Wednesday, August 07, 2019

I can barely see my computer through eyes tear-swollen from hours on end of sobbing ...

This day, like so many others of late, are filled with seemingly disconnected yet book-ended vignettes brought to life by events I'd never before seen as related ... .

It was the massacre at El Paso:

Upon watching the awfulness of the weekend's horrific killings I fell further and further into a deep depression without recognition of what was happening.  And it wasn't what was the unbelievably dreadful scenes on the screen, no, not at all.  Instead, the mind images were quite different -- giving me a feeling of being out of control -- out of touch!  I'd been here before.  There was a familiarity about this phenomenon; it was at this point that the convulsive sobbing began:

The year was 1935.  I was fourteen, and traveling to New Orleans as the West Coast family's delegate to the celebration of Mamma´s birthday in St. James Parish.  I distinctly remember my mother's telling me (as she pinned my ticket to my coat lapel at Oakland's beautiful 16th Street railroad station) to be sure to watch for the Pullman porter when we reached El Paso because that was where we'd cross the Mason Dixon Line and would officially enter the South.  That he would let me know what to do.

I would have had no reason to know that the Mason Dixon Line was that place where the Free States were separated from where the Slave States began,  and that it was at El Paso that this historic line was crossed.  I'd grown up in California and, though much of family lore involved stories of Southern bigotry, it was balanced off by a home life rich in Creole cultural traditions.

We'd been traveling for many hours, days, over a barren arid landscape of sagebrush and sameness hour after-hour, when the train noisily expelling steam lurched into the station at El Paso, Texas.  I'd gathered up my things and readied myself to watch for the porter without knowing just what would happen ... so it was with adolescent excitement, and little fear.

As I watched the porter approach in anticipation and eagerness for the next adventure, he paused at my seat, tapped me on the shoulder with the words (spoken quietly), "please follow me."  There were about a dozen Negroes of all ages lined up behind him in the aisle.   We were about 3 passenger cars back from our destination, and would continue adding to our numbers as we obediently followed.  We were being led to the Jim Crow car, a coach that was the closest to the engine, behind the mail and baggage cars, to where the smoke and noise would be greatest.

We, Negroes, were being marched past the "Privileged," the "Supremicists," to a separate space lest we contaminate, taint, those who were white-skinned.

I joined that little procession excited and expectant, but by the time we had walked through 3 cars of grinning, staring, or simply disinterested, white people, I'd gotten the message.  The lessons had been learned.  Shame and humility had been absorbed through every pore.  I would carry them the rest of my life after that long and awkward march of disembodied shame and inexplicable humility.  This would be the moment in history when my racial identity would be forever baked into my being; where my black identity would become irrevocably fixed.

It's interesting that what I took away from that experience was not that degrading and embarrassing lurching march through those passenger cars, but how wonderfully that trip came to life once we "colored folk" were together in that Jim Crow car; how the porters gave us extra pillows and blankets; how the waiters in secret plied us with the best from the diner (where we would not be allowed to enter through to the end of the trip); when those picnic baskets packed with fried chicken and sandwiches prepared lovingly by those southern folks who knew the drill and had come prepared for the sharing.  The warmth of the partying that went on, once the harmonicas and a battered guitar surfaced, is with me still. I remember no sign of resistance, no comment on what had just happened to us, I even recall the thought that -- if those white folks learned of how much fun we were having, they'd put a stop to it!  But we were bound together in a silent acceptance of "God's Will," or of whatever this was, but even at 14 I was made aware by that experience that I was part of a larger family, at least temporarily.  I believe that this is what sustained me through the Sixties, that feeling of an unbreakable relatedness to that greater cause.

This was the "We" of Me, and it was born in that Jim Crow railroad car just a few miles outside the City of El Paso, by benevolent Pullman porters, and that little band of "Strangers of Color", who shared enough love to take this pretty little stranger across the North/South barrier, the infamous Mason/Dixon Line.  A girl who was living proof of what white nationalist's fear most of all.  In my racial ambiguity -- my lightly caramelized skin color,  I was that mongrel that happens if you let those little white and black kids go to school together; if we don't keep 'em separated in every way, they might love one another!

