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Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Living History ...

Happened to catch a PBS presentation of a truly fine documentary entitled "The Tallest Tree in the Forest," a leisurely look at the life of the undisputed genius, Paul Robeson. What a treasure! This discredited American will someday grace the history books as one of the greatest Americans of his or any other time. I'm sure of it.

The jerky and sometimes almost inaudible pieces of film collected over many years by those with the foresight to see through the veil of slander that damned him gave an astounding picture of the man. Participating as narrators along with his son, Paul Robeson, Jr., were Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis, and a host of others who must have come together to share their history in common. These are also giants among black men of action and patriotism.

Robeson held a law degree from Rutgers University, was an All-American on the Rutgers football team, spoke seven languages fluently, was a concert baritone known and revered internationally, and led the black community in the earliest struggles against the bigotry that crippled the nation throughout the earliest phases. He opened up baseball by questioning its racial hiring practices -- allowing Jackie Robinson to be brought on as the first black player ever to be fielded. He challenged racial prejudice through the United Nations because it threatened our status across the world through hyprocrisy it exposed. Few would argue whether he was right in his criticism.

How does one ever know when the epochal events are interwoven with one's own life? I watched that documentary -- remembering marching in a picket line with Mr. Robeson in my youth. We were under the marquee of the Oakland Paramount theater where the disputed Walt Disney film, "Song of the South" was being shown. Later that afternoon we returned to Matt Crawford's home in Berkeley to have punch and cookies and to a playful game of "Spin the Bottle." Got kissed on the cheek by this wondrous man ... how could I have known?

Some time later my husband and I were in the audience at the Curran Theater in San Francisco to see Robeson, Jose Ferrer, and Uta Hagen, starring in Shakespeare's "Othello." It was my first experience with the work of Shakespeare. I knew little of "The Bard." I was only there to see Paul Robeson in performance. A kind of "supporting a brotha" kind of action. Funny. Again, how on earth could I have known?

It was like that evening when Mel and I and others -- at the invitation of one of our record distributors traveled to Grace Cathedral to sit in the sanctuary of that great edifice to experience Duke Ellington's first Jazz Mass (featuring Bunny Briggs in tap shoes floating before the altar as if levitating). It was when I first heard and responded to the magnificent "Come Sunday" featuring Johnny Hodges on alto sax. Small matter that much of the sound wafted up into the vaulted ceilings instead of out into the pews. I knew that the sounds I was hearing were making musical history -- but there was little understanding of just how important this worship service would be in looking back.

A few days ago I was invited to attend a film to be shown this very night at the Grand Lake theater on the shores of Lake Merritt in Oakland -- sponsored by Congresswoman Barbara Lee and honoring the memory of Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. When the invitation came I recalled that it was at the 1972 Democratic Convention in Miami that we met. She was at that time the first woman to run for president of the nation, and the first African American woman to challenge the system by so doing. She was a small woman, not particularly impressive to one as new to politics as I was at that time, and even less knowing about the eastern movements. I know now that I slept through an important part of feminist history -- as well as African American.

Some years later, in the 80s, it was my privilege to house the Northern California headquarters for candidate Jesse Jackson in my building in South Berkeley -- and to recall now that we'd pretty much forgotten that it was (female) Ms. Chisholm who opened that door and not (male) Mr. Jackson. I was as guilty as anyone for the omission. We gloriously celebrated him for opening up the process to the under-represented, but failed to credit his predecessor in that role. Shirley Chisholm also preceded Geraldine Ferraro (vice-presidential candidate) in breaking through. We tend to forget that, too.

Makes me wonder now how future historians will look at these disturbing times we live in, and just how many times any of us have been unwitting participants in history while it was being created? Makes me want to -- even more than usual -- account for my actions by taking public positions.

How on earth can we ever know? But does it matter?

I believe that it does; critically.

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