Friday, July 04, 2014

Photo by Shirley Butt
Independence Day celebration at the Craneway Pavilion ... 

I love this priceless image of my Dorian's face as she listens to the themes from House of Cards by Oakland composer, James Beale, as played by Conductor Michael Morgan and the Oakland Symphony.   We were there with over 4000 members of the community last night for the 7th annual celebration of July 4th.

Sousa's grand marches were played as the ".. bombs burst-ed in air."  But the traditional 4000-voice family rendition of the music from the Sound of Music was the high point, and Dorian knew every word of the score despite a struggle with some of the notes -- but her enthusiasm made up for the dissonance.  She was loudly out of tune at times, but who cared?  No one, apparently.

... and what an exciting fireworks display there was at the end of the evening to the delight of the many children in the audience!

This is the face of my child-woman enraptured with music which needs no intellectual support but goes straight through the emotions -- to the heart.

Happy Fourth of July, everyone!

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Depression was, fortunately, merely a temporary state of affairs ... .

... and after two days of recovery, I'm back in the saddle and 'rarin' to go.

Small wonder that neither of my husbands were ever able to figure out the rhythm of my life -- and I'm sure that my co-workers are as much at sea as they were.

Oh, the anger is still bubblin' under the surface, but it can no longer sneak up on me with such explosive force, and I'm again "in charge."

That I may need to take some time off is obvious, and I plan to factor that in within the next few weeks.  I'd set a pace that was unsustainable, and every cell was/is vibrating!  Memories of Freedom Summer '64 could not have brought me to such a dramatic halt -- as if hitting the proverbial wall -- had I not been running on empty for weeks.  Lesson learned.

I did make a call to my old boss, Attorney Don Jelinek (now retired), then emailed an order in to Amazon for a copy of his book, Attica Justice, for reading on my vacation (one that I'll arrange just as soon as my calendar clears enough to chose some dates).

Need to look up our mutual friend, Dr. Hardy Frye.  I now recall that the last time we met was at the graduation ceremony for black students at the University a few years ago.  As I remember, he was having some health issues ... . why do we allow such friends to drift out of our lives?  It was at that time that I was honored by the graduating class with the Fanny Lou Hamer Award, and Hardy had served on the selection committee, and was in the procession walking beside me soberly 
black-robed and somber as his role demanded.  To be honored by a graduation class of students who were total strangers was one thing -- impressive enough -- but to know that Hardy, a SNCC veteran of Freedom Summer '64, had participated in the class's choice ... was almost overwhelming.

All of that figured in to my temporary meltdown, of course, with that award and the experience of the graduation remembered against the images of Ms. Hamer's heroic plea for the seating of her delegation -- all played into the drama being relived over the past weekend.

Small wonder things would all come crashing down!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Maybe it's time to remind myself of one of the songs I wrote during that period ...

Fanny Lou Hamer at the Democratic Convention
It was in the creation and performing of those original songs that became my way of processing and making sense of the terrifying history that we were living through at that time.  And, no, I didn't publish anything that I wrote; but all of those songs are still alive and ready to be called up at a moment's notice.   The voice?  Not so much. The intensity of that process remains as if lived only yesterday.

The song was based on letters 18 year-old college student Susan Sanford wrote home to her family, and that were shared with me occasionally.

She'd traveled to the deep South from her comfortable suburban home in California to participate in Freedom Summer by attempting to register voters and to teach in a Freedom School in Canton, Mississippi.  She was living with one of the host black families who'd risked life and limb to enable change to occur.   Being reminded of Susan and the fact that she was wearing my pearls under her tee shirts allowed me to feel a part of that change; at times it simply increased my sense of helplessness:

Song (written in the voice of the woman who shared her home with SNCC students):

Monday mornin'  ... streets are bare ...
seems as how dey don' want me nowhere
since ah went to the Courthouse and sign mah name to freedom.
                    daughta say, "mustn't run ...
                     sound the trumpets .. the Kingdom's come!
                     Mamma go to the Courthouse
                     'n sign yo name for Freedom".
Fields afire -- cotton flamin' 'neath the summa skies
Shrouds 'o White ...  no name namin'.
Dey don' know 'dis dream cain't die

Churches burned -- deacon dead
still ah know it's like daughta said
ain't no turnin' back now --
Got to sign mah name to freedom.

second bridge:

Young folks heah a'roun' mah table talkin' through the night
faces heah ah cain't label -- brown ones blendin' wid da white ...

