Sunday, September 27, 2015

And Betty's ... .

About the time that my distant cousin, Paul, was searching out his family history on Ancestry. com I was engaged in the same process on the West Coast where I'd grown up in an extended family of Creoles of Color, re-settlers from the early days in the Tremé of old New Orleans.  My own family had been uprooted by the great floods of 1927.  Unlike Paul, who had access to records left by his grandfather, Joseph Numa Charbonnet, my search had abruptly ended upon reaching the bewildering and forbidding slave curtain somewhere in the mid-1800s.

Though there were surely ancestors before those years, I'd hit a psychological roadblock caused by self-imposed prohibitions -- something nearly every African American has experienced in attempting to trace their beginnings.  The thought of trying to connect my family with their white ancestors simply didn't occur to me.  My history ended with my great-grandfather, Dorson, for whom my father had been named.  It was as if his had been a virgin birth.  I didn't even allow myself to wonder past his birth or who his parents might have been.  It seems curious now in retrospect, that I wouldn't have been curious to delve into his mysterious beginnings.  The word illegitimacy would hardly have come up except in those early conversations spoken only in that patois of French the grownups resorted to when necessary to protect family pride.  So one just didn't go there, even as I grew to adulthood.

Eduoard's signature and Celestine's "X"
It was at this point that I closed the books and returned to exploring my maternal line which offered little more.   The earliest record unearthed from the Diocese of Baton Rouge was the marriage certificate of my enslaved great-great grandmother, Celestine "of no last name"; the paper  that radically changed the nature of her relationship to her owner, Eduoard Breaux, in 1863 (a story for another day).  Both my maternal and paternal lines ended somewhere just after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.  Notice that their marriage papers were written in French, an official language both of the State of Louisiana, and the Catholic Diocese at that time.

I was satisfied that both ancestors of color would have to serve as the beginnings of my story, that is, until I received a message from this stranger, cousin Paul, reaching out with warmth and acceptance from the white side of our family.  He was seeking to identify a list which held the names of my father's siblings.  This would become the onset of the possible coming together of the great American Charbonnet family narrative that would unite black and white relatives after centuries of separation.  Our story is America's story -- a story lived by most of us as the result of a still unprocessed history indelibly marked by slavery and the cruel national tragedy of the Civil War.

Our standing together at the burial place of our ancestor-in-common, (white) Amable, closed the circle with us both inside.  That moment still stands as one of monumental importance in a lifetime of incompleteness, a feeling that I didn't recognize until it was gone.  I'm still adjusting to the exalted feeling of being whole that was born that incredible day as we stood together beside Amable's beautiful marble tomb in St. Louis cemetery.

Paul's story:

This is Betty Charbonnet Reid Soskin, my 4th cousin 3x removed. We met over the internet as I reached out to distant cousins to begin building my Ancestry Family tree.  Betty is enchanting.  We both grew up in New Orleans but we have been separated by an age difference of 26 years, 3,000 miles, and racial boundaries.

Yet, Betty and I were sealed by our common stories of Out of France and St. Dominique.

We descend from my 7th great grandfather who lived in Southern France. His two sons left for  Louisiana about 1760.  Antoine became a successful sugar cane planter in Louisiana, but Jean raised his family in the French Caribbean island of St. Domingue, now Haiti.  The slave rebellion of 1802 and Jean's death in 1803 motivated family evacuation to Louisiana.  I descend from Antoine.  Betty descends from Jean.  Our conversations uncovered generations of relationships and warmth that neither of us had understood as children, but that now we are able to connect.

Antoine stayed in New Orleans as have many of his white descendants.  Jean’s son, Amable, evacuated to Louisiana about age 10, joining his uncle and cousins in New Orleans. There he met a lovely young slave.  Through Ancestry, we believe we have her bill of sale to Pierre Beaulieu  in St. James Parish (another full set of stories).  She took her owner's last name as her own.

