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Sunday, August 22, 2004

Learned mid-week from my supervisor ...

that a young principal from a Bay Area charter school has requested a guided tour for her staff of 30 teachers. It would be an in-service training requirement in preparation for the fall semester. I took the little slip of paper and gave her a call. She sounded bright (white), cheery in that kind of "up-talking" way of her generation. She told me that hers was a school with a student body of around 280 young students, 60% Latino, and characteristically "Inner City." Only a few minutes of conversation told me that this was not a dilletante, but someone clearly interested in churning up some of the untold stories of World War II, and using the park's resources to create ways to cast light upon the unrepresented. I liked what I heard. That sixth sense thing that operates somewhere behind my eyes clicked in and I knew that this was an important assignment -- and that the "why" would come later.

We agreed that she and one of her staff would visit the very next day, and that we'd begin plans for her workshop. After about 45 minutes together, before the two of them set out to visit the old Richmond Museum in the Iron Triangle (more about that later), we agreed that on Monday (tomorrow!) they would come. Upon making a decision that this could be an important event, I sent an email to my supervisor of my intentions, walked into the City Clerk's office (we're located in City Hall), and requested permission to use the council chambers from one to two-thirty tomorrow afternoon. Fait accompli! Done deal. Age grants one the right to assign "importance" to things in life, and I'm finding that principle seems to work pretty well. I will do a Q&A with them. They'll also meet with our park interns and explore some of the Rosie collections of stories and artifacts that have started to accumulate, the assigning of accession numbers, cataloging, and storing now fully underway. We're fast-becoming a museum. My role in all that is beginning to come alive. Having this experience will start the process. Another re-definition of "Betty" is underway, and my excitement is growing.

For instance, in our relatively brief conversation on Friday, and some reading of documents now in my files relative to the African American experience of the time, I learned that black women were the last to enter the home front work force. First, as white males were entering the armed forces in great numbers, women began to take their places in the war industries. That would have been in early 1942. Later that year black men started to move into the "hot, hard, and heavy" parts of the war plants (at lower wages than either white men or women). It wasn't until 1944 that black women started taking their places on the assembly lines in the shipyards. Some of the plants in the airplane industry never integrated. These were largely eastern war plants. Some of the parts manufacturers began to hire black women.

It's fascinating to now read (here at my desk) documentation contained in theses and studies done over the years that confirm much of what I've felt in isolation for all these years. To be in a position where I, and others like me, can validate those studies is of real value. Through our personal experiences we become a part of the measureable "outcomes" that give life to words that otherwise convey little more than ghosts of the past.

The obvious and most ironic part of this story is that black women -- for the most part -- took the place of white women in the kitchens and laundry rooms of the country, doing the cooking and taking care of the kids and enabling white women to become the "Rosies' of the time. In one study that I read an African American woman was quoted as saying, "..it took Hitler to get us out of white folks' kitchens!"

The Rosies whose stories I'm now reading are the women of my generation. That is, then, the source of the frustration and delayed anger and resentment that bubbles up in my throat like a bad case of heartburn day after day in recent weeks! I'm only now beginning to be able to give it a name.

I'm also just now realizing why I've been so unenthusiastic about participating in any of the womens' movements over the years, why women of color have been so reluctant to align with the National Organization for Women, and the National Womens' Political Caucus, until fairly recently. There is still an echo of that time when -- in the early days of the Feminist Movement, white women were enabled by black womens' continuing lack of opportunity to enter the work force or halls of higher education. When WE were the keepers of the children, and housekeepers that allowed THEM to declare independence. I simply never believed that our problems were the same. My native intelligence had led me to the truth buried somewhere deep in the abortion movement -- the original intent to control the black population through Eugenics and the terrifying concept of the creation of a Master Race.

Yet, the wisdom of a woman's right to the control of her own body and the right to determine when to bring life into the world are non-negotiable for me. Nothing could convince me otherwise. But the echoes of those earlier fears of a higher and more terrifying level of control over my body still linger to damper my ardor around the issue.

Confusion? Yes. And it's stultifying!

Where I've marched with Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers, celebrated with others the gains made in racial harmony through the work of Walter Reuther, and hailed A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Pullman Porters union as ground-breaking, my attitude about unions in general has been highly colored by my WWII experience as a member of the staff of a Jim Crow auxiliary that held absolutely no power and was not honored by the national body in any way. That carries over to today. I'm schizophrenic about unions and it sometimes gets in my way, politically. Theoretically, I know that they must be supported as the singlemost powerful antidote to excessive corporate power. Emotionally, I'm cynical about how their power is used at the local level and for the benefit of whom?

To be an African American is to be powerfully impacted by the residue of rage borne by centuries of deprivation and inequality. To be an American is to share the guilt of the unrealized dream of democracy and the shame left in the wake of that history. That history and the uncorrected course left in its wake continues to cost the lives and souls of so many. Being both an African American and as an American by birth and over 300 years of history in this country is to live on the edge of sanity much of the time.

Compartmentalizing is an art perfected of necessity in the ghettos and prisons of this nation, and may be the only possible response to that which can never be addressed in the whole without risk to mental stability... .

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