Sunday mornin' ... church ain't there
bombed it Wednesday but ah cain't care
God was down at the Courthouse day ah sign mah name to freedom
Ma Lawd was down at the Courthouse -- day ah sign mah name.

Note:  During that period 37 black churches in Mississippi were destroyed by fire.  

Yesterday -- for the first time I fell into tears before an audience ...  

... it was devastating!

The evening before I'd crawled into bed early to watch the PBS Special that had aired earlier in the week, "Freedom Summer 1964."  I'd waited until then since I knew it would be archived on the website and available through streaming.  I'd felt no urgent need to view it before then since I knew that history so well that it would be simply a review of the past and little else; or so I thought.

At the end of the hour I was bunched up in a foetal position under the blankets sobbing until there was nothing left to feel.  Over the years I'd screened out so much -- I suppose for the protection of my own psyche.   The rage that I'd been touting in my talks -- that which I'd "outlived without losing my passion" had only been suppressed, and burst through the walls of protection so carefully built over those decades, until I'd convinced myself that the storm was over.  Not so.  The explosion of re-awakened feelings of utter fury and fear left me limp and unable to sleep until nearly dawn.

Those powerful feelings had enabled me to come through the Sixties civil rights revolution relatively unscathed -- though I did suffer a mental break at one point .  It now exploded back to life again.  I'd clearly forgotten the duplicitous role played by Lyndon Johnson in the attempted seating of the Mississippi Freedom Party; the sheer eloquence of Fanny Lou Hamer -- and all I'd remembered until watching the footage was that Johnson had ushered in the Voters Registration legislation and the War on Poverty, and all else was forgiven.

Yesterday I was scheduled to give my two o'clock ranger presentation twice, once at eleven o'clock for Rosie Daughters, an organization from the Women's Center in San Francisco, and then again for my usual two o'clock ranger talk.  I got through the first without incident, before an appreciative audience of mostly women who brought with them an openness that was almost palpable.  When those audiences turn up -- the talk-- though repetitive -- becomes a "first time" experience for me  as well as for those before me.  It's a strange thing.

When my two o'clock program rolled around I walked down the stairs to the little theater fully prepared to give my all and with positive feelings that gave no warning of what was to come.

It may have been because it was later in the day and -- under the surface fatigue was setting in -- but for whatever reason, when I began to utter those familiar words, "over the past decade, I've found that I've outlived my rage without losing my passion", I fell apart.  I've said those words many times before, since they're an essential part of my truth.  But at that point the anger and pain of the night before rose to the surface and I began to feel my throat tighten as if to shut off air to my lungs -- and the tears brimmed!  That had never happened to me.  I wanted to run out of the theater!  I'd been hurtled back through time and it was 1964 again, and the pain and feelings of helplessness were overwhelming.  All I could do was abruptly walk to the side wall of the theater with an apology to my audience, quickly try to control my emotions by clinging to the handrail, then return to conclude my talk.  This time it was with the admission that those words were no longer true for me, and that my anger had merely been smothered into submission in order for life to go on at a time when insanity reigned.

Within about 30 minutes of returning upstairs to the galleries -- the tension that had been building under the surface all morning had subsided and I was back in my body.

If you haven't yet viewed this PBS American Experience  on this, the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer 1964, you really must.

Meanwhile, I'll either plan to take a break from work soon -- maybe a week or two -- just to reduce the possibility of a complete cave-in.  Though I suspect that something fundamental has occurred, and that some lesson that is still unexpressed will surface within a day or so; maybe sooner.  But I'm aware of the depth of rage that still lingers, and of the cost of continuing to suppress it.  Somehow I'm aware that it has enabled me to continue the work; to deliver the message to others who might carry it on; but I don't think that I've appreciated what it was costing to my own well-being.

