Sunday, September 07, 2014

Busy back at work so haven't followed up on my report on the trip to Atlanta and Tuskegee ... .

... but I was trying to wait for my colleague to provide her photos so that I could share them, but she is also back at her desk and hasn't gotten around to making the CD yet.  I brought along my camera but, unfortunately, I simply forget to take photos even when it's right there in my hand.  I guess I just don't want anything to stand between me and an experience.  We'll just have to wait for Sue's pics.

It occurred to me that the one thing I haven't yet reported on is the event that brought us to Tuskegee in the first place, the address for Women's Equality Day at the Airfield.  The truth is that I was so deeply moved by all that surrounded it, that I'm not sure that I could tell you what I said in that speech.  It faded into the background as the other experiences took over every cell in my body.

Moten Airfield is a scant 4 miles from the university campus, and is also a National Park System site, one that has been faithfully restored with impressive exhibits, both of the ghost buildings and those that could be restored. Those no longer standing are represented by skeletal metal footprints in the exact measurements of those now missing.  I've never seen that done before, and it does the job quite well.

In addition, the hangars have been restored and are rich with blow-ups of the Airmen, including everyone who served in any capacity (pilots, mechanics, instructors, etc.) now being considered "Tuskegee Airmen."   This was no surprise since our park considers anyone working on the Home
Front in any capacity as a "Rosie."  I was told that one woman who is seen in one of the giant photos huddling under the wing of a plane with pilots -- a mechanic -- is still living in the area but was too frail to attend the event.

The audience was made up of NPS staff, volunteers, and at least two elected officials, one who with his spouse, had driven all the way from Mobile (a 3-hour drive) to attend.

We visited the historic hangars, followed by a sumptuous lunch in the Sky Club where young  officers had gathered for recreation -- with a jukebox of the times playing music of that era.  We would then take off for the drive along the historic Selma to Montgomery Trail and Pettus Bridge where another stunning NPS visitor center has been established in a rehabilitated bank building.  What had escaped notice by virtue of the tragic and dramatic events of Bloody Sunday was the serene beauty of the Alabama river that meanders lazily below in silent testimony to those long ago horrific scenes.  The nation responded with shock and shame, and those images on our television sets changed the fate of what had been a seemingly failed social revolution up to that point.

The town of Selma appears to have changed little over the years; and could be well-used as a movie set of that painful era.  One would hope that the same would not be said of those still living there.

... and I just noticed that the report on my talk has gotten itself buried again.  Maybe I'll just have to let it all simmer until it's ready.  Maybe by the time Sue gets back to work from her backpacking trip at Yosemite and can transfer the photos from her camera to a CD.  Maybe then I can recapture the part  that I played in last week's journey ... maybe.  But when put in context, my contribution was probably the least important aspect of a memorable trip back in time.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Home for a few days of extended vacation before returning to work ...  

and still feeling the effects of having plunged back into a past of so much pain -- but with a sense of victory as well.

I believe that I will find new power in the words to "We shall overcome" after having experienced the Montgomery to Selma Historic Trail with Superintendent Christine Biggers of the Tuskegee Airfield site.  Seeing it all through her eyes so enriched the adventure and brought such vibrancy to our day together.

To see Berkeley's Tuskegee Airman Wendell Lipscomb's photograph among the trainers of pilots was a strong reminder of how closely-lived was my world to that history.  I knew Wendell, and was aware that he'd served his country in that way, but more because he returned to the University of California afterwards where he became a noted psychiatrist specializing in the development of programs to combat and control alcoholism.  To see his huge image exhibited on the wall of Hanger #1 made it all surreal.  Our Armed Forces chose the best and the brightest, obviously, men who didn't disappoint, but served their country with honor and distinction as the "Red Tails".

When I slipped into my handsome red Tuskegee Airmen's jacket (a gift from Christine upon our departure), it was in honor of Wendell, Kenneth "Bunny" Hernandez, Francis "Frank" Collier, and Les Williams (of San Mateo) -- all airmen I'd known at the time, and dated before the US Army Air Force discovered them and accepted them for service.  I must have been all of 17 and 18, in my last year of high school and eager to enter adulthood.  On May 24 of 1942 -- months after war was declared -- I married Melvin Reid whose friends were already enlisted and serving.

