Monday, October 03, 2016

One of the WPA (Works Projects Administration) murals in the Department of Interior Building ... .

These were from the Franklin Delano Roosevelt era, and are truly treasured artifacts of those progressive times.  They turn up throughout the building, and one can take a guided tour to see them all.

This one is by an artist's whose name I've forgotten -- but will retrieve and post -- and pictures the audience at the Marian Anderson's historic concert at the Lincoln Memorial.  If you'll recall, this was due to the Daughters of the American Revolution's refusal to allow her to sing at Constitution Hall.  First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt -- with the help of Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes arranged for the concert to be staged on the steps of the Memorial to thousands of citizens.

The murals are controversial in some cases, reflecting the politics of the times, but were allowed expression without comment or objection.

To have the chance to see them on my 95th birthday was such an honor and a privilege.  That this would occur on the day when I met with 30 Freedom Rangers, 12-14 year-olds who had just returned from a bus trip through the South where they'd visited Civil Rights sites of the National Park Service -- to be followed by a birthday party 'down the hall' with Director Jon Jarvis and the WASO staff; then for a visit to the Ford Theater across town!

It was a day to remember.

Stopped in for a short visit with Rep. Jackie Speier before heading off for another with my representative, Congressman Mark DeSaulnier.  The invitation had arrived prior to our leaving the Bay Area.  It was our first meeting -- before we participate in an all-day conference for seniors held in her district every year.
Rep. Jackie Speier's birthday gift

Rep. DeSaulnier's role has been critical to the effort to gain the support of the president toward a final resolution of this lingering stain on the nation's home front history.  It occurred in those tumultuous times before we became more open to the lessons of democracy.

The Friends of Port Chicago has worked valiantly toward that end for years.  Since this is a member of our 4-Parks -- it seemed only fair that Kelli and I make the attempt to breathe whatever life we could manage to while at the seats of power.

Got to discuss the stalled petition submitted for the exoneration of the Port Chicago "mutineers", and was disappointed that so little has happened to move it forward for the families of those courageous dissenters whose convictions for refusing to return to loading explosives after the disaster of July 17, 1944.  Their brave action brought on the desegregation of the Armed Forces in 1948.

I've never understood the resistance to exonerating those young men.  If only our leaders would see -- if only we could communicate that it is not simply some isolated case of navy men disobeying an order during war time, but is the perpetual -- down through the centuries -- under-valuing of black male lives (that "3/5th of a human being" thing) -- that was the reason that over 3 thousand blacks were lynched over a century between the mid-1800s and the 1900s; the reason that they're disproportionally imprisoned; the reason black men are being destroyed today on the nation's streets in questionable police actions; and the reason those 50 young black males would have their lives dishonored by the refusal to exonerate them in the face of refusing an order under circumstances in which all white officers were given 30 days trauma leave.

If ever we are in need of sending a positive message to young black males who live every day in the fatalistic belief that their lives will end prematurely ... it is now.

This is not a new story.  To the contrary; it is centuries old.  It is tragically etched into our national consciousness, into the nation's DNA, and needs to be recognized and finally rooted out!  The exoneration of the Port Chicago "mutineers" is so much bigger than the story, alone, but could well provide a breakthrough in black and white relations between young black males and the authorities who, theoretically, are sworn and expected to protect them.

This is all of-a-piece of a despicable old normal that needs to be re-classified as an aberration!

How much more clearly could we state that Black Lives Matter?

We're still hoping to accomplish this before the Obama administration leaves office.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

How will I ever catch up with myself?

Since the last post so much has happened; including a ten day trip to Washington, D.C., that was jam-packed with events, honors, surprises, etc., with not a minute to waste!

The YouTube Google talk happened on Monday, September 12, in the week prior to our leaving for the grand opening of the National African American Museum of History and Culture on the Capitol Mall.  This architectural wonder sits on a knoll next to the Washington monument and is the most exciting and beautiful addition to the Smithsonian museums that one can imagine!

