Sunday, June 25, 2006

From then to now ... and the PBS interview ... .

Okay, so I've gotten myself caught up in the past again, and in those unbelievably exciting days of discovery and the evolution of the Hip Hop generation. Could be that this may be regarded as highly inappropriate for an octogenarian, even one as active and aware as I. Not so.

Last Wednesday, on the hottest day of the year, I drove out along the Richmond Parkway to an industrial area where I was to meet with the team of three videographers who are working on the 4-hour documentary on San Francisco Bay. It will be shown nationwide in four one-hour segments at some point in the future. The interview was set for three o'clock, and the place was the unlikely hard-to-find small corrugated metal building set back from the road through a winding course past dumpsters and shacks and trucks of all sizes. I'd been met by a series of handprinted signs leading through the maze to enter from the rear of the complex of old dusty structures.

For this I'd dressed meticulously in conservative black and my most modest silver jewelry -- a gift from Tom and created by a well-known Mendocino jeweler. My hair was swept back in the classic Betty hairdo that was no hairdo at all, really. Just parted in the middle and caught in a small jeweled clip at the nape. Looking like someone ready for afternoon tea, I arrived to walk into this strange unbearably hot (102 degrees outside) building that had been sprayed with something called theatrical "smoke," used to diffuse the background. The cameraman told me that this building had been purposely rented for these interviews for the Kaiser Homefront segment in order to give an "industrial" appearance to the piece. Should have worn my blue jeans, maybe, and a bandana. Wondered for a minute if I hadn't chosen precisely the wrong appearance for this interview.

I was following County Jury Foreman, Antonio Medrano, who was just completing his camera time. He was dressed casually in slacks and open-collared shirt. My feeling of being over-dressed lingered for no more than a minute or two -- and quickly disappeared as I was caught up in the process.

Seated on a straight-backed chair banked by baffles and lighting screens -- across from the off-scene interviewer (being a "talking head"), we then entered into a dialogue that lasted for just short of an hour --- from which no more than 5 minutes will be used, I'm guessing. On the drive home -- as I ran back over the experience in my head -- I figured that I'd be lucky to not come off as proud and highly arrogant. I really had never really accepted the role of "Rosie the Riveter," given my personal warfront history as a simple file clerk in a Jim Crow union auxiliary that had no power and not even a view of either ships or a shipyard. I'm certain that my 60-year-old anger bled through the interview. It was payback time and I was ready to speak my peace, and did.

Fortunately, as I left the building, the director was driving out behind me to pick up the next interviewee, a woman who had not been "in place" when the war came, but had been a 14 year-old 4th grade grammar school dropout from the Bayou country of Louisiana who had been allowed by her mother to accompany a man who was on his way to California, hopefully, to find work in the war effort. I've often heard Mary "Peace" Head tell her story, and wondered each time at the huge differences in the experiences of many women in that population of blacks and whites who made up the 108,000 newcomers who descended on the Bay Area and changed our world completely -- and those of us who were in place when war came to us.

Mary and I are both African American, but there could hardly be two more different lives than those we represent. One of the production team had remarked when he announced that he was off to pick her up from her home in nearby Parchester Village, that "Mary is so colorful!" She is that, in every way. I felt drab and terribly conservative for a few seconds as I let those words sink in. Mary is prayerful and goes by the name of "Peace," stating that this name was given her during her time of working in the shipyards because she prayed with the workers, and over her own work to bring peace to those overseas who might be touched by it. She wears a sequin-decorated hard hat to these occasions, and proudly. "We all got along," says she. "The hell with that," says I! "We'd have killed one another if we didn't have those damned ships to build!"

I have no idea what will be used or what will be edited out, but I surely didn't withhold my feelings -- not for a minute -- but always with characteristic restraint and modulated in ways that wouldn't sound belligerent and cause me to be tuned out. I've learned to be careful about that at all times. But I could not allow this opportunity to be truthful about a period when race relations were so highly romanticized -- to stand without challenge. After all, the black and white workers from the southern states, had not yet shared drinking foundations or public accommodations and wouldn't for another 20 years. They'd brought the South and its segregation practices here to the Bay Area, and I don't think I've ever forgotten.

I was also to learn over time that, in addition, they also brought a resistance movement that would serve to bring major social change over the next few decades, and for that I am eternally grateful. It might have taken those of us in place another generation to accomplish what those black southerners gave birth to by having had their expectations raised by the experience of leaving the hostile South and finding, instead, more of the same in this new land of opportunity.

I think the nation is ready for those conversations.

I know that I am.

Photo: More flyers that depict the richness of activities and the life at the Nu Upper Room. The print of the multiple faces is one of Naven Norling's drawings. This young genius also left for New York when the Room closed, but I've no idea what kind of success he may have found there. Would love to know if anyone has followed his career in the art world.

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