Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Am beginning to feel a bit uncomfortable ...

about the attention that I'm receiving these days. Like a bit of a fraud. It's not that I'm particularly humble or coy, but that the outcome appears to be aimed at moving me onto the sidelines of national life while I'm still in the middle of mine! Well, if not the middle -- at least the top quarter.

This morning -- only a few days after that invitation to the White House -- comes a consolation prize of sorts; "...PBS' Ken Burns is working on a television special on Rosies of World War II -- and we'd like to have you as one of those interviewed. She continued, "...they've asked for some women from the Sacramento area, actually, but we've told them that Richmond is the center of Rosie-dom, so we're compiling a list of interviewees for them and it must be in today's mail. Please say yes!"

Saying no to the White House carried with it a feeling of a bit of daring (waiting for a better class of tenant), but I love Ken Burns documentaries and will be delighted to be a part of it -- even for a few minutes. Loved "Jazz" and "Baseball" and "The Civil War" is a masterpiece. This also gives me a real reason to start watching that oral history video from the Bancroft Library. What they need may be accessible without actually going through another interview. Somewhere on that tape may be precisely what they need.

My reluctance to become a central figure in the tales of Rosie comes back to the fact that my role was a bit less than glorious. If I'd ever worn a hardhat or wielded a welding torch, I might feel better about being front and center in these retrospectives. In my little file clerk's role in that Jim Crow union office -- out of the sight of either the ships or the shipyards -- it feels less than legimate. I surely didn't feel any particularly strong feelings of patriotism or that I was saving the world. Those women who were actually on board those merchant ships, crawling into those unreachable nooks and crannies to do their work surely must have a very different response to the accumulating honors we're beginning to experience now. The fact that we're again at war (have we ever not been?), the patriotism is heightened for many.

My guess is that I'm being called because I'm one of the women in my age group who is not either on life supports or suffering from Alzheimers! If only people realized just how many of us are still out there -- still in the trenches -- plowing the fields of life. The fact that I'm African American probably fills another gap in their coverage. That I'm fairly articulate and still productive helps ... but whatever reason ... I don't feel anymore legitimate as an honoree as I believe the current occupant of the White House is in his assumed role as president. The difference seems to be that I know it, and his arrogance may prevent him from seeing the truth.

There may be enough reason to say yes to being a part of that history -- if I can deal with it within the context of the times; honestly. That bright and capable young black women were prevented from full employment even under union sponsorship was a fact of life. That all African Americans who worked out of those Jim Crow union halls were designated as "trainees." That word was on every file card -- after each name. This insured that no black person would ever reach journeyman status and would not be in competition for jobs at war's end. This was the Forties. Change would not come for another two decades. This, after all, may be a very important part of the history that we must not re-live.

Maybe this Ken Burns piece -- if I can bring honesty to my few minutes of it -- can be a vehicle for another look at the period and reinforce the changes that must be held to if we are to continue to survive as a nation. A chance to re-visit yesterday's ethos with the accumulated lessons of the Civil Rights movement that followed ... And -- before we continue to export our conditional "democracy" to other places on the planet.


C'mon Ken Burns!

Photo: The office staff at the time that I was employed as a clerk in Boilermakers A-36. I'm on the far left, front row. The occasion was a baby shower for the Marguerite Roles, wife of Mahlon Roles, Secretary-Treasurer of our auxiliary. Zola Adams, Christine White; that's my late sister, Marjorie Charbonnet Brooms far right, back row. The others I can no longer can identify. (Circa 1943-44)