I do remember several hours of paralyzing fear when two uniformed armed guards boarded the train in the middle of the night and entered our car with two manacled and ankle-chained convicts (white).  They were obviously being transferred to a prison somewhere along the run.  The four were seated behind a makeshift partition, but were clearly within sight of those of us not yet asleep.  Strange. Ironic.  As I recall, they were only with us for a few hours, but the fears ran deep, and to this day add insult of a kind that eats away at a young girl's fragile sense of worth.

That walk in that little procession of shame was tucked away for over a long lifetime in that mind space wherever we stow that which is impossible to understand or process.  Until a time in life when one has found enough strength to face the pain of the experience. Until now.  Until it explodes from within ... .
But there were also lessons learned by those we marched past in those three train cars,  lessons affirming the rights of white supremacy and privilege -- lessons that were/are so deeply embedded in our nation's DNA -- lessons that are false, deceptive -- lethal, lessons that have this day in August of the year 2019 robbed 22 Texans of their lives, and 9 Ohio-ans as well, and thousands and thousands of other innocent citizens across the centuries, plus 4000 black souls who were brutally lynched in the years following a never processed and still being fought, Civil War.  Six million Jews whose lives were lost in the ovens of Hitler's Germany.  Lives lost in endless wars against Terrorism.  Lives sacrificed upon the Altar of Racial Purity! Lives lost in the futile quest for White Supremacy.  
It is the children and grandchildren of those passengers, and others like them, who are now dying in a hail of bullets as suicide killers in these mass murders. 
How long must we live this horror?

Only through these tears do I begin to fully understand that young Betty who returned to California, and -- a year or two later -- would respond to the drama teacher's admonition after the moving reading of Maxwell Anderson's Winterset, Mariamne's love scene to a hushed audience of other teens, when, after class, she would say, "... we know you read that part very well, Betty, but you do know that we can't possibly cast you in that part?  You're playing a scene with Eddie Baptiste who is white, and his parents would simply not be pleased.  I'm so sorry."  My response (that I remember to this day but never quite understood until this moment) was, "Of course. Whatever was I thinking?"  That I would passively drop that class and join the public speaking class being taught by Mr. Bill McLaughlin, making myself complicit in the madness.  Shame and humility ... .

This Winterset story remains so deeply embedded that it was included in my book, Sign my name to Freedom.

Bookends.  So many book ends ...

That sense of shame and humility was shed long ago, as these pages surely show.

So why can I not stop crying?

Sunday, July 07, 2019

Oh how I wish that the full spectrum of memory was available to more of us ...

... longevity is causing me to gradually become out of sync with the generations below me.  That fact alone skews my reality and puts me at odds at a time when those memories could serve these chaotic times far better, as those lessons learned long ago might be renewed.  Instead they just go unheeded, and regrettably, re-lived.

For instance:

Long forgotten is a time (during the Fifties and beyond) when it took $47.25/wk to support a family of five.  Crazy?  No.  That was the prevailing wage in the economy of those decades of 40-50 years ago.   Look it up, don't trust my word.  But, of course, that's only true if you were white.  Black families were headed by men who were members of the service workers generation.  Our fathers and uncles were the Red Caps, the valets, bell hops, Pullman porters,  day laborers,  elevator operators, garbage men, handy men, cooks and waiters, none acceptable to the Labor Unions.  They earned $25-$35/wk.  Pullman porters earned $18 a week, plus tips, for a 12-15 hour workday.   The fight for entry into the labor unions was still ahead.  Even attaining supervisory levels was limited in most industries since black men were still considered unqualified and inferior to white workers.