Note:  the caption on the photo above should read, "... we were all in this auditorium when we were told that 3 students were missing.  We all boarded the bus and headed for Mississippi anyway."  These are the words of Alabama-born Hardy Frye, who would come to U.C. Berkeley to complete his doctorate and become a professor of Black Studies.  This, while serving as Berkeley Mayor Gus Newport's Chief of Staff through two terms of office.
I was the Aide to City Councilman Don Jelinek at that time.  Don had been a successful Wall Street corporate attorney -- clearly on the track for a partnership in his Law firm -- who went to do volunteer work in Mississippi for the ACLU for 3 weeks in 1965, and stayed for 3 years defending SNCC workers and blacks needing help.  He was a part of Dr. King's legal team until the assassination at which time he came to Berkeley to practice family law and was elected to serve on Berkeley's City Council.  Hardy, Don,  Nancy Skinner,  and I, (among others) were together on the fifth floor of City Hall for several years.  Don would later return to New York with noted attorney, William Kuntsler to successfully defend the Attica prison rioters (his book, Attica Justice, is available on Amazon).  In 1969, for a period of 6 months he lived with the Native Americans who occupied Alcatraz in an unsuccessful attempt to reclaim the island from the federal government.

Monday, June 23, 2014

It's my day off work, and I'm vegetatin' at home with socks going unmatched and the vacuum cleaner standing idle in the middle of the living room rug ...

and I'm bummed out!

Handling leisure is becoming a complete waste of time -- I need to work.  The passage of time without an agenda is a luxury that is no longer affordable in these final years, at least not for me.  How on earth does Congress have the nerve to idle away the time day after day without doing the People's work?  Many of those currently serving are not that much younger than I am, so the sense of urgency that now accompanies  the passage of time is surely weighing heavily on at least some of our elected officials.  How on earth do they deal with it? 

Since I'm a CSPAN junkie, that means one thing -- sitting at my computer watching the proceedings going (or, sadly, not going) on in the Capitol.

Caught the new Republican leader of the Senate, California's Kevin McCarthy, addressing those gathered at one of Washington's grand hotels before the conservatives of the Far Right.  Karl Rove's bunch?   

In his really good and warmly-received brief speech McCarthy waxed eloquently about his two heroes, presidents Lincoln and Reagan.  In it I heard him utter words that are growing chillingly familiar.  I'm not sure why, except that -- given my history and that of so many citizens of color or differing ethnicities and orientations -- it may come as no surprise that my skin begins to crawl at their utterance.

Why does "American exceptionalism" suggest the concept of a "Master Race" as it was called in the WWII period that my everyday work has memorialized so well,  a concept boasted menacingly by our enemies?

Why do I find Herman Cain speaking for black Americans in that context so disturbing? 

Combined with recent rulings by SCOTUS that legitimize blatant voter suppression;  raising the status of corporations to equal the rights of individual citizens; continuing to smooth the way toward rolling back women's ability to control their own health and bodies, and the dismantling of the nation's Labor Movement, it all seems designed to extend white privilege and arrogance on a national scale, and to reinforce the perceived dwindling power of the long-suffering white males in the population. 

Maybe the sight of the Radical Right's Ralph Reed, now rehabilitated and back in the saddle of leadership of the Tea Party Wing of the party has triggered alarm, and I need to shut MAC down and push the starter button on the vacuum cleaner before gloom and doom begin to totally rule the day!

What do you suppose happened to the euphoria of yesterday?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Our crowds might have doubled since the re-dedication of the Visitor Education Center one month ago ...

... and the parade of folks coming from everywhere to re-discover the history of the WWII home front story is having an impact on the times.

It is a wonder when one realizes that this history is so recent that many who lived it are still around and  available. And  because those of us charged with the interpretation of those times will be looked to as a major source -- that's huge.