It appears that the Air Force and I had similar tastes in men!

Now to spend some time processing those unforgettable days of last week, and sorting out just how to incorporate the new learnings into my presentations.  I'm no longer inclined to downplay Black history in favor of blending it into American history "since it was something we all lived."  Not sure how to do that -- but my talks will surely have to be edited in some way to include some new thinking.  The issue is far more complex than before these new experiences.

After all, I've been saying all along that when we give up our complexity, we sacrifice much of our truth.

This is where those words get tested.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

On Tuesday we started the day by visiting the National Park Service Visitor Education Center to see the George Washington Carver exhibits ... the founder of Tuskegee University ... .

... a most beautiful campus of all red brick structures -- bricks made of native materials and by Tuskegee students over the years.  It is not only a magnificent campus, but every brick stands for independence, morality, steadfastness, and pride -- and from the verdant grounds to the stately trees -- everywhere one looks is living history.

Over the years since former slave Dr. Carver founded this historically black college, it has stood as one of the most highly respected institutions of higher learning in the nation.   The Dr. Booker T.
Louis Charbonnet
Washington home on that campus was a revelation for me.  It suggested a more gracious and elegant lifestyle was lived by black leaders of the day than I was aware of.  I learned more about these two men than I'd ever known before.  I recalled that my paternal grandfather, Louis Charbonnet,  a noted engineer and millwright of New Orleans had studied his crafts through correspondence courses from this very institution.  Over the next few weeks I plan to check through the Tuskegee archives for those records.  This experience added to my sense of being the link twixt then and now.

It occurred to me while lying awake that first night (with every nerve-ending vibrating!), that the National Park Service might best serve the cause of racial unity by insistence that young rangers of European descent -- where possible -- spend at least 6 months on such historically black college campuses -- on detail -- where they can have the experience of being in the minority in order to learn about white privilege.  Yes.  White privilege probably can be best learned experiencially in a context where there is no question about social, intellectual, and educational equality.  Since the National Parks have created these visitors centers on such sites, putting them to such use could be life-changing for rangers-in-training in ways that cannot be taught otherwise.  What an opportunity for learning such experiences could provide.

It is impossible to not feel that -- for the past hundred years we, as a nation, have been trying to fix black folks.  It's quite possible that it's not black folks who need fixin'.  Thinking back over the past half-century it seems that black folks have shown more compassion, respect for human rights, fearlessness in the face of indescribable cruelty in many cases, and have done so while insisting upon the right to lives of peace and productivity in a country in which they firmly believed, but which has never seen fit to fully accept their participation in the process of full citizenship. 

Maybe it's time to start fixin' white folks.

Tuesday's 4-mile trip to the Tuskegee Airmen's field from the campus; the 54 mile drive to Selma to stand on Pettus Bridge; visiting the heart-wrenching exhibits of the heroic marchers of 50 years ago; the drive back to the Capitol at Montgomery with Jefferson Davis's statue guarding the entrance; the old Confederate White House just a block away with Morris Dees' Poverty Law Center another half block from that; with Dr. Martin Luther King's Dexter Chapel just across the street from the Capitol; stopping at St. Jude's where the church and convent hosted the marchers and a concert featuring Joan Baez and Harry Belafonte at the time.  The marchers had been allowed to pitch their tents on the expansive lawns of St. Jude's while preparing for the historic March for Freedom.

The proximity of all of these historic sites of opposing forces was something I was not prepared for, and the realization of it -- when it is full-blown in one's consciousness -- was an emotional experience not ever to be forgotten.

On the drive along that stretch of highway I was reminded that -- what is now a divided highway with 2 lanes in each direction with a grassy neutral ground running full-length down the center -- it was at that time a narrow 2 lane country road with no shoulders to retreat to, and with the marchers competing with hostile motorists along the way ... for 54 miles which they covered in 4 days, only to be confronted by Sheriff Jim Clarke and his fire hoses and police dogs ... .

It all became more real than is comfortable in the telling ... .

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Where to begin?