My proud father, Dorson Louis Charbonnet, a trained and experienced millwright and builder, once he left the South, could not find employment except as a white-aproned sandwich hawker in a Southern Pacific railroad lunch car! In that role he earned $75/month for most of his life, and with my mother's help, supported our family of 5 and paid off the mortgage on our modest little home in Oakland.  Though he worked as a carpenter in later life, he could only join the Union after crossing the color line.  Though it was unspoken, I'm certain that he passed for white eventually, as many were forced to do in order to survive.

But what about those who were too dark-skinned to use this option?  Suspecting that Dad was passing was never mentioned, though the fact that we never met anyone of his co-workers, nor were we ever taken to visit his worksite, and the silence around the issue made for a climate of shame that worked to alienate my sisters and me from our parents for much of our lives.  Since both my sisters were lighter-skinned than I in the early years, I'm sure that the burden of keeping the secret was most deeply felt by me; as if just being "colored" in a hostile world weren't burden enough for a child.

Dorson Louis Charbonnet 1894-1987
Our mothers and our aunts were 35 to 50 cents/hr domestic servants, taking care of white folk's children and cleaning their homes.  It had always taken at least two wages to support black families; families who were deliberately and cruelly omitted from the Social Security System by the Roosevelt Administration. From a time when domestic service workers and laborers -- as a class -- were not included.  Look it up.  An Administration now remembered proudly as "Progressive", an administration that took the nation to war with a segregated armed forces.  An Administration that imprisoned 140,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans during that war, 70,000 of whom were American citizens.

This is who we were as a nation in those times; times now looked back on as "Great!", and the time when the "...middle class built this country!"  And now I may be one of the few still living who has lived long enough to remember -- at what cost to how many of us?

We tend to look back and measure social change in terms of values, but seldom do we look back on our lives contextually.  It's only when we do so that a true picture of just who we are can be found.  And it's only when we look back at those times that we can gain some sense of just how far we've come.

And, may I suggest -- that it is in these election cycles that those measurements can best be taken, but we must remove the blinders while assessing, and face up to our national truths as they were lived by those of us who lived them.

And we must remember, that we are not living in the same reality -- and rarely if ever has that been true.  The America that I've lived in bears little resemblance to that of many others.  That's probably as it should be.  I don't argue with that.  It's from those variables that our richness as a Nation is forged.  But the variables should not rise from the inequities and injustices embedded in a flawed social system that bears the awful legacy of slavery, but from the adjustments and corrections we've lived through as a people guided by our founding documents and a heritage of freedom that ensues therefrom  -- as we continue the process of forming our "more perfect Union."

I'll be listening for truth in the upcoming debates over the months ahead, and hoping to live through another election cycle.

Just one more ... please ...

Sunday, June 30, 2019

I know that the Hatch Act prohibits any political involvements by a federal employee ...

... but to opine on things political without endorsing or otherwise supporting particular candidates or issues must be permissible, wouldn't you think?

I've surely not given up my right to respond to critical issues when they arise.  And ever since the debates in Florida this past week, my mind has been spinning!  I can think of little else ... .

The 1954 decision to desegregate the school system set in motion several decades of change that effected the lives of all Americans, regardless of race or ethnicity.  Even for those of us who'd moved out of urban centers to the suburbs; the reverberations were inescapable.

Maybe the fact that my experience was unique in that I was living among the privileged during the 50s, 60s, and 70s, when those changes were so life-changing, and my perspective surely would have varied from the norm.

Though the lives and opportunities  of Black children were altered by the sudden exposure to a richer educational experience, there were also some unexpected consequences for white children.  Black kids were being forcibly pushed out into the hostile world of children who were learning hate from a generation of parents who shared their toxic beliefs around the family dinner tables each night, while their children were being gradually freed by new truths of black children they were learning to love and respect in the new social fabric being created by the inclusivity born of federal intervention.  For me, it was white kids who were deeply effected by the mandate against racial segregation of the schools in 1954, children who were suddenly catapulted into a new reality in which huge generational differences were being forged.

At least this was true for those whose social growth wasn't frozen at that level, those who would be forever damaged by the hatred -- and who would later become the troubled and troubling white nationalists of the country.