Amable had a son, Dorson. By law, Dorson was a free man. White father’s of those days rarely acknowledged their mulatto sons, but assumed the obligation to school them in the military or
apprentice them in a skilled trade. Amable married a wealthy French woman and he died a relatively
young man. His white son, also named Amable, left Louisiana and returned to France with his mother . . .we have not yet connected with our French cousins.

my grandfather, Louis Charbonnet's, business card
Betty grew up in a strong, professional, mulatto community, Her father and my grandfather were builders of homes, churches, schools, mills, and offices.  The highly-skilled mulatto craftsmen were well paid in Uptown homes under supervision of my father and grandfather.  In exchange, my family worked with Betty's to obtain land, permits, city improvements, legal matters,and financing for less expensive homes built in the 8th and infamous 9th wards along Charbonnet Street ... but that's another story.

In 2012 at age 90, Betty spoke at the WWII museum in New Orleans and stayed with us in our home.
We had a goal of locating the tomb of Amable. We learned from Ancestry that he was interred in the St.Louis #1 Cemetery in the French Quarter. After a hot day of searching, the cooler evening descended in the cemetery. On our last turn, along the wall, we found Amable resting with his young daughter, a victim of yellow fever.

Leaving the cemetery, Betty introduced me to her cousins, Louis and Armand Charbonnet, operators of the Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home a few blocks away. The two Charbonnet brothers are well-known for staging the Jazz funerals. Despite having spent their lives professionally in the business, both were unaware of the link to Uptown Charbonnets, Amable, who rested nearby in a beautiful, well marked, Parisian tomb.

Through Ancestry, Betty and I have linked the two branches of our great Southern family. Times have
changed. Ancestry calls us to build family ties even when we have to reach beyond the boundaries of the past.

Upon hearing that the country's demographics are showing a surprising new trend ...

... it occurred to me that this probably deserves our attention.

The assumption  has been that the nation's fastest growing minority would be among our Mexican and South American brothers and sisters; the "Brown" folks.  Recent polling would suggest this is no longer true.  The greatest growth is in the "Other" category; those who are now of mixed parentage, crossing the lines of racial separation in its many variations.  Small wonder that we're seeing the polarity in this country harden as those who are frightened by that possibility are increasingly alarmed.

As a member of that group, and knowing so many others of mixed race, this had the ring of truth.  And, I'm guessing that we're living proof that miscegenation may indeed enhance the human gene pool and not befoul it as some might have you believe; an interesting possibility, though eminently debatable, of course.

A day or so after I read that surprising statistic -- by coincidence -- I received a request from distant (white) cousin, Paul Charbonnet, inviting my participation in an Ancestry.com proposal with him.  It would entail our (together) submitting our truncated family story in a recently announced Ad campaign.  Paul lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and I'm far away on the Left Coast here in California.  It would have to be done by long distance without comparing notes except sketchily and through cyberspace.

A few days later he sent along his first draft of the result of his years-long research with the invitation that I submit my version for his son to combine into a single story to submit for consideration by Ancestry.   This happened only last week, and the first drafts have been exchanged for approval (each by the other) before submission.

I enlisted the help of one of our staff who could do the technical work and with an improvised background we prepared a short video as requested, with me reading a hastily-prepared 400-word script.  It was fun -- probably because it was a first draft and would probably undergo several edits before being entered into competition with others.

Both Paul and I have felt that the Charbonnet saga was worth, at least, a mini-series simply because the history is so colorful and so "American."  Though we'd only spoken about it in jest, and never with any serious intent.  But this kind of nibbled at the edges of that silent speculation that we both pretended didn't exist.

I'll post both scripts (one pagers) here so that you can see how one family -- separated by the racial barriers -- has begun the act of unification after more than 20 generations of only tacitly acknowledging the relationship on occasion over many decades.

I suspect that ours is a colorful example of many American stories, and that by sharing it here, others might see themselves somewhere between the lines ... .

Monday, September 21, 2015

With Amber Butts and Wanda Johnson
Served as a panelist for the Women's Center at St. Marys College in Moraga on Wedneday evening ... .

... and was reacquainted with a lovely young poet, Amber Butts, and Wanda Johnson, the mother of the late Oscar Grant who was one of the many unarmed African American young men slain by police in the  nightmarish recent past.

