Monday, August 20, 2018

Confessions of an unrepentant rebel ... .

Those last two posts are wildly speculative -- rash, maybe even unreasonable, but it was only after sleeping on the idea for several nights, I decided to just go for it,

When these ideas first occurred to me, it was at a time when I was living among classical academics as a faculty wife at the University of California, Berkeley.  Our home was an informal gathering place for many of the "great minds" at a time following the Sixties conscious-raising period; after the assassinations of Dr. King, the Kennedys, Malcolm X, the resistance to the de-segregation of the public schools, and the birth of the Human Potential Movement with Werner Earhardt and EST, Fritz Perls and Charlotte Selvers at Esalan -- the new "Valhalla."  We were a part of all of it.

It was in that setting that I was introduced to Tarthang Tulku, Rinpoche, and Tibetan Buddhism.  To long mind-altering weekends in retreats at Padma Ling or Odiyon, the beautiful Monastery high above the Russian River in Sonoma County.  To the cutting edge of the explorations of the physicists who were exploring the interface between eastern religious thought and the western sciences.  And, no, I didn't practice Buddhism, though Bill was a serious student of both, and of Tibetan Buddhism, specifically.

It was in those years that my life had been impacted by -- not only the Civil Rights Revolution and rising black nationalism -- but by the likes of the irreverent and colorful author, Ken Kesey, and UU ministers, Aron Gilmartin, Paul Sawyer, and Starr King School for the Ministry president, Bob Kimball.

It was into that melange of exciting change that I was dropped unceremoniously through my somewhat hasty and impulsive marriage to Dr. William Soskin.

It was a heady time of redefinition.  We were all so open to change, and so vulnerable to possible mis-steps.  Fortunately, the experience was mostly at a time of exciting positive growth.

After 35 years of marriage and motherhood in an entirely different social environment, here I was in a world with as much to learn as to teach -- and in a social setting conducive to both.  I was re-building a life after a painful divorce, but on the cusp of rejuvenation for the second half.

Leni Riefenstahl's amazing photo book had arrived as a Christmas gift that year at a time when I was still in the throes of personal redefinition.  I was redefining myself as a black person in an almost totally white world; no small task.  Re-definining myself out of Suburbia, the Black community, and into University life.  Testing my ability to move out of my racial identity and into my "universal" self.

The Village of Kau was instrumental in achieving that transformation.  However, these images deepened my racial identity, markedly, and helped me to develop a greater understanding of where the human differences lie, and a better sense of when I was operating from "inside the circle" and when I was not.  And the awakening of an ability to demand acceptance not despite those differences, but because of them.  

Left Brain/Right Brain theories were commonplace as a subject of conversation in my new world where boundaries were being crushed against the walls of the New Age.  I was a witness to psychedelic experimentation and the fast-approaching Information Age would be upon us soon. Those big brains who were peopling my world at that time were busily creating the "New Age."


Those last two posts have been lying dormant in my brain for decades.  It was raised during that time of redefinition -- when I was having to 'splain and justify my existence in this new world of the Academy when there were no academic underpinnings to support me there.  I'd never attended college, though surely was an avid reader over a lifetime.  I'd arrived at the halfway point of my life with curiosity ablaze!

It was this Right Brain orientation that explained (to me, at least) the vast differences between Eastern and Western development.  The Lamas, refugees from the Chinese takeover of Tibet were moving in and out of our lives on a regular basis, and contact between our home and Katmandu was a common occurrence.  To those Lamas, mental telepathy was an ordinary usable tool.  To the western scientists the practice was still a mere unprovable but tantalizing theory.

Those fascinating brain theories explained some major differences in the social development of African Americans who had been forced to live under slavery for nearly 300 years while completely out of context of what would be "natural."  Maybe it would take another 300 years to regain the threads upon which black life was based.

I was relatively silent in the eighties at a time when I was surrounded by those big brains, and too unsure to express such revolutionary thoughts aloud (except to Bill, who humored me).

Then I watched Panther and the work of Ryan Coogler, and it all came rushing back.

Found myself dreaming of what might have been ... of all of the potential greatness snuffed out by poverty and injustice; by need and brutality, by deprivation and denial; by expropriation and exploitation ... .