Prior to leaving with my colleague and travel companion, Kelli English, our staffs here and in Washington had been planning an itinerary that surely have required "Helen," had I been aware of how impressive, how demanding, how intimidating that might be.

It came and went, and both "Helen" and I survived, and were none the worst for wear.

We arrived in D.C. late Thursday evening, and would you believe that I was recognized in the Baggage Claims at Reagan Airport even though not in uniform?  That should have prepared me for the week to come, but I'm suspect that I was still in denial (which I am no longer).

The trip to Google on Monday (just four days before our departure for the Capitol) had been a revelation.  Despite the publicity, I had no idea of the size of the Google campus.  It is like a city within a city, and is all that advance knowledge claimed it to be.

It seemed ironic, however, to note that in preparing for this video in one of their little theaters, 3 techies could not get the main screen to work!  We had to watch the video on a small screen because -- for all their effort -- no success.

During the first part of my talk I found myself disconnected from the audience because -- in order to meet the needs of the film crew -- it was necessary to use lighting that would cause the audience to disappear.  At home, I make certain that all of the house lights are on in our theater so that I can see the faces -- the eyes -- of those to whom I'm speaking; absolutely essential.  I need the connection in order to feel their presence.  Without that visual contact, I'm lost.

I learned in the process (after a few minutes of confusion because of the sense of being blinded and separated from the audience), that it could be overcome.  That I could still hear them stirring.  The stillness, once contact had been made, need not be threatening; and that we soon were caught up in an experience-in-common, and it was alright.  That's good to know.  This will surely happen again, and the next time I'll be prepared for the momentary loss of visual contact.

One of the delights of the Google trip was meeting this young Nigerian intern who has been with Google for about 6 months.  Here he is shown standing before a large Google Map pointing out his home, his school, and the pathway between.  The wonder of how this young man (about 20 years) has bridged the physical,  cultural, and generational distances between is miraculous.  For me it was like stepping into the future only imagined less than 20 years ago.

Wishing for a way to make a Faustian bargain for another ten years or so; at least enough to see into whatever comes next ... .

Betty Soskin: "Opportunity and Discrimination in WWII Shipyards" | Talks... 

Sunday, September 04, 2016

It was waiting at my desk on Thursday, the beautiful invitation to the Preview of the great National African American Museum on the Capitol Mall ... .

This photo was taken in June by Martha Lee as we stood outside the construction site of the still incomplete Museum.  It was thrilling to know that it would be open in a few short months, but at that time I had no idea that I would be invited to the festivities, though I was aware that our staff was working on that possibility.  Everyone knew that I was dying to attend this opening.

Finally, a few weeks after returning home from the WWII Museum's annual Gala in New Orleans, I learned --not only that Secretary Jewel would be bringing along the replacement coin from the White House to the Port Chicago Day of Remembrance -- but that she would see that the invitation happened, and it has.  Not only will I be able to attend the opening as her guest, but that I will have ten days in Washington to participate in a panel before the Congressional Black Caucus Conference with former National Park Service Director Bob Stanton, and a signature ranger from the East Coast,  Ranger Cassius Cash.  I will be involved in activities yet unnamed, but listed on a growing itinerary that no one is allowing me to see lest I'm overtaken by the vapors!

I will present to the museum a photograph of the convent of the nation's first all-black religious Order; the Holy Family Sisters.  The convent was built by my grandfather, Louis Charbonnet, out on Gentilly near the campus of Dillard University in New Orleans.  In June I saw among the temporary exhibits, one on that historic Order of Nuns, and vowed that I would locate that fading photograph and contribute it to the Museum to take its place among those artifacts.  I'll now get to do that.

I will not only attend the preview on September 17th along with the Collection Donors Preview & Reception, but will be attending the grand opening of the Museum on September 24th as well.  And that means that this 'lil ole lady ranger will be rubbing shoulders with the likes of Laura Bush, Oprah Winfrey, Quincy Jones, Willie Brown, General Colin Powell, etc., and we may all be wondering just how on earth she ever got on the A-List!