It was not only that Black kids were being broadened by the changes, but that the many white kids, as teens and young adults, who willingly moved their privilege to a back burner, becoming the nation-changers by joining with those being shut out of the American Dream.  They did so by setting their own dreams aside to join those courageous souls who were the Freedom bus riders at risk of their lives; who moved into the Deep South to do the perilous work of registering blacks to vote; who staffed those Freedom Schools (like my young friend, white Susan Sanford, who left college to do just that).  White kids who, later in the Movement, suffered the rejection of the very Blacks they'd sacrificed for -- who dismissed them by sending them back into their own communities to "change those white folks!".

It was the addition of white voices to the mix that empowered the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s and 70s. The very reason that the federal mandate for school busing in the early 70s came into being was because the climate created by the skirmishes of the 50s and 60s was beginning to give way between generations --  resistance softened by the tumultuous times.

In the late Sixties, the Flower Children who rose to world attention in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury were not aliens who'd landed from some distant planet, they were the sons and daughters of my suburban friends and neighbors, kids who'd gone off to the colleges and universities of the nation, met and roomed with kids of color in many cases -- for their first exposure to otherness, and in the process had learned that they'd been hood-winked by that bigoted parental generation -- that many of those new friends and acquaintances were not only equal, but some superior to expectations.

In 1964 they'd joined with others from across the country to invade the South to bring change, and, upon returning, staked out their conditions for change -- which included not only de-segregation of the races -- but creating a world-changing Anti-Vietnam War movement,  supported the drives toward Ethnic Studies on the nation's campuses; and later -- in new more inclusive coalitions, the Women's Movement and of the L.G.B.T.Q wars yet to come.

Busing was not merely about changing Black folks, it was the culmination of a continuing regimen of change that opened a successive set of doors of opportunity; doors that changed white youth as much as it did those of color.

It changed us all.

What started such thoughts?

It was a message in my mailbox yesterday from a reporter, Seema Mehta, from the L.A. Times.  She wanted to interview me about the school busing issue (surely fallout from the debate).  I responded by answering that she needed to interview someone else because I was simply not qualified to speak on the subject since I was a suburban mother at that time with only one child in school; an all-white school, and that the busing issue was outside my experience.

Obviously not so, just seeing through a different lens.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Love across time, geography, and Space ... .
From: Betty Reid Soskin <>
Date: June 16, 2019 at 8:54:05 AM PDT
Subject: Re: Hello and thinking of you on the other side of the world
Am in Southern California for Alyana’s graduation from UC Irvine.

You’ve been on my mind for days.  Was with your Dad, Bob, on Thursday - asked if he’d heard from you lately.  No.  Thoughts of you persisted throughout the day ... .
Yesterday while getting ready to leave home for the airport, looked into my jewelry box and found this little necklace you’ created for the family reunion years ago.  Slipped it around my neck.  First time ever since that day, I would wear it.

Woke suddenly this morning at a Marriott Hotel In Newport Beach to a ding from my IPhone on the nightstand and quite suddenly and unexpectedly --  there you were!

I have this insistent and inescapable feeling that the soul of an original ancestor, perhaps the ancestor of my great-greatgrandmother, Celestine, mother of my beloved great-grandmother, Leontine, the beleaguered soul who has been wandering the earth for centuries -- has finally found her way home!  That you are her embodiment in this century. The Celestine who is the "C" of my 21st Century username, CBreaux, whom I've given voice to in this blog, incidentally, and who had to be preceded in life by the woman who was brought in chains to this country -- and whose existence is shielded behind the slave curtain, and the excruciating painful time spent in captivity ... .  All I know about her is the fact that she had to be a musician, a singer perhaps (?) since she still lives in so many of those of us who still walk the Earth.
            Find myself wondering if you're still writing songs, and singing them as a part of your work? 
Crazy? Maybe.  But before a minute more passes I’m needing to take the attached picture— resisting the need to be “rational”, and explain the magic away.