Went to my living room book shelves a few days ago, to dig out the Riefenstahl book, and in thumbing through those extraordinary photos, began to cry!  All of it came rushing back, Bill, those brunches in our Berkeley home at the top of Grizzly Peak Boulevard where the original thinkers who were pushing us into a future rife with opiates and imagination (and, no, I never succumbed to drug use or Tibetan Buddhism) -- and the excitement of those times descended with a dizzying force.

Spent most of the day on Sunday re-living those fantasies, and reveling in the headiness of it -- headiness that I'd not allowed myself in those years; the headiness of daring to speculate and let the intellectuals prove me wrong.

I'll just put it out there.

... out there for others to argue against or build upon.

Prove me wrong, if you can, but know that as I approach my 97th birthday, I intend to only speak (and write) in declarative sentences!  Go on, give it your best shot ...

Maybe this is one way in which new pathways into inquiry are discovered.

There was this crazy man who insisted that the earth was not flat ... remember?


Sunday, August 19, 2018

Wondering if I've taken on more than I can extricate myself from ... ?

Yet, it's too late to back out now.  The Grim Reaper could appear almost at any moment, and I might have failed to make my case:

(it may be helpful to read the last post, below, before reading this one.)

So I'll continue:

These masks have always fascinated me, ever since I ran across Riefenstahl's remarkably exciting coffee table book back in a time before the millennium.  I was fascinated when reading the description of her  visits to the Village of Kau every two years for many years, and that she'd studied the villagers at a time long before their rain forest settlement had been invaded by European forces (scientists, archeologists, anthropologists), and long before the influences brought with them began to drastically erode the culture.

I remember tears of sadness when reading that within about 3 years after this book was published, she'd returned to Kau to find those lovely black bodies clothed in Levis, and most of the brilliant cultural effects muted by western "civilizational" overrides.

I was married to Bill Soskin at that time, my brilliant psychologist husband, when I first met the people of Kau through this amazing book, and doing so strongly influenced the way I began to view black culture.  I remember -- while analyzing some data gathered by Bill's research project with which I worked at the University -- that maybe we were a Right-Brained people being test-assessed by a Left-Brained system.  Could it be that the instruments that might measure what Black people were good at had simply never been created?  That we were being mistakenly measured by tests that would never provide any real information about who and what we were, and what gifts we brought with us into the world?  And that we would always have our intelligence and talents under-estimated by those left-brained analytical social scientists whose work would continue to over-estimate their gifts and talents simply by default?

Have you ever had the chance to watch little black girls jumping rope; Double Dutch?  The physical/mental skills needed by that childhood game  would challenge any lesser human beings who tried to blend the complex elements required for success.  Elements of rhythms, songs, intricate footwork, agility, the coordination needed is so daunting that one stands in awe.  What is demanded by this simple children's game puts shame to anyone whose psyche didn't include the "jazz" element, the gift born to most ordinary black children, and genetically passed along through the generations.

We see those same gifts illustrated on the basketball courts of the NBA, in Track and Field activities, on the stage in chorus lines, all serving as raw materials to the (European) coaches, choreographers, artists and athletes, who expropriate what they can use and toss the rest and black folks with them!

The analytical Left-Brainers break apart the elements, analyze, re-assemble the steps (strokes, notes, etc.) into an often reasonable facsimile of the original, and "own it."  And as often as not, set up the inevitable competition to establish dominance.  They re-define the "it," and critique it into something that those who created it have seldom reduced to mere words, but who can look into the eyes of another "sistah" or "brotha" with an instantaneous mumble of understanding and connection.  They may give it substance by assigning the over-used word, "Soul," or "Amen!" and are content to let it go at that.

I've always cringed at the sight and sound of superb black "back-up" singers and dancers fronted by less than spectacular "Stars" who gloried in the stolen spotlight.  A well known folk singer "fronting" that magnificent South African choir, Ladysmith Mambazo, comes to mind.


And what does all this have to do with me?

Everything.

When I think back to the mystery of my late-blooming attention-getting fame in these final years, and wonder just why it happened, I've come to many explanations over time.  Could be because my life as recorded in these pages provide for the searching aging Boomer generation a reasonable alternative to the adulation of youth culture so common in this country.  Could be.  Could also be that the candor with which I deal with all that is a novelty.  Could be.