Landing at the Atlanta airport is an adventure of great significance -- and had it not been for the fact that I was escorted by Sue Fritzke, deputy superintendent of our 4 parks --  I may have had to spend the rest of my life riding up and down on the most amazing set of escalators on Planet Earth!  Wiser heads had prevailed, and the decision to not allow me to descend on Atlanta alone was fortunately made by caring staff.

We arrived early Sunday evening and spent the first of several sleepless nights of anticipation of the most spectacular set of experiences one might ever expect to live through.  It was an emotional roller-coaster that threatened to overwhelm me at almost every turn.   I was on the verge of tears much of the time, and before full recovery could take place -- another heart-stopping moment would occur!

I'm not sure that anything could have prepared me for the 3 days of unimaginable heart-rending vignettes that I will be re-living for a very long time.

Ranger Judy Forte, Superintendent of the NPS King site was a gracious host who set everything aside to provide personal guidance to a far larger King campus than I'd ever imagined existed.  She was joined by Ranger Tim.  There was the National Park Service site (shown above); the Martin Luther King, Jr. family site that adjoins it; the Birth Home -- with more than hints of the gracious lifestyle of the elder King family.  The  lovely home has been faithfully restored and lovingly preserved.  We visited the fire station with its fire engine of the times; the original Ebenezer Baptist Church where the elder Pastor Martin Luther King, Sr., had held forth, but that now rings with the familiar recorded voice of his illustrious son; the tragic hero of our times.

The rangers who escorted us were unstintingly generous with their time and well-versed in the stories, large and small.

The King campus is so much grander and the stories so much more comprehensive than I'd had any reason to expect.  There were undiscovered aspects to stories that I thought I'd known before.   The previously mythical has now become real.  I've now stood in the places where those lives were lived; and things will never be quite the same.

I am so proud and grateful to be associated with the National Park Service in these years when Civil Rights history is being given its due after being marginalized for decades.  But I'm re-thinking my recently-proclaimed statements to the effect that "history should not be ghetto-ized, but that black history needs to be blended into American history."  Such a statement may be more glib than reliable.  Not so sure about this any more, but more about that later.

Got to meet the only person I could claim to know in Atlanta (one I'd only met online).  Lisa took time from her job (only 5 blocks away from the King Center) to meet me.  We'd connected some years ago when engaged in a genealogy adventure.  Again, that feeling of the magic of technology that brought the virtual together with the actual -- and I could feel the friendship of long-standing in the embrace -- feelings that transcend the "real" and moves it onto another plane of existence -- one that I may not live long enough to ever fully understand.

Monday, August 18, 2014

A link to a recent interview with Farai Chideya of Public Radio International: Living History, Exploring Nature

... and by the magic of technology despite the distance between, (Farai in New York and I in Richmond),  it turned out to be a real conversation.  She is a great interviewer, and probably equally as good an editor.  I've listened to Farai on and off for years and have followed her career with great interest, never dreaming that one day I might become a subject of one of her programs.  We've never met, but she plans to visit the Bay Area in October and I'm looking forward to that happening quite soon.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Not posting?  Didn't have the heart to in light of Ferguson ...

... another unarmed black youngster senselessly cut down, and just as he is about to begin life.

Today I met with a filmmaker at Lucretia Edwards little shoreline park to do a 45-minute interview that may (or may not) be edited into a full length documentary he is creating about Rosie the  Riveter -- for whom our park is named.

It seems that he had completed most of his work of a couple of years, but began to feel some discomfort -- having taken one of my bus tours in the recent past, and learned some alternative views on the conventional stories that ordinarily spill forth when Rosie is being researched.

I don't think that he was aware of what he was looking for today.  He'd driven up from Los Angeles -- calling ahead for an appointment -- but he came unscripted, I suppose hoping I would provide a lead so that some new angle might surface ... .

