Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Thinking of how stubbornly I cling to my black identity in a changing world ...

Read back through that last entry and could easily see how irrational it must read to others. And, it probably is. I've over-simplified wildly, but it felt good leaving my fingers ... and maybe that's all I needed -- to feed the words off the ends of my fingers just for the hell of it!

Thought earlier this evening about yesterday's Youth Symphony concert at Allen Temple Baptist Church. It was an afternoon performance of young classical musicians combined with the 100 voice Oakland Symphony Chorus. Loved every minute of it, most of all the Borodin.

At first I felt resistance to the music -- as though I needed to hold out against this European art form - but I couldn't. Beauty is not confined by such boundaries; and it was beautiful!

The concert was held in the 5000-member Baptist church in East Oakland in a cluster of buildings that takes up an entire city block. I remember Allen Temple from my childhood -- it was born in a small converted private home a block away from this site and pastored by Reverend Marion Wilde for many years. The grammar school that I attended is right across the street from this church. The home where I grew up is three blocks away. These are the streets of my childhood. It is now a crime-ridden very low income primarily African American ghetto. When I was a student at Highland elementary -- the community was largely second generation Portuguese and immigrant Irish. At that time there were probably only 20 or so black families living east of Lake Merritt -- and we were scattered throughout the greater area.

The Del Monte cannery hired most of the women in our community, and later National Biscuit Company. The men were employed by the huge Chevrolet Plant on 73rd Avenue and Foothill Boulevard. The biggest day of the year was Holy Ghost Day celebrated at the Portuguese hall on 71st Avenue with its colorful parades and banquets that involved us all, regardless of race or color. We were big on St. Patrick's Day, as well. We knew nothing of Kwaanza. This was long before Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks. It would be years before I'd know of Harriet Tubman, James Weldon Johnson, or Sojourner Truth. I was introduced to Langston Hughes in the school auditorium of Elmhurst Junior High on 98th Avenue when he read his poetry in an assembly. All of this ran through my mind as I listened to the Borodin symphony -- a strange juxtaposition of cultures and memories. How the world has changed.

On this day in Oakland, this auditorium held an audience made up of 75% non-blacks. The huge symphony chorus was all white with a single exception. The youth orchestra was led by conductor Michael Morgan (African American) of the East Bay Symphony. The young people were European-American and Asian with one or two African American kids n the mix. I wondered about that, and why more of our children were not into this music?

Oakland is reputed to be the most racially-integrated city in the nation. That this many white people (there was standing room, only) would attend such a concert in the heart of the black community to listen to symphonic music for an afternoon might be a rarity in middle America, but in Oakland it all works. We truly do celebrate racial diversity -- and we've been at it enough years so that it's now effortless and unself-conscious.

So why then am I still so defiant and insistent upon defining myself racially?

Photo: "Jesus Loves Me" painting by Varnette Honeywood (1983). A gift received long ago from my son, Rick, 1945-1997.

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