Lately a new rationale has risen to the surface, one that feels more likely;

The magic may be that -- for reasons unknown -- I've remained contemporary for my entire life.  Always a creature of the hour, living in the "Now!" This has been my true state of being since childhood. That's still where I'm positioned on the Spectrum of Life, and that may be best reflected in my work.

Instead of nostalgically looking back at the world of 1942-1945 -- the period celebrated by the Rosie the Riveter National Park site -- I'm interpreting that period against the canvas of "Now!", relating it to the environmental changes occurring in these critical years; seeing them in the context of generational challenges that share at least one thing -- the urgency that will wait for no one.

How my generation met the challenge of those hazardous years is a dramatic and gut-wrenching dilemma that today's youth are again being forced to confront.  It's another "Do or Die" era, and there are models for facing what lies ahead as the Earth continues into climactic change.  The threat is equal to and may surpass the terrifying times my generation has already lived through.  We have a duty to provide those models for the survival of the species, and I'm still around to participate in doing just that along with those of my time who are still alive.

Having lived into the future that I, along with millions of others, helped to create 50 years ago, I'm doing it in truth, and with the support and blessings of a federal agency.  I'm able to do it because of the "Jazz" element that may be our people's gifts to the world. Because we're willing and able to drop the guise of feigned innocence ("I've never owned any slaves; get over it!").  To challenge the concept of White Supremacy and the insatiable hunger to maintain Empire over the entire known world; as humanity assumes the responsibility of entering into this period of the Grand Improvisation that will be essential if we're to survive into the unknown future.

It does no good to look to the past for answers, at least not until we've heeded and absorbed the warnings from the scientific community.  Those answers lie in questions still to be developed by as yet unknowing professionals of all of the disciplines; they, who must rise to the crucial, troubling, and urgent needs now forecast by the futurists of the scientific world.

The entire world may now be entering the world of

                                  "Jazz!"

because the worlds of the fundamentalist past have profoundly and utterly failed us.




Saturday, August 18, 2018

There is the germ of an answer to one of life's important questions just forming ...

and I'm not sure that it's ready to be expressed, but maybe ...  (but then there's that running-out-of-time thing to consider now.)

It seems to me that it's an important insight -- one of those things that occurs as original thought -- one of those things that seems so obvious that surely some wiser person has already thought of it, right?  And one day I'll read it in a book written by some genius and "aha!" will rise to the sound of trumpets, but I'll never own it, just accept it as confirmation of some universal something that I've known all along down deep, but that others have as well, and that I should have realized ... .

It's this:

It's that Jazz is a black genetic attribute.  It is born with blackness and colors everything we do, think, act upon, how we interpret life as we live it as a people.  It's something that can be learned, copied, and  expropriated, but that cannot be fully understood by others as a basic element in everything we (black folks)  think, touch, feel, or express.

It begins with a fundamental difference between white and black cultures.  I seem to have always known that white culture rewards all that has gone before and sets its standards by what are assumed to be expressions of past perfection.  Therefore great musicians (Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, et al)  provide the standards by which all of today's classical artists are measured by and against -- to assess their level of "greatness".

It is so with the genius balletmasters, the musicians, choreographers,  visual artists -- all measured by what has gone before.

With black culture it's just the opposite.  In our world greatness is measured by novelty, newness, originality, innovation, spontaneity, improvisation, so we're always leading in the creation of language, dance, music, the arts in all its forms, and they're (whites) always following.  We've always been out there at the edge of change.  As soon as others catch up, we've moved on and are busily creating the next art forms!

We have little to value in our past -- a past that includes slavery, Reconstruction, rejection on a world scale, scarcity and poverty, Jim Crow, struggles against social injustices, environmental degradation of our communities, the deconstruction of families, etc., so we have little to be nostalgic about, and little to look forward to, except for hope.

Has it occurred to anyone that there is very little in world history for non-Europeans to want to recall?  That history in any of its forms bears unbelievable pain and shame for millions, and so much to regret over which we were powerless for generations?  That the struggle has still not been won?

White culture is constantly busy researching, studying the past, writing the new rule books (there are always rule books), and codifying and adapting what others have created.  While black culture is trying painfully to avoid anything connected to a heart-wrenching past.  We're in a constant process of dropping the old and "doin' it!"; creating the new.

