Sunday, February 29, 2004

Dinner last night for 90 year-old family member, Dorothy Reid Pete, was wonderful ...

The room was filled with well-wishers and family members from far and wide. It was held in a marvelous downtown Oakland multi-floored club facility owned by one of her sons, Geoffrey, and another political activist figure in the extended family. Geoffrey and I come together rarely since we are of different generations, but I'm always aware of his movements around town. Dorothy is someone whose age is close to that of my late sister, Marjorie. She's been the quiet strength to the surviving members of her large family of siblings (13) for many years. These are folks related through Mel (my first spouse). As the elders die off and the family contracts -- I feel less and less related to all those unfamiliar young faces who've been taking our places. Wish I knew more about them. I'm guessing that they'd like to know more about us, too. This may be more important than I realized; a truth that I've aged into.

Learned that Dennis, one of Dorothy's sons who lives elsewhere in the country, had discovered my blog and has been reading this journal for a while. He'd followed the link from cousin Doug's page (California Black Pioneers). Realized that I'd lost the awareness that anyone but a few friends were reading these pages (really intended for my kids and theirs), and felt so pleased to learn that the counter over there on the side held some family members as well as any other friends and/or friendly strangers who happen upon them by accident. Nice. Now if only I could get someone to begin to gather together a catalog of the email addresses of other kin ... If there are any cousins out there reading this, do let me know by email that you've visited. I can then forward any new pages, automatically, I'm told.

Experienced a strange contradiction when I arrived back home last night:

Climbed into bed and flipped on the TV to CSpan to find Michael Dyson ranting in his hyperbolic cadence from a stage filled with African-American leaders (economists, social scientists, journalists, educators, etc.) in a program out of Los Angeles hosted by Tavis Smiley. There sat the usual suspects as represented by Prof. Cornell West, Journalist Stanley Crouch, CNN Financial Consultant Valerie Coleman, Ayana Vanzandt, etc. This was the second annual (I believe) conference on the Status of the Black Family.

Probably because I'd just come from an event filled with love and admiration for a most-deserving family elder, but for whatever reason, I found myself unable to stay with the program. Watched the debate for about 30 minutes and tuned out. Lay in bed in the dark wondering why I felt so turned off by what I saw as a kind of negative "rant" that tended to reinforce all of the stereotypical bad impressions that have held us captive for generations. Where did the differences lie? I wasn't sure.

Surely all of the pain of the human experience was present in our lives. There was the tragedy of Rick -- duplicated more often than we might wish. There was the collapse of Mel's formerly successful business adventure. Surely we'd seen the usual number of unanticipated pregnancies and job losses and substance abuse that plagued others. There sat Dorothy's grandson, Noonie, in a wheelchair for life as the result of a gunshot wound. But Noonie was "dancing" and exuberant in his praise of his grandmother and of what she'd done for him through the legacy of love he'd known through his father. All of the drama being lived out in inner cities everywhere was present in that beautifully decorated banquet room -- with dozens and dozens of long-stemmed red roses at every table -- and with the expression of Dorothy's wish that there be no birthday presents -- only donations to the Hunger Project of her Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church.

Here were all of the strong women who had survived our mates -- as with any other racial group -- but probably with losses experienced much earlier in our lives due to the higher mortality rate of black males. There were four Reid (widowed) sisters at my table; sisters of Dorothy. There were some younger members missing from the party, but not many, and for a variety of reasons -- some of which might illustrate the tragedies being expressed from the dais there at the L.A. church and being beamed to us by CSpan.

But that's only one side of the picture. Such programs are dramatically one-sided, I believe. To the extent that we create our own reality, what was missing was the fact that the music (last night) was being made by a terrific professional jazz trio headed by a family member; that the venue where we were gathered was owned and operated by another family member; that what we'd all achieved may have been far more important that what we'd survived. And that society may have simply reinforced the negative by constantly holding up the mirror of our deficits before us, and impeding our way toward solutions that may be far more visible were we not blinded by the spectre of failure that even we have bought into.

I found myself dropping off to sleep feeling warmed by a beautiful evening of familial love and pride yet frustrated by my inability to bring that into alignment with the too-loud and apparently irresolvable conflicted picture of the Black Family as described by the Tavis Smiley conference. Conflicting truths? Maybe. But I know that we've surely not escaped the problems being confronted throughout the Black World. It is also true that something precious and powerful has withstood much of the trauma that has destroyed others. In this, we're probably not unlike those who survived a long history of systemic abuse and benign neglect, but -- if true -- we've also inherited a powerful will to learn and move on.

If there's a failure to be recognized before it's too late for our youngsters, it is in the passing on of the legacy of power that lives within and motivates our families. There is a collective wisdom that is moving through us from the days of the Civil War to the present time, and our youngsters need to know how we, the elders, have survived through it all. Even more important is the fact that there is no predicter of the future than the record of the past. Dorothy in her quiet strength represents that past magnificently!

And, I'm hoping that this journal is a contribution toward that end ... .