More when I return home and back into a saner place.

Love to you both.


Monday, May 27, 2019

Another wondrous day ... beyond my wildest dreams ... .

On Wednesday, May 22, 2019, I was photographed by the great Annie Liebovitz, and what a day it was!

The car picked me up at around 8:15 that morning for the short drive to the Visitor Education Center of our Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front Historical National Park.  I'm taking the time to type this in as complete detail as possible in order to convince myself that it really happened.

After a brief greeting with this gracious woman, we were driven to a point on the scenic Richmond shoreline where I'd never before been.  This magnificent background is a mere 5 minutes, walking, from our Visitor Center. It is dramatic; unexpectedly beautiful, though anywhere along the Bay Trail can be surprising and wilder than one might anticipate.  The rock formations, though probably landscaped beyond what might find in a more natural state, are nonetheless beautiful and convincingly random.

This site would have served during WWII as Kaiser Shipyard II, where some of the 747 ships were built and launched in 3 years and 8 months. An achievement that helped to bring the war to an end by out-producing the enemy.

That history came alive for me on this day, alive in ways previously dimmed by time ... .

Fortunately, Bryan Gibel, producer/director of the upcoming documentary,  "Sign my name to freedom" came along to photograph Annie and me at work.  Depending upon what gets left on the cutting-room floor, this just might make it into his film.

I have no idea when this work will be published, or, what is its intended use, but at this point I can't say that I very much care.  It was the experience of meeting Ms. Liebovitz -- and "disappearing into the art of another" that sings to me!

She is on an assignment for Google (I believe) using the Google Pixel 3 XL, photographing men and women who are "having an impact" in their time (according to Blaine Edens of Soapbox Productions).  She'd come from a shoot at the Museum created by Bryan Stevenson in Montgomery, Alabama -- where the history of lynchings is memorialized through those unforgettable heart-rending sculptures.

I'm hoping to visit there someday, and at the rate things are going ... .

Can you imagine that not happening?

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Feeling strangely depressed on this Mother's Day ...

... and there's a familiar cast to the feelings -- as though being re-visited from some deep place where we keep the unfinished business of life...

And, maybe I'm not alone, but simply one of the ba-zillion women, worldwide, who have lived into these later years -- having out-lived logic and bereft of the guideposts that we'd been led to expect would be there as we aged into our traditional roles in life ... .

It's those dim memories, hardly distinguishable from the others, memories of some lines we crossed from childhood through to some ill-defined adulthood within which we somehow survived to be mothers of the young who would succeed us in life.

I can remember -- at about seventeen -- wanting a little black dress, and being told by my mother that young girls do not wear black, that I must wait until I was a grown woman before that could happen.  I believe that I was in my mid-twenties, married, before I owned that little black dress.  Not certain of the reason, but I remember it to this day, it was black crepe, bias-cut, and slinky, and worn to a cocktail party hosted by The Woman, a social club I belonged to at that time -- at the Masonic Hall at 30th off San Pablo in Oakland.  I DO remember that it felt wicked and sophisticated, but that it in no way changed my feelings of not yet being old enough ... not even as a married woman.

Maybe when I became a mother ... .

Nah, not even then.

I now recall with sadness on this Mother's Day how -- somewhere in mid-life -- I dropped into a major depression marked by an unfathomable feeling of disappointment, of having been somehow tricked when I suddenly discovered myself caught between generations, being the acting-parent of 4 children, in a failing marriage, and facing squarely into a projected life of care-taking of aging parents, 'til death do them part.

I'd matured into the "sandwich generation" at a time when I was still needing a mother, only problem was that I'd slipped across some kind of generational divide where -- simultaneously -- life was demanding that I become a mother to my own mother ... and there was no conceivable way to reverse the process.

... and I rose to the occasion, as billions of others had done before me.

As my own mother had done.

... it's what women do.

But, you know what?  I truly believe I hit grown-up somewhere around 68!