Guess I've never needed any "uppity" lessons ...
Yesterday I did another of those "Rosie the Riveter" impersonations, this time before the national organization of historians. It's strange that I still introduce myself as a reluctant rosie, one who doesn't wear the mantle well. It continues to feel awkward to find myself grouped with the women of WWII, and my smoldering anger will not be squelched -- no matter how many years have elapsed. Yesterday was no exception.
The program began with Dr. Richard Smith of the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley presenting a 20 minute videotaped interview collected for the library's oral history project of the war years. One of the 3 women shown on the tape was sitting next me. She and her sister (referred to in the interview) had come from some small southern town to work in the war effort. They'd done a variety of jobs (welding, riveting, processing blueprints, etc.). They had both married before the age of 18 to men they met on the job. They'd come from real (white) poverty and found independence and self esteem that positively effected their lives over all the years since.
There was one other African American woman. Someone who'd not completed the 5th grade in rural Louisiana. "I was taken out into the bayou to teach other children what I'd learned up to that point." She was brought along by an older man who was headed to the West Coast for work in the shipyards ("fruits grow wild and you can pick 'em from the trees!"). She did find employment in the shipyards and eventually married and settled down here. Mary is a lovely though very naive woman who made peace with herself and the world long ago. I suspect that she'd appreciate it more if I wouldn't be so confrontational (she'd surely describe me an "uppity Negro"). I'm sure that I make the Marys of the world a little uncomfortable. But I'm too old to change now, and besides -- not sure where I'll find a replacement.
Then comes Betty: "I have a love-hate relationship with the entire Rosie concept. I didn't feel like a veteran of the homefront wars then and I still don't." I told them how I'd spent the war years filing cards in the Jim Crow union hall (Boilermakers A-36) because the unions were not yet racially integrated. Told them how ironic it has always been to me when I remember that every African American worker who worked in those yards had helper or trainee written behind their names on those cards that I filed. Told them how furious it still makes me when I realize that the intention by using those designations was so that blacks would not be in competition for jobs when the war ended. Told them how much I've always suspected that such subtle ruses were the little-mentioned reason that many African Americans have been scorned for never rising above the bottom rung of the economic ladder here in Richmond in all the years since. Talked about how childcare was provided for whites, but none for black -- thus ushering in the first latch-key children. Talked about how old Henry J with the best of intentions had imported fullblown racism by bringing in both black and white would-be workers into the Bay Area, including the Ku Klux Klan. How cross-burnings emerged to the surprise and dismay of those of us westerners whose lives had been invaded by the war and about the social upheaval that ensued. How quickly we forgot.
I talked briefly about how I'd always found it difficult to explain why I don't recall feeling particularly patriotic at that time. Reminded the group that black people were being asked to work and possible die for rights that we would not enjoy for another 20 years -- and some that we still have never realized. Much of what was being fought for and now being sold overseas as "democracy" is being lost here at home through stacked elections and regressive policies that guarantee that a substantial percentage of the workforce will continue to be subsistence in order to guarantee greater corporate profits. And that lack of opportunity for adequate education and employment still serve as the greatest recruiting tool of the armed forces.
Upon listening to those two white Rosies speak of how -- not long into their marriages, once they were forced to return to traditional wifely roles, they were divorced and into finding a way to continue their newly-found independence. One woman spoke of how she'd worked in the Kaiser shipyards for some time where she was expected to fulfill her working obligations "as well as any man would have." But, when she returned to Texas and went to work in a similar capacity for another yard, she was told to slow down. "We've got black women to do that stuff!" She said working in Texas was "a breeze."
How strange that I would be sitting here all these sixty or more years later, and wondering how in hell I find myself still explaining why I'm still angry?
When Prof. Smith was introducing his videotape he said, "...it's funny -- when I've asked the interviewees (there were more than 40 done) about race relations in that period -- I have always gotten the same answer. "It was no problem. We all got along well." It can't be that I'm the lone hold-out, or can it? My own four hours of a taped interview are filled with examples of how racism prevailed and of how those of us African-Americans who were here for many decades before WWII were still waiting for all those crazies to go back home! But I've written about that in earlier entries and won't bore you with the repetition here.
But one thing has changed. I'm less angry than amused much of the time now. It all seems so silly in some ways; the whole race thing. When the park superintendent hugged me when our presentation was over and asked me if I'm really still that angry I was able to laugh and say -- "yes, in many ways, but overall I believe that I've now been given enough support and a forum so that I've been able to transform some of that rage into something that I can use." I believe that's true. Maybe I'm being instrumental in facilitating those conversations that we need to be having around these issues. Maybe it's only through this kind of airing that we'll someday be able to get ourselves past the Civil War. Acceptance of the truth must come before an apology is possible. And I'll won't bore you with talk of reparations. We can't agree upon the nature of "truth" until we have such conversations. Not owning our history in all of its complexity will keep us imprisoned behind walls of misunderstanding and separation.
Maybe yesterday is just one more small piece of the change that must come before we build to another crisis like that of the Sixties. It may take a deeper understanding of skin-color politics before we can fully understand what's causing our adventurism in foreign lands even today... .
Wish I could connect with other members of "Uppities United" And if there isn't such a support group we need to create one. "Uppitarians?"
Dear Family Members:
I have no idea who's reading this journal -- though the counter keeps climbing. There is rarely feedback and I'd love to hear from you. Send me an email, especially if you're a family member (Breaux, Brau, Breaux, Braud, Allen, Charbonnet, Reid, Carter, Moody, Galt, etc.). And, if you are, I hope that you've checked out the California Black Pioneers link in the lefthand column. Your history is our history and Cousin Jesse Douglas Allen-Taylor and I have been working to preserve it for us all. If it's to be as complete as we'd like it to be, you may be holding onto stories or photos that we need to include.
Those of us who are now at the top of the family pyramid will die off gradually so we must gather the stories while we can. None of it is insignificant. When I realize how jealously I guard the business calling cards of my grandfather, Louis Charbonnet, and the matchbook cover from a long defunct neighborhood bar my dad used to visit -- I know how important this all is, trivial though it may seem. Technology has given us the tools, now we need to use them.
Please take the time to forward your email address. We'd love to create a family newsletter to which we can all contribute.