I'd been hesitant to accept the invitation since the theme of the evening was a local response to the Black Life Matters movement, and -- though I'm passionately supportive of this freshening of the Civil Rights struggles of the past -- the fact that I'm approaching my 94th birthday suggested to my aging mind that nothing that I had to say could possibly be relevant to a new generation facing into the winds of a change that has now moved past my own.  What on earth could I say that anyone would want to hear?

After running it past my supervisors, I was finally convinced that there might still be some juice in the system, and that Sharon Sobotta, director of the Women's Center and a respected journalist, was certainly aware of the issues that I'm still struggling with.  Perhaps there is still some relevance in the sharing of that earlier history with these students.  At least -- since they'd invited me to join their discussion -- they were open to exploring the connections.

After all, I was being asked as Betty Soskin, private citizen, and with none of the weight of representation of a federal agency.  We retain those rights, even as we stand as federal employees with Hatch Act limitations.  This would be one of those times.  I would be introduced and would participate in this panel as my private self.

I felt out of place and out of context for just the first half-hour, but after hearing Oscar Grant's mother, Wanda Johnson, share her story with its tie-ins to the tragic Trayvon Martin's, Freddy Gray's, Michael Brown's and the other's untimely deaths -- and of her selfless dedication to taking the time out of her life to travel coast-to-coast in support of those bereaved parents and dedicated attorneys -- the human-to-human, woman-to-woman compassion kicked in, and I was at home in that room among those vibrant young faces.  The distance between generations simply quietly evaporated without leaving a trace.

Except that I wondered after the fact if -- in our Afrocentric orientation we may be sacrificing our larger American interests?  I know.  That sounds like a cop-out in a way, but I can't help but feel that the larger issues of the militarization of our police needs to be addressed even as we struggle to make Black Lives Matter.  The powerful control being wielded by the NRA over those who legislate our laws. The proliferation of guns without legal restraints and regulations were equally causal in the Newtown kindergarten classroom as it was in Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

If anything stood out that evening it was the fact that the young college students are still at the place where they're working on personal reactions to often clumsily encoded disrespectful racist statements at a time when so much more direct and in-your-face responses are called for.  Perhaps it is Black Lives Matter that adds the exclamation point to an otherwise bland and relatively futile process.   I sense that in the new voices and poetry of black artists like Amber who now practice their craft with a bolder new edge that holds more promise and less fear than before.

... but maybe that would best be described as the impatient attitude of one approaching the end times with a sense of urgency that won't come for this generation until long after the time when we might have saved ourselves ...  .


Sunday, September 13, 2015

Find myself uncomfortable with a question raised in the Q&A yesterday after my talk ...

... and -- as I law awake long after going to bed last night -- hesitant to end my day with unresolved feelings -- I realized that the question has been hanging in the air for many years.

The woman who raised the question in a heavy French accent put a new edge to the issue:

"I didn't even know you were African American, or why it is so important.  Why is that?"

I mumbled something that might suffice until we could move on, but can't even recall what those words were.  Did I hesitate taking her query head on because she was an obvious visitor to this country for whom the overlay of innocent curiosity could be excused?  It surely wasn't because I was ducking the issue out of ignorance or simple avoidance of the obvious.

My racial ambiguity is a factor, of course, one that I've had to evolve through life experience.   Though I unquestionably identify as Black, though my cultural background is provided by a rich Cajun/Creole New Orleans ancestry. And my black identity rises from the fact that I did not grow up in New Orleans, but on the West Coast where those ethnic beginnings were eventually overlaid by a purely western culture.  I lived the Post WWII black experience which brought with it the black activism of the Sixties and throughout every decade since -- at a time when the nation was sorting out its racial attitudes and forming a new definition of itself -- one that would permit us to elect a president of color in 2008 after a stormy and perilous journey through the latter half of the 20th Century.

I increasingly see myself as an evolving person in an evolving nation.

Part of the national conversation that prevents us from re-visiting that history -- that won't allow us to process the slavery era even today is this:

It was in 1807 that the importing of African slaves came to an end in this country, though smuggling continued unabated for several decades.  The buying and selling of human beings would not end until the Civil War was fought and the Emancipation Proclamation signed in 1865.