Celebrating the National Park Service Centennial with a Rosie Rally ... .

... which always leaves me with a feeling of being underwhelmed since I still lack the sense of relationship to the concept.  Rosie, for me, remains a white woman's story, with little relevance to my life.  I know.  It's silly.  I do spend almost  my entire life, currently, in the context of that history, right?  But try as I may -- those memories of exclusion are with me still after all these years.  I chose to wear my regular uniform on this day and to not participate except from afar as an observer.

I truly do not harbor any resentment, nor do I envy the women who remember that period of WWII with feelings of triumph over a social system that was pretty disrespectful of women in general.  It is a great feminist issue, and I firmly believe that today's women should use whatever they need to in order to bring light upon the issue.  I just isn't my issue, and I'm alright with that.

But there was a moment of amusement when I first saw those amazing women who'd gathered in the Craneway Pavilion of the old Ford Assembly Plant in the attempt to reclaim the Guinness Record for having the most women dressed as Rosie gathered in one place -- a friendly competition entered into with the women of the WWII defense plant in Dearborn, Michigan.  We broke the record with over 2000 people, a number that included several who traveled from Michigan to join with us in the attempt!

As I looked on that scene in the Craneway it was all I could do to not make note of the fact that -- given the context of my life and culture -- they resembled Aunt Jemima of pancake fame more than anything else!  Did they know that?  And in the script running through my momentarily demented mind, I was creating my own story where I would call in the NAACP legal team to make claim that these folks were expropriating another black symbol -- our icon -- and without our consent!  (... and, yes, I DO understand that this is not a legitimate black symbol, but simply a questionable logo created by the advertising industry.)

I backed out of the Craneway giggling to myself, as my fantasy went on to envision slave women in the cotton fields with their heads wrapped in red and white polka-dot bandanas added to by the descendants of slaveowners adopting this now iconic symbol without realizing what they were perpetuating, and now being joined by African American women in this Guinness competition!    And even if they knew, would it have mattered?  So much for traditions in these days of blending cultures.

After using the image to tease, I found myself going with the flow after a time.  It was a usual day for me, and I silently observed that the National Park Service only has 5 years on me, and that if I was feeling underwhelmed, it was probably to centennials not being such a big deal to one of my age.  Maybe I'll feel it more deeply when I get to Washington on September 15, where it is so much easier to relate to history; our collective narrative, which is so very powerful.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

So much has happened -- with so much waiting in the wings ... .

But at the top of the list is a very surprising email message received a few days ago from a publishing house in Chicago, the head of which -- in a few sentences -- informed me that he'd been looking for me for a very long long time, and he then shared a few words from a song I'd written and performed many years ago -- maybe 50?

At first I thought there must be some mistake, and responded with my doubts, yet, the song was clearly one I'd written long ago ... .

It was quite lovely.  Wind Song was written during one of our annual trips to Asilomar for Stebbins Institute of the Unitarian Universalist Association.  The kids and I looked forward to sharing that mid-August week with other UU families each year, building friendships that have lasted our entire lives.

The song was later picked up by a filmmaker, Charles Peterson, and used in Farallon Light, a documentary about the impending removal of the centuries-old beacon that had served on the island  to warn seafarers of hazards -- but also to serve as protection for shorebirds along the Pacific flyway --  instead of automated surveillance that could not provide enough of the necessary protection along the usually fogbound coastal shoreline.  I believe this prize-winning film influenced the decision to maintain a small team on the island supervised by the Audabon Society.

Wind Song came out of that rich yet personally painful period, but had been buried deep in the suburbs as our lives moved us in and out of one marriage and into another; the kids grew into their own lives; and I gave up my secret life of singer/composer of art songs in favor of a multitude of new edges to live out of into the next decades.  I'd truly moved past young Betty and deeper into the political activist/merchant/ranger Betty of today over those many years.

