony which shows 8 caskets with mourners standing around looking appropriately grim.  I'd never understood why those caskets weren't flag-draped as all such rites would demand in Armed Forces burials.  I've made a real poser of the question, and was frustrated over several years when no answers were ever forthcoming.  I'd (wrongly) assumed that this may have been ultimate proof that those "mutineers" could not have ever had a fair trial since the Navy did not accord them the honor even in death.  I'd suspected that they were buried as dockworkers, and not as Navy men at all.  The social climate of the times in which we were living supported such speculations.

Last week there came in the mails from my friend, Careth Bomar Reid, and the owner of the E.F. Joseph photo collection, a packet containing several photos -- among them a copy of the (long assumed) Port Chicago burial rites, but the packet was dated January 21, 1944, 7 months before the tragic explosion at Port Chicago and the 320 lost lives.   The Port Chicago explosion occurred at 10:47 pm on the evening of July 17, of that same year. There were no flags on these caskets because the graveside ceremony was not Armed Forces, but civilian!  Those caskets held the remains of 8 African Americans who'd met death in some awful industrial accident in Kaiser Shipyard #3, or, perhaps in some kind of racial unrest ...

The mystery has deepened.

How do we know those remains were from blacks?  Because the identifying marks are that the floral wreathes have inscribed across them, "Kaiser Permanente Shipyard 3," and, "Boilermakers A-36" -- the name of the African American segregated Jim Crow Labor Union that had been my employer in those days.  The Union officials pictured were those for whom I'd worked in 1942-43.

Also, the Port Chicago remains were gathered into 22 caskets and buried as Unknowns in the Colored Section of the federal cemetery at San Bruno, according to recorded history of the times.  I'd always assumed that the 8 showing were only a portion of that larger number which were off-scene.

This is a second tragedy, long forgotten among the untold stories of WWII.

I'm attempting to re-connect with an AFL-CIO Union archivist and historian with whom I've exchanged information in the past, in the hope of learning more.

More to come ...

Monday, March 17, 2014

What's in a name?  

Everything, I suppose, though I had no idea that the question held any meaning for me.  It does.

Having been christened under my centuries-old surname of Charbonnet, I'd married Melvin Reid in 1942 and became Betty Reid.  After having been married to Mel for over 35 years, we divorced and I met and married  Dr. William F. Soskin (actually changed from Sosinski when Bill entered the University of Michigan at the insistence of two older sisters who had done so earlier).

Since I'd spent at least two decades as Betty Reid while living in the world of Northern California Suburbia, I was clearly identified in that world under Mel's last name.

When we divorced and (having reared our 4 children to adulthood by now) I returned to Berkeley to take up life as a faculty wife in a totally new social setting where I was now known as Bill Soskin's, Betty Soskin.  I insisted upon carrying both my married names during our 10-year marriage due to the fact that my kids were all Reids, and in order to remain connected to my family it felt important.

I'd by this time developed two separate identities, one as the wife of a well-known African American business man; who was a stay-at-home suburban mother while also a political activist with significant "street cred" under her belt, and a growing reputation as a poet/singer; and now the new identity as a faculty wife of a brilliant professor who was doing groundbreaking research for the University of California at Berkeley.  Few in the university years had any knowledge of the former Betty Reid who had been unceremoniously left in the (all-white) suburbs behind the East Bay hills.

Together, Bill and I served on boards and commissions, hosted faculty parties,  conducted workshops associated with his work; traveled to far away places where I tested my new identity on the world, but always in the support and the shadow of an eminent man.

But both these men died in 1987 within a 3-month period, and, since I'd allowed myself to be defined in relation to each, in turn, for several months I wasn't sure just who I was now that they were gone.

For a number of years I'd tried on the role of Merchant when Mel's health failed and I returned to run the business.  Bill had introduced me to an upscale international world but had left no models for me to step into easily.  Besides, I'd found the highly-competitive world of Academia disappointing, and had no wish to remain within it.  I then re-entered the African American world as a black activist/merchant and political organizer with much pain but some successes made possible by the years spent in Bill's world and the resulting rise in my level of sophistication and with contacts forged that would enable these new adventures.  I'd become by now a seasoned political activist with many more choices and a growing sense of how to use them.

with Chief of Interpretation Kelly English and Superintendent Tom Leatherman
For years now I suppose that I've been attempting to forge those identities into some kind of wholeness and with a certain amount of success.  I've taken back the poet/singer, at least long enough to satisfy those memories, and -- every now and then someone from my campus life happens by and I'm reminded of what seems now to have been only a borrowed life; my sons and daughter continue to define my "real" personhood.

Now I'm about to be cast in bronze, and there arises in me a wish to return to my original self -- the girl who bore the name Charbonnet but lost it to custom.  My parents gave birth to 3 daughters, of whom I'm the only survivor. There were no sons to carry the name into the future.  With me our historic name dies.  A name that traces back to the 14th century in Europe and in this country to about 1768.  My two men both died decades ago, leaving me to fend for myself in an often unsympathetic world, but also returning the me of me to myself to do with as I wish, right?

The Betty Charbonnet who survived into the present has lived to an undreamed of period of fulfillment.  I find myself wishing that I'd had the foresight to have given my surname as a middle name to each of my children at birth.

I know that Betty didn't get lost along the way after all, but has lived a life of meaning and is continuing to do so.

... but I'm not sure that -- when the National Park Service granted me permanent status that this is precisely what they had in mind!   

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