When one goes through the slave records from the years following the official end of the slave trade, most of those who show up in slave accounts are very young.  They were chattel, "livestock".  They were family assets who were passed along through wills and sold as property for many more years.  They were used to pay off gambling debts, etc.

But the most shameful truth is the fact that -- once there was no new "stock" being imported into our ports, slave owners used rape in order to produce and increase their slave holdings.  The fact that African Americans today are born with every skin color and hair texture, every facial feature, body shape, has to do with that cruel history of the beginnings of our ancestors.  During the early and mid-19th Century,  white American slave owners were quite literally selling their own children.  That's the ugly truth that remains unutterable.  Though many of us were born to free blacks, most were not.
It is no easier for us to speak of that painful history than it is for the descendants of slave owners to own it.  But that ugly truth still hangs in the room when those skin color differences are noted, as it was yesterday.  Our "otherness" has as many variations as there are races and cultures on the earth.  I'm no exception, but bear the appearance of those who preceded me on the earth by whatever practices that prevailed under that cruel economic system.  Yesterday, the French woman's innocence allowed her to raise the obvious, but awareness of that awesome truth smothered my voice in my throat, and I let it slip by with the realization that this was not the time nor the place to take that on.

But after a day of watching the debate about the de-funding of Planned Parenthood, the alleged "dismemberment of babies in the womb to harvest their stem cells," occurring in the Congress by the descendants of slave owners and their unknowing co-conspirators so piously was disheartening;  hypocritical.  That the Pro-Life movement would have its greatest strength among the evangelical southern Christians where the remnants of white supremacy still prevails is frightening. 

If not now; when?

Wish I'd taken the time to give voice to the unspeakable yesterday. 

Friday, September 04, 2015

Little Known Black History Fact: Betty Reid Soskin | Black America Web 

Little Known Black History Fact: Betty Reid Soskin | Black America Web

This is an NPR interview that I've just discovered a link to.  You can listen to it if you'll use the bar at the bottom of the article.  It's about 30 minutes, I think.

A week has past since my last post, and I've lived through another crisis ...

... but this one clearly took its toll on my morale and general sense of well-being.  and I'm noticing that recovery is no longer as fast as before.

Yesterday I learned that -- over the next several months my work will be documented on film, so that will bring a new edge to my presentations.  It will bring some new elements in that may take some getting used to.  It means that things like lighting and sound will become more important, and all those things that fall under the heading of "production" will move to the forefront.  I've never had to think about anything beyond the telling of my story and silently choosing the faces in the audience that I will speak to.

I've become fairly used to noticing people using their cellphones to document my talks for (I assume) personal use, and over time that's become a non-issue.  I've had reporters and writers of one kind or another slinking around the theater taking their shots, but -- surprisingly -- once I'm into my story they become a background blur and fade away out of consciousness.  Maybe being filmed on the job will fade into my new normal as with everything else, and it will be alright.

The importance of having my work go on when I'm no longer able to do it myself is now moving into prominence, with my 94th birthday coming up within two weeks.  I'm becoming so aware of legacy, and the need to respect that for those who will succeed me both in my immediate family and in the National Park Service interpretive staff.

The radio interview on PBS's Forum show with Michael Krasny brought in a great number of new visitors, and this week there was a feature story in Travel & Leisure, a national publication, and the article in Triple A's VIA was finally published.   That release was originally intended for the November/December issue for last year, so it was a not expected after so many months.

I still marvel at how long it took for the world to notice me, and I find it a complete mystery that I've been noticed at all since I sense nothing new in either my behavior or my affect -- yet there's something familiar that is reminiscent of the attention I received long ago when I was singing.  I've listened to some audio tapes and can hear nothing vaguely resembling 'greatness' or any arresting kind of quality in my voice, but I'm aware that whatever the magic is, it seems less related to what I do than to what I am.   But having said that, I have no idea what that means ... .

Maybe it has to do somehow, with power, or charisma, and I wish I had a better handle on the why of it.  I seem to recall that there was an element of fear and a reluctance to have that kind of power over others -- for whatever reason.  That was surely an element in my drawing back from the edge early on, and refusing to enter the life of a public figure, or an entertainer.  But that was when I was a young mother and more vulnerable, I suppose.  At this advanced age, I'm far more daring, and risk-taking is not so scary, and with so little time left ... .