When the nation's public schools still had music departments with student bands and orchestras and instruments to lend, our legendary Jazz players were finding their way into the theaters, clubs and cafe's, "Houses of ill repute," and creating Jazz; "America's greatest art form", that bled out across our borders and out into the world.  Their art was being expropriated by white sidemen, singers, rock&roll artists, who covered our songs and arrangements for huge profits while young black musicians went begging and with scant recognition.  Their creations ever used as "raw material" with which to create the nation's "newest and greatest art form."

As public education began to suffer crippling budget cuts, our young were left with nothing more than their mouths and bodies with which to produce their sounds and beats.  And despite all, with few instruments at hand, they made their music with their body parts, and later with scratching on turntables!  Those young created the irrepressible rap and formed the Hip Hop world, which has become a universal culture  that now dominates the arts in all its forms, and where it only recently emerged fully mature to re-energize the Broadway stage with "Hamilton", and to redefine greatness!


One cannot look at these historic photographs of the painted masks of "primitive" African warriors and not see in them the inspiration provided to 20th Century visual artists, Pablo Picasso and/or Modigliani, and a myriad of other European modernists who plundered black culture without credit, and for great profit.  The African influences in European modern art are inescapable.

For me, it's all Jazz!

(How am I expressing it in my life and late-blooming career?  More tomorrow.)

Note on photos:  These are taken from a book published in 1976 of the works of the famous and infamous photographer/filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003) of Berlin.  These are the People of Kau from the book of the same name.
In the 21st Century, in an era of body piercings and tattoos of every description, would one consider these "primitives" behind or a full century ahead in the development of the arts?  The fact that their remote African village was in the middle of a rain forest would surely make their use of mud as a decorative profoundly important, environmentally practical, and purely and sacredly natural.  
     

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Another icon gone  ... .
Producer Melvin Reid with young Aretha

Sadness abounds!

I remember Aretha as a 16 year-old young woman who was visiting the Bay Area with her father, the celebrated Reverend C.L. Franklin.

My husband, Mel Reid, was a promoter of gospel artists at that time, and was bringing all of the greats to perform at the Oakland Auditorium along the shores of scenic Lake Merritt -- before the huge audiences of African Americans who'd so recently migrated from the southern states of Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, to produce the ships for Henry J. Kaiser,  and armaments of WWII.  They brought the richness of black culture with them, and our lives would be forever redirected.

Rev. Franklin was of one many who were presented before the roughly 6000 attendees who gathered for amazing and exuberant gospel concerts on those memorable Sunday afternoons.  Among those were Rev. James Cleveland, Shirley Caesar and the Caravans, the Five Blind Boys, Soul Stirrers (with Sam Cooke), Mighty Clouds of Joy,  the  Clark Sisters, Mahalia Jackson, Lou Rawls, Rance Allen, and later the legendary Hawkins Family and the other local legends of the black gospel world.  So many who would form the bedrock of the world of black gospel, taking all of us with them, and catapulting Mel into prominence in that world.  It would be Mel and his young uncle, Paul Reid who would bring black gospel to the West Coast.  It would be Mel who would bring that huge crossover hit, "Oh happy Day!" to the world with the Love Center Choir.

On that particular day when Aretha and her father were here (pictured above), I was off on some child-centric activity, while Mel took Aretha to lunch at  some signature Bay Area restaurant, probably one of the new ones on the Berkeley marina ... .

Our lives were already showing signs of separation, but we wouldn't be aware of it until much later.

As I recall, Aretha was 3 years older than our eldest son, Rick.  And it was her father, Rev. Cleveland, who was the big star.  Aretha was just on the cusp of the greatness she achieved over an illustrious lifetime career as a world renown entertainer, political activist, great Mom, leaving her mark on all who were ever fortunate enough to be in her audiences.  She provided the soundtrack for several decades of my life, but that was still in my future -- the dynamic and life-altering Sixties when the Civil Rights Revolutions moved into front and center -- and moved me, body and soul, into an era of soul-searing growth that still resonates whenever I hear that arresting powerful voice singing the "Songs in the Key of Life", that have been filling my head and heart all day as the nation mourns ... .