His first question had to do with the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, and just how did I feel about it?  It appeared to me to reveal a certain level of insensitivity, and I found myself going off on a tangent ... reluctant to share the pain of reopened wounds until I'd had a chance to worry myself through still another such tragedy.   This latest is only a few days old, and still raw; unprocessed. Having raised 3 sons in the previously all-white suburbs (prior to our arrival) with fear and trepidation over many years, the thing that comes up for me now are the lyrics of one of the earliest songs I ever wrote on the occasion of one of those sons, as a very small boy, being stoned as he rode home on his bike from Slo Sam's grocery store that lay at the crossroads of Saranap, the unincorporated rural area where we lived.  It happened not 500 feet from our home.  I kissed his forehead, wiped away his tears of small-boy outrage (tilting his face downward to avoid the unanswerable why in his eyes), and sent him off to some distraction before breaking into tears of utter helplessness that blurred with my cup of lukewarm tea:

Where is my brown-skinned heart to hurry?
Where will I find my song?
Why must my mind be just for worry:
To whom does my dream belong?

What are my hands to hold this morning?
Where is my place in the sun?
With what shall I fill these days of yearning?
Whose will shall be done?

The fruit of my labor will tumble in soon
in search of my love and my lead.
Gave all I had when they left this morning ...
Do they not know that little souls bleed?

Where is my brown-skinned heart to hurry?
To whom does my dream belong?
Why must my mind be just for worry?
Who will hear my song?
That song comes to the front of my mind each time another young black man is lost to the ignorance of the Times.  It's curious to note that -- what is expressed holds less bitterness than one might expect, but continuing sadness and that profound sense of helplessness.  I suspect that at some point and in some cases this is transformed into the rage that we're witnessing on the streets of Ferguson tonight.  Maybe, when enough of us reach that level of outrage across all of the lines of separation, change may begin to occur -- but at what cost?

...  and how long must we wait?

I came home to an email from PRI commentator, Farai Chideya, announcing that the interview that we did together some months ago was now up on the website.  I listened with an intensity borne of today's interview with filmmaker Ken Stewart -- and -- for just a moment there, wondered how I will feel tomorrow giving my hopeful message from the front of our little theater?

I loved her piece, and found myself lifted by being reminded of that evening in 1965 at Grace Cathedral listening to Duke Ellington's magnificent jazz mass and Come Sunday and closing my eyes and
imagining Bunny Briggs dancing across the nave like a  delicate black butterfly -- in that great marble edifice with its stately columns upthrusted to the heavens --  and was able to still the trauma for at least another day ...

... and remember, this was 1965 just months after Freedom Summer of '64, and in the throes of the Civil Rights revolution of the Sixties.  This memorable concert was central to the healing, and gave hope to the struggles that lay ahead -- and into the unknown Now.

"Lord, dear lord above, God Almighty, God of Love -- 
please look down and see my people through"
                                                (words from Come Sunday.")

The hopelessness lies dormant, again, at least 'til tomorrow ...

... wondering just how many more of our children must die violently at the hands of the ignorant before ....

Just don't know ... . 

Duke Ellington from A Concert of SACRED MUSIC at Graece Cathedral (1965) 

Monday, August 04, 2014

Learned through an email exchange that plans for my proposed trip to the Tuskegee Airmen's site in Alabama is proceeding on schedule ... .

... and that I'll be flying out on Sunday, August 24th to arrive a full day ahead of my presentation for Women's Equality Day.  The trip will also include visits to Selma and the King Center in Atlanta before returning to the Bay Area.   Never in my wildest dreams did I ever anticipate such an adventure!

Ironically, a week or so ago an invitation arrived from noted author and environmentalist, Audrey Peterman, announcing that along with a stellar list of outdoorsmen and women of color, I was being invited to attend an event on August 25th at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to which the "Prince of Rangers," Yosemite's Shelton Johnson, and I would be honored guests.  To have my name linked with Shelton's -- in the same sentence -- is beyond imagination. Would you believe that the two events were only 15 hours apart and that there was no way for me to do both?  Frustration of frustrations!

For months now I've been silently carrying around just a smidgen of resentment since the 5 "Rosies" from our park visited my president in the White House and I was not included in their grand week-long adventure of being celebrated throughout the Capitol.  Okay, so I wouldn't have gone anyway (I really don't identify as a "Rosie), but to not have been asked is still irksome -- though no longer actively so.  I only seem to parade it out when I need a reason to deal with inexplicable ill feelings that need something to piggyback on.

... but before this administration's term of office ends, it would be such a thrill ... .

Maybe there will be another opportunity at some point -- before I hang up my flat hat for the last time  ...

Let us pray ... . 

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