There was that time (I believe it was in 1965) when I introduced my original song, "Sign my name for freedom" in a concert at the Berkeley Auditorium.  The song had been written in honor of the brave souls in Mississippi who dared to fight for their right to register to vote as full citizens.   I was a participant among many in a "Hootnanny" produced as a fundraiser for some social cause. The house was full to overflowing, and as I was singing I was aware that that great mass gathered there was breathing in unison -- tied to the ends of the lines of my song -- and that I could hear them exhale as one as the song ended.   The applause was thunderous!  I remember staying behind at the end of the concert until everyone was gone so that I wouldn't have to meet anyone who might break the spell -- maybe so that I could live in that feeling as long as possible, maybe ... ?  I've wondered since -- when I allow myself to think about it -- if that isn't the seduction of being a stage performer?  This, then, is probably what one gets addicted to in that world, and what I retreated from so long ago ... without regret, but then ... .

Maybe that's why I don't tarry at the end of my talks; that thing that I can't wait to get away from -- and rush toward home; to get lost in traffic and from far away from what might have been ... .

Monday, August 31, 2015

Had my car broken into in our parking lot -- and the culprits appear to have taken more than the briefcase from my trunk ... .

the briefcase contained my IRS records for the past several years, so my identity is unquestionably compromised.

I'm totally thrown and can't seem to function at all since it happened on Saturday morning.

Discovered the theft Saturday morning as I got into my car to head for the Visitor Center on the shoreline. I immediately shut the implications out of mind in order to get through another impossible day.  On my schedule were two one-hour presentations in our theater; one at eleven and another at two o'clock.

The eleven o'clock was totally filled (48 seats) and there was simply no time to put in a police report since having them come to the Visitor Center would raise public attention in ways that I didn't want to deal with.

Because another article on my work appeared in the AAA's VIA magazine on Friday, the weekend audience was unprecedented.  We'd put in a numbering system in order to not go beyond the fire department regulations.  One hour before my talk visitors are given tickets so that we can know that we haven't exceeded our capacity, and for the two o'clock talk every ticket had been distributed within the first five minutes -- everybody had to be turned away after that!

And the compartmentalizing I was doing in order to retain my sanity was threatening my stability, and I can't imagine that I got through it all without totally freaking out!

But I did.

It's just that from the moment I returned to my apartment until now (two days later), I've been only half-conscious, I think.

Last night I finally sent my attorney an email seeking help, and first thing this morning he responded. We're meeting this afternoon.  I've still not filed a police report.  I suspect that it's out of a sense of uselessness.  This is the third time my car has been broken into in the past several months.  Twice in my carport, and once just outside City Hall where our headquarters office is located -- in Civic Center Plaza.  Both times I made police reports.  Both times it took many hours for an officer to respond.  And the experience only led to my feelings of helplessness because there is just no real defense against such incidents, and I knew it.

I mentioned the break-in on Facebook and among those who responded with wishes for recovery and assistance was a message from our police chief, offering to do whatever he could.  For that I was grateful, not so much for his official offer of help as for his friendship.  Chris Magnus is my friend, and I know he is sincerely  concerned.  But it didn't cause me to act on my own behalf, but just to give up any hope of a solution ... .

This afternoon I will have an appointment to meet with my attorney.  He's warm and caring, and seeing Steve may serve to break through the ennui and sense of helplessness that I'm sill not able to recover from ... .

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Spent much of this afternoon doing something I rarely do ... .

... read back through random posts in this journal, and was soon lost in time.

Such a long and varied life I've lived.  Some of the accounts of the days of struggling toward recovery of our little business were unbelievably difficult and stressful -- and I had forgotten how fearful I was so much of the time, but certainly courageous.  I must have become softer with age, because I'm certain I could not live through such times now.  And this was a period of life that followed 20 years of being an upscale suburban housewife, and a second marriage into the life of a faculty wife on the University of California campus.