Most of it is far too new to have yet found its way into curricula in our educational institutions.  Only over the past several years have the masters theses and doctoral studies begun to be published, so those of us who serve as primary sources have risen in value to the subject, and that fact fuels the growth of my audiences that have grown significantly.  The responsibility is felt heavily by those of us charged with the responsibility  of authenticating that which we pass along to this generation.

At times it seems a positive thing and I feel empowered by the rapt attention in that little theater.  I'm as awed by the magic that regularly happens there as anyone else.  At other times it is puzzling,  and I grow wary at finding myself caught in the spotlight of history just for having been alive at the time.  After all, my role was surely not pivotal, and certainly not memorable in any way.  In retrospect, that 20 year-old file clerk working in a Jim Crow union hall in 1942 could not have predicted the sharp turn history would have to take in order to justify my current status in the world.  It's insane!

Yesterday a group of about 35 historians from the area made the pilgrimage to our Center .  They'd requested my regular two o'clock presentation.  During the Q&A at the end of my brief talk, a  man from the audience who identified himself as a retired Stanford professor asked if my talks had ever been filmed.  I answered, "... many times in bits and pieces, and that the Bancroft Library at U.C. Berkeley had collected about ten hours of my oral history ...."  But he seemed dissatisfied with this, saying, "... but everyone needs to hear what you're saying.  I've been a critic in this field for many years, and you're among the best."

It's at this point that I tend to feel overpowered by the attention, and begin to look for a potted plant to hide behind, and failing that make haste for a way to get out of the spotlight by disappearing up the stairway, out the door, and into my car.   But that's how my two o'clock program closes since my work day ends at three and escape is immediate.  This presentation was happening at ten o'clock in the morning. These were the first arrivals of the day -- so the usual manner of escape was not a choice.  I still had several hours to go, and another talk to give later in the day.

I suppose I'm just going to have to come to terms with just who I am -- that 20 year-old naive African American file clerk, or, the sophisticated multi-ethnic elder with at least 70 years of social development behind her -- with the accumulated wisdom of a self-aware person who has become  an original thinker with the ability to do so contextually.   With aging has come the ability to speak with conviction and always in declarative sentences.   That's quite an amazing gift, wouldn't you say?

I may not live long enough to get this straightened out, and will probably continue to vary between identities through the rest of time, but I'd love to learn how to graciously accept the attention without feeling so unworthy.

... makes one wonder if that feeling of unworthiness is etched into the DNA -- carried along genetically from slavery.

Maybe this is the cost of the slave experience compounded by time  

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Photo by Toni Frissell - 1945
Meanwhile ... 

I've received an invitation to travel to Tuskegee Airfield to help to celebrate Women's Equality Day with the National Park Service team there on August 26th, and have accepted the honor.  I've never been to Alabama, nor to Atlanta for that matter, and the chance to see the King Center and to stand in the space where the fighting 99th trained to serve so valiantly is just too good to pass up.

Just thinking about it knocks off decades!

The invitation grew out of recent stories run in the media, and the interview featured on National Public Radio (NPR), which brought attention to my work here, and does not relate to the fact that I can boast of having dated at least 3 Tuskegee Airmen in my time, though that's the only thing that I can attribute it to at this point.   And that happened in the years before any of them entered the Air Force and before my marriage to Mel Reid.  I was about 18 at the time, and Kenneth "Bunny" Hernandez, Francis Collier, and Les Williams were eligible young bachelors who were natural choices for the heroic roles they were destined to play in the skies of WWII.  It looks like the Air Force and I had similar tastes in men.

... but I don't suppose anyone will expect me to speak about that from the lectern, right? 

I'm hoping to have a few days in Atlanta before returning to the Bay Area, but the only person I know there is a nephew who plans to be in the Bay Area for a family reunion that occurs that same week.

If anyone would like to do a meet-up while I'm there, I'd love it!   

You might be wondering whatever became of my latest project -- that of interesting others in creating that memorial to black men ... .

... not to worry.

I was able to interest others in taking on this worthy effort but, unfortunately, it seems to have gotten caught up in the upcoming election cycle -- which promises to be even more chaotic than ever before -- and people are jostling for position on the ballot and all else is fading into the background.