Shipley is seeking to include it in a compilation album along with other as-yet undiscovered artists of the 50s, 60s. and 70s.  How he ever found this obscure recording so many miles from its place of origin is a mystery I'll never understand.  About 3 years ago, another collector contacted me to announce that he'd turned up another of my songs ... once "out there," art seems to never die, I guess.  I marveled at the miracle and allowed the interest to return to the past without revelation.

You can imagine how Ken Shipley's message would reawaken those long-forgotten embers by breathing oxygen over them at a time when -- only last week I'd given a disk on which 7 original songs were etched -- for consideration for including in a documentary about our family; a work now in production.  After more years than I can count, here was my music stubbornly coming to life again in unpredictable ways, and having to be dealt with. This time I would pay attention.  This time there was a context in which it might live again.

Shipley included in his email the link to the little song.  Someone had taken a recording of my quite lovely little voice singing to my own barely adequate guitar accompaniment -- added a bass and flute -- and, Voila!, young Betty sounds quite professional, and with all those intervening years now past, I can now listen to her without ego or passing judgment, as if in the third person, and find myself responding to her as "audience."  Amazing!

Can you imagine having your younger self emerging into a suddenly-exploding life of "the nation's oldest park ranger," at a time when your older self is being caught in a flurry of floodlights and peering into camera lenses and speaking into microphones, giving interviews to Der Spiegel, the BBC, CNN, ABC, CBS, etc., none of whom has ever heard of young Betty the singer/composer!  She snuck up on all of us, and I'm not certain what to do with her at this point.

I will be leaving in 3 weeks for Washington, D.C., to serve on a panel before the Congressional Black Caucus Conference,  then to New York mid-week for another commitment, and then back to Washington for the grand opening of the new African American Museum on the Capitol Mall.

Surviving a home intrusion burglary may have been easy compared to trying to juggle September on the East Coast where my 95th birthday will be spent along with everything else, and now young Betty turns up at this late date -- opening yet another door into a fast-fading and very fragile future ... .

Sunday, August 14, 2016

It has been a very long time since I've posted ... and so much has happened ... .

I DO blame Facebook mainly for sapping most of the energy that once went into blogging.  That program tends to drain off the immediacy that once went into the processing of "...life as it unfolded," (I remember writing those words once to explain some other temporary issue), by having created a world of "friends" who now inhabit my world -- but not really -- and who tap into my reality in sometimes disconcerting ways.  There's something faux about it in that the word friend has been redefined into something that defies reality -- but that has loomed in the background of my life in ways that seem actual but are not.  Except that in a real emergency situation those friends who were virtual became quite real at a time when my life appeared threatened.

It was the early morning of July 1st (my late mother's birthday) when I woke at one-thirty to an intruder standing within six feet of my bed.  I live in a second floor apartment.  He'd climbed up using the drain pipe -- climbed over the railing, broke the lock on my sliding balcony doors and entered surreptitiously in the night.

He was a slightly-built white man wearing a hoodie and (I suspect) lightweight pajamas.  I knew that he was a white man because he spoke while trying to get me to stop screaming.  I would have recognized a black male voice.  He was probably 5'7-5'9.

I rose from my bed with my cellphone in hand (I'd placed it next to my bed) but had no time to summon the police before it was wrested from  my hand in a struggle that took us from the bedroom into the hallway with his arms pinning mine down and his hand over my mouth to silence my screams.

Had either of us been armed, my gun would have been taken from me in those same few seconds that my cellphone was knocked out of my hand and slung across the room.  I might well have not survived.