South Berkeley during the Seventies was much like Ferguson, Detroit, Chicago,  Baltimore, and other troubled areas in many parts of the country today.  It has now gentrified out of that identity, and the former low-income black residents have been displaced through being priced out of residency by economic forces.  Berkeley has lost its racial diversity over many years.  'Tis the pity, I think.  I'm far more comfortable in Richmond these days, where the diversity is rich, volatile, edgy, cantankerous, and warmly engaging.  I've grown to love Richmond. 

I remembered that when my embattled black businessman husband complained to the police that our store was being broken into about every 3 months, and that we were without adequate police protection in the community.  Since we'd parted, and before, he'd taken to sleeping on a cot in the back of the store with a rifle at his side.  The police explanation was, "... we like to have neighborhoods like this.  When something happens in other parts of town we know where we can most likely pick up the culprit."  They were using our neighborhood as a catchment area.

Of the nine halfway houses for addicts in recovery and returning former prisoners, seven of them were placed in our neighborhood by the City.   The neighborhood was ground zero for the drug trade, and those high risk people were cynically set down in the middle of the "candy store" where they were expected to live where recidivism and relapse into drug abuse would be most likely be inevitable.  Children in such areas are put at risk of their lives as time has clearly shown.  The sound of gunfire now so common had not yet become a problem, though -- over time -- I saw 4 young black boys/men gunned down within 500 yards of our store.  One Saturday afternoon -- with several customers leisurely browsing record albums -- a bullet came through the storefront window from police activity across the street -- whizzed past just over my son, David's, head and settled in the wall!

I've outlived the cynicism that had to be developed in order to withstand the quiet terror that had to be lived with every day, and that so many have had to survive while retaining enough scar tissue to serve as protection from the effects of having to spend our lives as 3/5th of a human being.

... and there were fine and upstanding folks living in that corner of South Berkeley; folks caught up in a dehumanizing system caused by poverty and degradation.  We took care of each other as far it was possible to do so.  My lot was cast with those around me, and we all made the best of it.  Despite all, I look back fondly on those troubled years, and find that I'm still spinning off lessons learned.  That period added a richness and depth to my life that continues to serve as grounding for today's small victories.

In the archives there's a good record of those years -- starting in March-April of 2004.  Use the little white search bar on the left side of the screen above the banner.  You can just check on the dates in the archives list, of course. 


Sunday, August 16, 2015

Gone, Gone, Gone!   I'm free of vertigo and up and runnin' again!

Betty Reid Soskin: A World War II Homefront History

August 16, 2015 - 1:30pm-4:00pm 
Come hear Betty Reid Soskin recall Richmond and the Bay Area during World War II.  This exceptional speaker and homefront hero will show a short movie of Richmond during the years 1942-1945 and follow it up with an inspiring talk that you must experience.  Betty is currently a park ranger at the Rosie the Riveter WWII Homefront National Park in Richmond, and was once employed in the Richmond shipyards during World War II.  Her talk will move you.
Event Category: 
I'm also back at the wheel, and "Old" will just have to take a number and wait in line.

Just showered and dressed for a presentation at the Berkeley Main Library at 1:30 this afternoon, and expect to see old friends in that audience.  Having lived in Berkeley for many years, I've left a mark on it as we all do in those places where we've shared lives -- and it surely has left its mark on me.  I never thought I'd be happy living anywhere else, but I'm firmly planted now in Richmond, and think of the city as home.  But maybe home is wherever the heart is at any moment in time.  If so, I've had many, and this is only the latest version.

That 20 years in the suburbs -- painful though it was at times -- probably provided the greatest and deepest growth, and friends with whom those years were shared left their mark on my life as in no other period.  Strange.  Maybe that was the take-away in exchange for the confidence and security acquired as the result.  The pain may have been well worth it.  I'm still spinning off those years.  They've given me the needed balance to continue building on the foundation provided by the early years of woman-building that started when I was six, with Papa George as mentor.

These recent years of connecting the dots and knitting together decades of experiences -- having retained enough accumulated wisdom to articulate that -- is something I could never have anticipated.

But then, maybe that book has been thoughtfully written, and I've not yet discovered it ... .  

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