If only some candidate for the top of the local ticket would see this as a way to change the conversation and frame the debate ... but that seems a long shot, and instead we'll talk the usual
potholes and jobs, jobs, jobs ... .

My guess is that there is little chance of anything happening until the seats in local government are occupied by the new team, and we can turn our thoughts to other things.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Jackie and Rachel Robinson's wedding by E.F. Joseph
After more than ten years of blogging, I'm suffering my first prolonged case of writer's block ... .

... and it's a serious problem.

There has never been a more eventful time of life for me; so much to write about, but this weekend I'm beginning to face the fact that there is a profoundly important background story that has been many months in the making, and it has now become so dominant over everything else that I can't move beyond it.

Maybe if I can share it -- even in its sheer enormity ...

It is this:

Several years ago, running concurrently with all else that's happened in my life, I learned of the story that now dominates all else.  It was when my long time friend, Careth Bomar Reid learned -- quite accidentally -- that the Carribean-born African American photographer, Emmanuel F. Joseph's, widow was in the Bay Area from New York to settle his estate.  In the process she'd come to his Oakland studio to dispose of a lifetime accumulation of negatives and other photographic paraphernalia collected over many decades.

As background, Joseph had lived in the Bay Area since the Twenties and into the Seventies when he'd migrated to the East Coast after the death of his first wife and very able assistant, Alice Joseph.    They had been known throughout the area and the state where he had contributed to the national black press over many years, and where we all considered them close family friends.  Anything that happened in the Greater Bay Area and beyond has been photographed by the Josephs.  Because Joseph had War Department clearance to photograph in defense prohibitive zones, he left a fairly comprehensive record of the WWII Home Front years for posterity.

The upshot of all that was that when the second Mrs. Joseph came to Oakland to dispose of his assets after his death, in many huge trash bags in that studio neatly recorded in now brown-age-stained manila envelopes were at least 7 generations of life in the black community.  The negatives had been collected by his widow to be sold for their silver nitrate content -- and Careth had learned of the impending sale and dared to intervene to save them.  Her offer of $1200 was accepted, and those precious negatives were removed for storage and eventual cataloging.

If you can imagine that there are upwards of 10,000 negatives of weddings, funerals, christenings and baptisms, head shots of women, men, children, public events of all kinds, fraternal dances, family reunions, corporate conventions, church doings of every denomination, the opening of the United Nations at the San Francisco Opera House as viewed through the lens of a photographer of color; the launching of ships at the 4 Richmond shipyards in Richmond; sorority and fraternity social dances, USO parties during WWII; picketings for civil and human rights and labor disputes;  NAACP activities over decades, sports events featuring black athletes,  etc., every aspect of black life as it happened for all those years had been recorded.

Lena Horne, Jimmy Lyons, Thelma Carpenter, Frank Sinatra 
E.F. Joseph was no Annie Liebowitz or Richard Avedon, and his repetitive poses and boring group shots with everyone lined up in neat rows looking into the camera are certainly not exciting when so much more is possible as we look through the lenses of our point-and-shoot hand held cameras, but for content -- as we've worked with those negatives -- I'm now struck by the importance of this work.

With permission of my superintendent who trusts my judgment, I've been devoting one day each week to helping my friend (who is 89) laboriously process those negatives by helping to identify as many as we can, and putting them into whatever subject  order as she deems appropriate and by now -- though we've been working as time allows for a long time, we're not nearly halfway into the process.   Neither of us will live to see completion of this work.   We know that.  Each envelope has been identified as to names and dates; as often as not by the subject, but often by the name of the person who ordered the prints -- so it isn't a slam-dunk even with some pretty meticulously-kept records.  The negatives are in fairly good shape despite their age and conditions under which they've been held, and some are hopelessly stuck-together and impossible to save, but we've done a pretty good job with at least one developed photo attached to each packet of negatives with whatever info was given by the photographer.  One wall of her home now holds many 10"x18" plastic containers on bookshelves (floor-to-ceiling), each jam-packed with packets that have been processed and cataloged as well as we can manage with limited human resources.