Gift on my return to work
He straddled my body as we struggled on the floor of the hallway and he beat me about the head and face with his fists leaving bruises and a split lip that would last for days.  As we struggled on the floor with me screaming as loudly as I could to no response (I didn't know that the two apartments downstairs were empty and there was no one to hear), but a sudden memory of defense strategies gave me the chance to reach into his loose-fitting (pajama pants?) garb and squeeze his genitals as hard as I could which caused him to back off allowing me to escape to the nearby bathroom where I immediately sat upon the floor with my feet propped against the door and my back against the cabinet housing the sink.  I remembered that my electric iron was stored under the sink -- let my feet loose for the few seconds it took to plug it into a wall outlet beside the sink and turned the dial to linen -- the hottest temperature -- and sat while it quickly gained heat enough to brand the culprit for the police to find him once caugh!

I have no idea where that power springs from under  such circumstances, but I do know that as I sat down on that floor I was suddenly as calm as a cucumber, and knew that I was going to survive this, that I was surely not a victim.  Though I'd never had to know this before now, I had the distinct realization that I could take care of myself, and that this intruder was not going to be allowed to change my life, nor to make me fear.  I suspected that his beating me was for the purpose of silencing me.  That he had no intention of killing me, or seriously harming me, that I was interfering with his intent to steal items that he could sell and that -- had I stopped screaming, or, if I'd pretended sleep and allowed him to do his work I might well have escaped personal harm.

I was told that this is a "victim's" way of blaming oneself, and not a healthy attitude, but I suspect that I'm right.

As I sat in that bathroom listening for signs of activity (at least 30 minutes), he was busy going through my apartment picking up items (my computer, my IPhone, a lovely hand painted bamboo fan and teak box beautifully adorned with abalone shells sent by as gifts by the South Korean National Park Service for an aricle I'd written for their journal; and the presidential coin presented to me by President Barack Obama at the national tree-lighting ceremony last December.  That, along with other challenge coins collected over time and together in a small wine-colored velvet drawstring bag that lay on the table in my living room along with other personal treasures.

Of the items, it was that presidential coin that I treasured most and felt most the loss of.

The physical bruises were not serious enough to require a physician's attention, though the fire and police departments were well represented in my living room within a few minutes after my neighbors placed the call.

They were outraged!  My community was outraged!  I think that I just felt lucky to have survived the encounter.

I was distraught, but held together until late the next morning when -- after a sleepless night -- I fell totally apart ... .

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Finding the need to pull back a few paces -- to try to absorb all that has happened ... .

Am back at work, having checked in on Tuesday where a box from South Korea was waiting.  Staff had been impatiently waiting for me to return so that the contents  could be revealed.

Ranger Elizabeth Tucker insisted upon doing the honors and  quickly gathered up her scissors to snip through the wrappings.  Apparently protocol has been instituted by Homeland Security so that there is a designated "unwrapper" to do this, and Elizabeth was mine.

Mothering with Dorian and Bob at the beach at Asilomar
As she made her way through the artfully wrapped gifts; a lovely fan, a toy bear wearing a park ranger hat with Korean characters across the crown; a beautiful black teak box inlaid with abalone shells in the cover; plus 2 copies of the South Korean National Park Service journal in which two pages that hold a paragraph authored by me that was (apparently) created from one of those many phone interviews I've granted lately.  There is a small photo of a uniformed Betty in the lower left hand corner, and the words are printed in both Korean and English -- on facing pages.  What an honor!  The thought that this is being read in a faraway land by total strangers is inconceivable -- but obviously true.  I'm now international!

Wednesday I worked from home, catching up with mail and trying to establish whatever new normal we're entering into ...

Went back into my family photo album for some grounding, and found this ... taken on the beach at Asilomar, California, on the Monterey Peninsula, where the kids and I spent the third week in August of every year for many years ... as we participated in Stebbins Institute with other Unitarian Universalist families who became lifelong friends.

Let myself return to that idyllic place for just a few moments before getting into the rest of my week at the Visitor Center and the growing audiences ... and back to this unlikely late-in-life career with its growing public attention ... wish it had come earlier in the life cycle, at a time when I was still building a resum√© and could benefit by it.  In my mid-nineties, it all seems inappropriate in a way, and rather out of place -- as an afterthought in a pretty ordinary existence 'til now.

