Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Shouldn't really take this on tonight,

but if I don't -- much will be lost in the accumulation of busyness that's already pushing the events of yesterday to the back of my mind ...

Spent much of Saturday writing my speech for MLK's celebration. Pulled together a number of pieces from my blog with the intention of doing a cut and paste. Really thought I'd done enough musing and writing to be able to connect it all with a bit of re-writing.

Had to interrupt the process to attend David Pierson's memorial service -- and what a beautiful ceremony it was! This remarkable family had come together from Spain, Switzerland, and several other points around the country to honor their father and comfort their mother. I would have expected no less from these loving people. This death -- as others before it over the past two or three years -- are slowly closing a chapter on my own life that tells me that -- for all the evil things that happened to us in the Diablo Valley, love triumphed over all. I could not have found dearer friends.

After ten years of suffering the gradual deterioration from Alzheimers, David's daughter, Joan, read in her statement that -- as his ability to speak began to diminish from the ravages of the disease, he gradually lost all of his words except terms of endearment. "I love you" were the last words to disappear. He died peacefully in his sleep.

Fresh from the experience, and by the time I drove back across the hills to Richmond, I'd lost the rage that was re-surfacing to drive my speech, and a new direction hadn't surfaced yet. Went to bed not knowing where to take this.

On Sunday, I drove in to pick Dorian up for our weekly trip to the supermarket, and returned home to prepare to drive to Oakland for the annual MLK Concert at the Calvin Simmons Auditorium. Gospel choirs, jazz choirs, a children's choir, with brief film clips of Dr. King at pivotal moments in his career. All in a packed house filled with the greatest diversity imaginable. The city of Oakland has it all. How sad that one only hears of the murder rate. Inspiring!

When I reached home at the end of the evening, I walked into my den and trashed everything I'd written, walked down the hallway and looked around at my gallery of historic family portraits and made a decision. I would go with the Love Legacy of Martin Luther King. I would gather up the portrait of great-grandmother Leontine Breaux Allen, the two large binders that held my family history, a photograph taken at Dorian's christening with Mel and the children and me taken at one of the temporary little cottages that our UU church had used on its way to full churchhood, two documents (the marriage license of great-great-grandmother Celestine (slave) and her slaveowner husband dated July 1865, only days after the Emancipation Proclamation was declared and greatgrandmother Leontine's christening certificate). Fairly sure that there would be no more than a couple dozen of the stalwarts there to hear my little presentation, I would just share my history and ad lib my speech.

Just before going to bed I went to the kitchen to drink a glass of milk and listen to any messages that may have collected on my answering machine. There was one of particular interest. It was the voice of Theresa Harrington, the Times reporter who had done the interview. She sounded really distressed. She was giving a long apology for the article that was appearing in the paper on morning edition. "I want you to know that I turned in an article that my editor altered drastically. He removed all of the positive things you said, and printed only the negative, and cut the article severely. I also write for another journal and would like to have your permission to submit the article to that editor if I could." I had no idea what that meant, but decided to not read whatever it was before speaking.

On Monday morning I showered and dressed casually, drove out with plenty of time and my box of papers and photos to share. Arrived at the Civic Center and entered a large room without noticing that there was a Channel 5 truck in the lot. Had no idea what the agenda was, or with whom I was sharing the program.

Was delighted to find a friend from my everyday world sitting in the front row. I hadn't known that he would come. He'd read the article. Then others began to arrived and as the room filled -- several people came up to say that they'd read the article and wasn't I courageous??? There were many friends arriving -- from my old life of 30 years ago -- come to lend support and to share the celebration of Dr. King's day together. As the room filled, it was clear that this was a big thing! It was important. My vision of sharing my pictures and family history documents -- and "winging it" -- was hardly appropriate to the occasion. But it was too late to do anything else. I'd trashed my speech.

The mayor spoke. The head of the InterFaith Council spoke. An African American gospel choir shook the roof with singing! The Native Americans did a ceremony of peace. The Buddhists in traditional dress performed a blessing. I was only one part of something very important to this community.

I'd invited my son and his children to attend. It was the first time in all the years that David had returned. Bob wasn't able to make it, but had sent his blessing.

As the keynoter, my "speech" followed the other elements, and there was time to grow tense -- but, surprisingly -- I didn't tighten up. Felt welcomed and "at home."

On cue, and without panic -- I stood up at my introduction and began to speak. I finished at some point (felt about like the allotted 15 minutes) when it seemed natural to end, and there was a spontaneous heartfelt standing ovation that shook the rafters! No notes, no preparation. Just memories and the introduction of my David and his brood.

I eventually saw the article. David picked up a paper for me near the restaurant where we lunched. The piece pretty well blasted the town as having not changed a whit despite years of national change. In 1952 when we moved in as one of the first non-whites to dare to do so, we were pioneers. While trying to write my speech I'd learned that the census figures give the African American population in that city as 1.0% -- in a city that has grown to be at least ten times what it was when we knew it. The reporter was quite right. The article had been sensationalized, but there was not one word in it that I hadn't said, or that was untrue. I could see that she'd done a good job, despite the editing. I stand by my words.

It was also true that as people began to arrive, they were smiling and congratulatory about what they obvious saw as my courageous ability to "tell it like it is!" David (who had read it before driving out from Berkeley) may have had it right. He met me grinning with, "...me and the kids figured we better get out here and watch Grandma's back! As we all sat at lunch together, 17 year-old grandson Rhico said, "grandma, I watched the mayor while you were speaking. I'll bet he was hoping you wouldn't come back here again." But it was all said in fun, and I could sense the pride in them all as we at our pancakes and glowed in the "coming home" that the day had provided.

There were so many hugs from so many old friends, that served to remind me that what we'd all lived together had been so much more important than the dreadful things that our little family had endured over those years. I fell asleep last night remembering that they'd been there with us through it all, and that Dr. King's work had given us all permission to cross the great divide of racial disharmony. I hadn't been alone, after all.

I'll try to tell you what I said. I'm not sure that I can since it was stream-of-consciousness. However, I know where it led -- and I know that it turned out to be an important statement that I wish someone had taped. Isn't that always the way?

Maybe tomorrow... .

Photo: Greatgrandmother, Leontine Breaux Allen, the year before her death. She was enslaved until 1865, the year of emancipation. She was 19 when freedom came with the Emancipation Proclamation. She died at the age of 102 having lived from 1846 to 1948. I was 27 when she died. Slavery for me is not an abstraction.