It is now many decades later.  I'm approaching my 97th birthday in a month, and today the great Queen of Soul passed into eternity.

Thinking of just how many of us touched lives in that innocent past, before either we or the world would have any idea of where destiny would take us ... .

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

How on earth does today's elder Betty explain this to young, naive, unknowing young Betty of long ago?


(click to enlarge)

She, of course, still shares this old bod with its current occupant, and rises to take over when events demand it.

This beautiful quilt appeared in my life only two days ago when -- without warning -- it popped up on the screen of my computer from an unknown Facebook friend.

The tears of humility, pride, and gratefulness streamed uncontrollably as all of the pieces slowly fell into place:

The decision of benevolent strangers to include my image in this incredible art piece; the long hours spent in bringing it to life; the casual talk that must have included whatever considerations that go into such choices; and all without solicitation or consultation.

Such tributes ordinarily happen only after death, and seldom before, at a time when the assessments that go into the creation of an obituary ... .

No, not this time.
Quilters Pat Sigler and Johyne Gerar

Apparently, this amazing work of art was installed in the permanent collection at the California State Museum in Sacramento on August 12, 2018.

It is the work of the SQC (Sisters Quilting Collective), and I'm hoping to visit sometime soon, just to see if it's real and not something dreamed of just before deep sleep ... .


Saturday, July 07, 2018

I was aware that the reunion planners had included a gathering for Sunday Mass at Corpus Christ ...

... how could we not?

I don't remember being particularly concerned, nor aware of any long-held trauma around the issue.  Those feelings had faded over time, and by 2018 it would be simply one item on the itinerary of a memorable weekend, and nothing more.

David and his two daughters, Alyana and Tamaya, and I, walked up the aisle to be seated by the usher in the third row from the altar.  I did notice that the pews were not as I'd remembered them (it's been a long time since I was last in this hallowed space as a teenager).  There had been no middle aisle, but a large middle section with aisles on either side, and side sections where people of colored were seated.  But, of course, over time those pews surely had been replaced, and the sanctuary reconfigured.

I sat, grateful to be in the home of my family, in the church of our ancestors, and surrounded by all that colorful Charbonnet history ... .

No matter how far life had taken us all, the Tremé was and would always be home.

While musing, I was startled by a tap on my right shoulder and looked around to see Wendy, a cousin I'd only become aware of over the past few days, but suddenly here she was, whispering in my ear, "You're to participate in the Offertory, Betty.

So much had changed since I was that teenager, and I'd left Catholicism so long ago that I  had no idea what the "Offertory," was.  Obviously, it had to be a part of the worship service, and was probably connected to the passing of the collection baskets in some ceremonial way.  So much had changed since I was that naive child -- applause at the end of the priest's sermon would have been unheard of.  The mass would certainly have been delivered in Latin, and with a far more mysterious affect.  Missing was the wafting from the gleaming brass canister with the attached chain -- the incense which gave the entire service an unworldly and exotic feeling.  There would have been much more kneeling as I remembered, and the priest would be offering the mass to the Lord Jesus, and -- with his back to the congregation -- simply letting us observe that process.  Always making our case before God, speaking in our names as an intercessor. This mass was unfamiliar and a great deal less formal.

(click to enlarge)
The image of my father suddenly rose to consciousness -- as one of the men who passed those long-handled baskets during the mass, and that it was he who -- as the president of the St. Vincent de Paul Society (men's group) at St. Benedict's in Oakland -- who was in charge of counting and reporting the amount of the collection to the priest at the end of the worship service.

Of course, there was no time to explain that I was no longer a Catholic, and why, so there was nothing to do but wait until summoned at that point in the ceremony.  Awkward.  But those facts paled in the face of the fact of "family," and of that honored role to fulfill.  This was all that mattered, so all else dropped away as I waited to be "called to service."

It was only a few moments before I was led from the pew near the front of the church, through the side aisle sections, to meet the few stalwarts who would form the small but important procession.