This week there's another film crew (Scripps) coming to document my talk, and another (Nowness from New York) the week after.

I may find myself paging my way through my family album more frequently now, in order to try to find ways to avoid getting lost in a world of other's making ...

Maybe I'm needing to get back to making music ... .

Monday, June 13, 2016

June 9th -- a day to be remembered ... .

Bob and I arrived in early evening at our hotel, the Loew's, on Poydras near Canal Street and about ten blocks from the National WWII Museum where we were to have a family gathering the next day.

Found we were to be guests on the 21st (top) floor of our hotel, where our hotel bathroom may well have been equal in size to my condo's second bedroom (where I've located my desk, computer, and all of the overflow of life with a month's worth of accumulated junk mail that I never have the time to go through -- and which is beginning to threaten my ability to reach the closet where an accumulation of all that stuff I need to go through one more time before calling Good Will ... you know how that goes, right?

At any rate, promptly at 5 our limo arrived to deliver us to a family gathering arranged for by cousin Paul Charbonnet and Ellen Buckley of the WWII Museum staff.  They'd put out finger foods and wine and soft drinks in a room reserved just for our family.

Among the guests were cousins we'd never met from both sides of the Charbonnet clan, both white and black, plus (surprise!) Times Picayune journalist John Pope who'd written the feature article announcing our visit to New Orleans, and about the award I was being presented with at the Gala.  He blended in with the rest of family, and seemed to thoroughly enjoy the party, staying through to the end.

The Museum photographer was there to cover the event, but I've not yet received his photos but will post them when possible.  Our film team also was at work, too, and there should be some good footage to be shared.

There was Pierre Charbonnet (from our side), a former police officer now retired, and two of his sisters, one being Municipal Judge Desireé M. Charbonnet, a lovely woman with whom I immediately felt kinship.

But it was (white) cousin and dear friend Paul Charbonnet who was the hit of the evening, and who established an instant connection with younger Pierre (from our side), and they will probably continue in relationship into the future.  Pierre learned (from Paul) the secret that his father and grandfather would never reveal to the family -- the identity and origin of the family -- a white man.  It was at this informal gathering that Pierre would learn from Paul that our ancestor in common, Amable Charbonnet, was their ancestor in common, and that we would visit that grave, together, the very next day.  You can imagine the emotions alive in that room ... .  You could almost hear and feel the chains dropping away and new connections based upon family ties being forged.

The reuniting after generations of separation was not by any means universal.  There are holdouts on both sides, I'm sure.  Some expression of the reluctance was expressed, but without overt animus, at least not where I could hear or feel it.  I'm sure that Paul experienced some resentment on the part of members of his family, but his sister, Helen, appeared at the next morning's visit to the cemetery.  She was gracious, and welcoming and seemed thoroughly at ease.

The walls of centuries of separation finally begin to fall as the descendants of those two Charbonnet brothers from Thiers, France, Jean Baptiste  (Paul's line) and Antoine Charbonnet, (our's) come together in harmony.  It is from Amable, a grandson of Antoine's that our line was formed.  The two brothers arrived in the Americas before the Revolutionary War of 1776, and the Louisiana Purchase of 1806.  Our ancestors helped to found this city that was already established in the time of the Haitian Rebellion and the War of 1812, and before the United States was a country.  Our ancestor, Antoine, went on to settle in Haiti while Jean remained in Natchitoces, Louisiana.

The story is totally fascinating, and should become a book at some point, maybe authored by Isabel Allende.  Wish there were enough days left on my Calendar of Life to do it myself, but, alas, time is running out ... .

My brain can hardly take in the implications of what we were experiencing in those moments ...  but this day would pale when compared to June 10th -- the unforgettable day to come!

More tomorrow.

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