Saturday, October 01, 2005

I'm developing such a backlog of unwritten events and thoughts ... with little time to "download" ...

But I need to spend a part of this weekend thinking about what I'll say next weekend at the Mills College Women's History Conference -- this will be a good place to begin, I think.

On Thursday evening there will be a Holly Near concert and casual gathering where there will be a chance to schmooze, I suppose. Never was very good at that. When people approach me to chit chat -- and ask silly questions for the sake of the ritual -- I tend to give real answers and then feel embarrassed that this was not a part of the game. Hate schmoozin'!

On Friday there will be a ceremony in the morning where Justice Sandra Day O'Connor will be honored followed by a great variety of workshops that will go on throughout that day and the next.

On Saturday I'm scheduled to represent the Rosie the Riveter/Home Front Historical National Park on a panel that will be dealing with monuments and tributes to the nation's women. Not really sure what that means and will take the time here to work through some of that. It may save some embarrassment next Saturday by keeping my remarks relevant.

What I've been thinking about (and what's confusing the issue for me in many ways) is the fact that different people have lived such differing realities. My experience doesn't reflect that of the Rosie's who are the heroines of the Home Front war effort at all. We lived those years in a racially segregated society. Yet, one of the reasons that I'm of any value at all to the NPS is precisely because I represent the untold stories of the period. Those lost or never-held conversations are critical to the establishing of a baseline against which to measure social progress made over the years that followed. Only by looking closely and honestly at those times that radically altered basic social patterns -- can we begin to understand the turbulence of the last 60 years and continue on a corrective course. The federal response to those who suffered such shameful abuse and neglect from Katrina in the heavily black Gulf states suggests that we still have miles to go before we sleep.

To have lived long enough to be acutely aware of the continuum of change and to still be connected enough to express it may justify my participation on that panel. I need to hold to my truth and not get caught up in what is often a glorified version of women's role in the war effort. I must stay with my own reality; and that of women like me.

Recently read a book on African American Women in the West (not exact title but will look it up later) and noticed something that had escaped my notice until recently. It's important, I think:

Though there are 21 pages in a chapter entitled "World War II," not once did the words "Japanese," "Nazis," "The Axis," "Bataan or Midway," receive mention. It suddenly struck me as I completed the chapter that the war had never been a major factor in my life, either. I'd never known why that was, or that anyone else experienced it similarly.

Obviously, for African Americans, the epic was not the War, but escape from a hostile South. The War simply served as background to this greater drama. This chapter in a fine book on the experiences of the African American woman spoke of customs, practices, relationships, philanthropy, work ethics, racial prejudice as transported to the west by white southerners, church and civic involvement, recreation, job opportunities or the lack thereof; everything but "The Great War." Interesting?

That chapter would have been written very differently had the author been a white female participant on the home front war effort. It would have talked about climbing in and out of the noses of warplanes or learning to rivet or weld against the resistance of male workers, etc. It would be a story of great pride in overcoming gender biases and prevailing against the odds. And it is those stories that are being collected and treasured as Rosie's long-neglected history is being honored by the establishment of a national park in her name. The story of Rosie is a white woman's story, and a worthy one at that. But it isn't my story, nor the story of the many women like me who were shamefully wasted human potential in sea of inequity.

The time of retrieving those lost conversations has finally arrived. The National Park Service is not only listening, but is facilitating the untold stories under a new program called "Civic Engagement." There is a growing audience of willing listeners -- those who are eager to hear. The Lion's share of the work may be in getting African Americans to relive the pain of those years by putting it into words -- those who are still alive and willing. Their children and grandchildren continue to suffer from the effects of the hopelessness and sense of rejection that's worked their way into the DNA of a people without any longer remembering the why of it ... .

A tremendous opportunity is before us through the work of the National Park Service. By setting aside and restoring places and structures of our shared history, we can be the catalyst for our own transformation into what our founding documents tried to provide for us -- that framework for freedom for all people. Even in their ambivalence around just who "the people" were, they provided the template for what a democracy can be, if each generation in turn accepts the responsibility for re-creation and dedication to the principles therein.

I suppose these are the underlying reasons that I've lived much of my life as a political being, ever hopeful of positive change.

Wonder, sometimes, how different it might have been had Mr. McGovern won the nomination and the presidency?

Photo: Served as a McGovern delegate with the California delegation (in 1972) led by then Speaker of the House, the Honorable Willie Brown. The irony is that I was chosen by the same congressional district that fiercely challenged my right to live among them some 20 years before.

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