Behind a white robed altar person carrying a tall metal pole upon which was impaled --  the image of Jesus Christ on the Cross, and side-by-side with another elder, cousin Phyllis, carrying a flacon that held the wine to be used in the communion service, and I carrying "The Host," an ornamental small round box filled with communion wafers; the "body and blood" of Christ.  And suddenly, the sanctuary was filled with the heavenly music of the choir and there we were, there I was, marching up the center aisle toward the priest who stood waiting at the Altar.  I am bearing the most precious element of all.

And all in, Corpus Christi, my grandfather's church!

Not even the outrageous awfulness emanating from Washington could cut through the magic of that moment.  The centuries-old injustices and inequalities, the harsh realities that had destroyed my belief system completely since that fifteen year-old girl child had last visited that hallowed space.  Nothing could have diminished this moment in this year 2018.

The film that is being made about my life; the two filmmakers who'd come along to capture these moments of my most improbable life -- had no idea of the depths of this experience.  How on earth would they know what it meant?  Who on earth would believe this if written in a script?  I silently vowed to gain the footage and include it here, in this record of my remarkable life that seems almost too theatrical to ever be believed.

Was it enough to bring down the Gods from Heaven to reclaim this errant child?  No.  No blinding insight.  No contemporary version of the burning bush, thank you.  But there was a kind of peace that descended.  I knew instinctively that this may have been the greatest "book end" moment I would ever live, and that it was almost poetic in its simplicity.

Would I not absolutely LOVE to have been able to share that moment with Dorson Louis Charbonnet, my father, and his, Louis Charbonnet?

But maybe among those inexplicable moments that are beyond explanation and defy logic, they knew and had guided me toward my completion -- in this my final decade.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Book ends to a long and amazing life ... 


Long ago, when I was a curious and less than adventuresome adolescent, I was sent to Louisiana to  participate in the annual ritual of celebrating my maternal great-grandmother's birthday.  Since our fathers and uncles were largely employed as red caps and/or Pullman porters at that time, we enjoyed and took advantage of the Southern Pacific railroad company's family passes program -- few of us could have afforded those trips home otherwise.  It was my turn that year, to represent the West Coast branch of the family.

My parents prepared me for that visit to New Orleans with an itinerary that would include attending Sunday services at Corpus Christi Catholic Church, the Charbonnet family's great source of pride since my grandfather, Louis Charbonnet, had designed and built that great edifice as one of the last projects before he passed on in 1924.  He also built the high school that stood adjacent to the church.

Corpus Christi High School
I was reminded of his eminence in the Treme.  That his casket was held at the altar for two days before burial to allow the community to pay its respect for the prominence he'd brought through his many great works over many years as a leader of influence and service to all.

On the long train trip from the West Coast, I'd dreamed of seeing that structure, and made my way there on the first Sunday after arrival in that historic city.

Imagine the shock when -- after dipping my hand in the font of holy water and making the sign of the cross as folks were gathering for mass -- then entering through the heavy double doors to find the usher guiding  me to the side aisle where people of color were seated.  The middle section was reserved for whites, only!  This, in my grandfather's church!

What kind of God would allow this?  For a youngster who'd grown up as a second generation Californian, there was no way to process this outrage.  This was the birth of cynicism for me, and probably caused the disenchantment with religious orthodoxy in general, and with Catholicism, specifically, from that day forward.  With the innocence of youth, and the same kind of non-compromising attitude that probably characterizes my entire life, I could not accept what my parents had not seen as important enough to prepare me for -- prior to the experience.  There had been no warning.  Racial segregation was simply the reality, the "normal", that their generation had lived through and survived.  They did not question.  I could not accept.

Oddly enough, I can't recall ever mentioning how that encounter with the system of segregation had effected me.  Not then, not ever.  Perhaps that's a part of the problem, and the why it is that we've never quite conquered it.

When such practices become normalized, they become embedded in the culture, and are no longer questioned.  Maybe there's a lesson in there somewhere for what's occurring in this nation of today, maybe.  A caution to be ignored at our peril?

That would have been around 1936.

That was then.

Now scroll forward to June 24, 2018, and though I'd not ever visited Corpus Christi again despite the fact that I've been home to New Orleans several times since then.  Over the years the memory had grown to symbolize something abhorrent, and completely unacceptable.   This time I was there as a minor character, though the matriarch of my huge family -- participating in our first ever Family Reunion (245 attended from across the country).

... and what an experience it was!

Read on ... .