My blog has been peppered over time with many of those recovered Joseph photos, and they've made
Launching of the SS Robert S. Abbott, 1943, Kaiser Shipyards, Richmond, CA.
possible our being able to depict black history in connection with the WWII Home Front history.  We've tried to set aside those dated 1941-1945 as we go.

... however, what is becoming overwhelmingly clear after much work and re-discovery that there is at our fingertips a fairly complete picture of the cost of racial integration to our world as we knew it.  Yes.  That's quite a statement.  I know.  It's the enormity of that possibility that is beginning to crowd out my ability to even think about what's here ... .

At a time in history when -- it is believed broadly -- that there are fewer and fewer young blacks entering higher education, without being halfway through this huge collection -- there are already four separate tightly-packed packets of Greek fraternities and sororities with each packet containing group photos of social events.  At a time when Boalt Hall at the University of California had but one black student enrolled the last I heard, the past history of our academic aspirations are quite evident.  In those packets I would guess that -- with each plastic container holding perhaps 200-250 packets of many individuals in large groups -- what would you say the number might be?   These fraternities and sororities probably represent only Bay Area colleges and universities, but probably hold some members from historically black institutions, but our social lives were dominated by this social world when I was in my senior year of high school and my husband-to-be was in his senior year at the University of San Francisco.  In the Bay Area, higher education was the norm and was inspired by those who'd come here from a segregated South and historically-black colleges where black culture was proudly passed along through generations of caring black educators.  Many of those educators were left behind as the result of the integration successes -- not being felt properly educated for mainstream institutions to employ.

This complex life with all aspects of social and economic development represented ...  what do you suppose we gave up to gain entrance into the mainstream of American society?  What did we walk away from in societal gains for that admittance?  Because we were prohibited  by racism from being served by white institutions -- we had to create our own -- so every major black community had black pharmacists, doctors, dentists, attorneys, morticians and undertakers, insurance companies, restaurants, entertainers, schools for cosmetology,  realtors, media promotion,  independent businesses of every kind, etc., and when those doors were forced open by the efforts to integrate racially, all that black professional and commercial life was abandoned to white institutions that had many decades of advanced development and with which our fledgling institutions simply could not compete.  And at that point we began (and continue to) blame ourselves for not supporting our inadequate black businesses and institutions, adding to our senses of guilt and disloyalty.  The separation between our upper and middle classes from those still struggling to exist in Black America began to grow as the top level achievers were siphoned off into the mainstream economy with others left behind with dwindling resources in an underground economy often fueled only by the drug trade. 

The enormity of that cost screams out at me every Friday as Careth and I open each fragile packet that contains the record of our lives through to the Seventies.  We've both seen so much change, and we view it through the lens of two women who lived almost our entire lives under an integration mandate -- one that we both fought hard to bring about for the generations to follow.

Black scholars far smarter than I will use this collection to establish the truth of what is suddenly becoming obvious to me -- that here in this historic Joseph Collection is the possibility of getting some sense of the cost of having sacrificed the integrity of our black community for what now seems a paltry sum, and not nearly as valuable to us as to the humanizing of those in power over the past century.  Remember, guys, this is a nation that went to war to save democracy with a segregated armed forces; a war in which 54.8 million lives were sacrificed worldwide -- while deliberately ignoring the obvious contradictions.  African Americans were not seen as the saviors of the democracy this nation claimed to believe in enough to fight and die for, but by which it stubbornly refused to live; yet that is the truth of it.

The turbulent Sixties was the attempt to change all that, but at what cost? 

Maybe it's a developmental thing, and necessary for the sustaining of a Democracy bent upon replicating itself around a world looking for salvation and redemption.  As an American, that may be a worthy thing to have participated in, but as an African American -- I'm beginning to question the wisdom of the choices we've made over time that cost us solidarity and collective progress that has -- in many cases -- cut us off from ourselves.

But then, what were the alternatives?

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