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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Speaking engagements are now frequent enough to begin to provide some confidence that, "yes!" I can do this ... .

Lucy and I spent the morning meeting with a group of young people in the adult education program of the West Contra Costa Unified School District. Their ages were (with one or two exceptions) between 18 and 22. Interesting bunch; mostly male.

I'd received a call from teacher, Nancy Ng, a few weeks ago inviting us to meet with her students in relation to Black History Month. She wanted them to learn something about the local history. As it turned out, last month was a busy one and we couldn't meet her schedule. This morning, here we were, a few days late but ready to give it a try.

Lucy started out by providing the more scholarly information about World War II and its effects upon the Bay Area in general and the City of Richmond in particular. I always enjoy her impromptu presentations and learn something new from them each time. We've fallen easily into a kind of casual ad libbing kind of presentation that goes wherever the expressions on the faces of the audience leads us. It's always fun when there are interruptions; questions that tell us the kids are involved -- and we're happy to veer off course to take advantage of the interest in the side bars.

I tend to become one of the "interrupters," in that I pop in when- and wherever there's an opening and Lucy recedes enough into the background to make room for my bits and pieces.

This morning I found myself relating to these young people as a kind of "peer" in that it was easy to drop into one of the many people that I am or have become over all these years -- which allowed the 20 year-old Betty to rise to the forefront and join the other 20 year-olds in the room. Strange.

I heard myself saying to them that they were in the process of making history right this minute -- history that could only be viewed in retrospect years hence -- just as I was a little file clerk in a Jim Crow union hall some distance from the frenetic day-and-night building of the great ships of war. That I never saw a ship during those years, and still I was a part of a history that shaped the world.

It is important to note that during those years countries went to war. Now armies do.

It was an interesting morning, and those youngsters caught the spirit of our presentation. We took photos together at the end, and they were invited into the "building of a national park" along with our park staff -- and -- I believe we will see them again at some point.

On Saturday I will be one of the speakers in honor of Women's History Month -- on board the USS Hornet, the aircraft carrier now a museum on the shoreline -- moored in Alameda, California. Not sure who else will share the dais with me, but it will be another adventure -- and I'll get to see that giant war vessel along with the crowds, and feel the now-sleeping but awesome power in that huge ship after over sixty years of knowing them only on film.

Tomorrow we will make a presentation on Richmond's history for Ma'at Environmental Youth Academy. These are teens who will be hearing most of what we have to teach for the very first time. If they're anything like today's group, it will be great fun. This same bunch will be taken on a bus tour on Saturday morning (prior to the visit to the USS Hornet) when we will visit some of the World War II-related sites that are now a part of the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home/Front National Historical Park.

It would be so easy to get caught up in the glorification of war and forget that mine is not the story of war at all -- but simply memories of a time of great confusion, of fear, of not being sure just who the enemy was, of learning that I was less than ... , and the experience of participating in the sowing of the seeds of the great Civil Rights movement of modern times. It would be so easy to lose all of that in this work. What a pity that would be ... so sad if I begin to forget the futility of killing in the name of forcefully exporting democracy through the barrel of a gun -- democracy that has not been realized at home, even now. So sad if we get caught up in heralding old wars and forget the lessons learned so cruelly, and without conscience and born of greed and avarice and the arrogance of the empire builders! How can I admit that I feel a revulsion -- even in the face of the reality of some Hitlerian figure rising -- when I hear someone speak of, "...the Good War"?

Will it be possible to remain true to myself in this process of national park building? Will it be possible to celebrate the gains won through those struggles and still remember the explosion at Port Chicago not as a blast that destroyed a small town and collapsed the walls of its small theater -- but as the place where 202 lives of untrained and unprotected young black navy men were lost tragically and needlessly?

Will it be possible to join with my community in planning next fall's first annual Home Front Festival -- to help in the planning of the commemorative USO dance when I know that I would not have been allowed to attend during those war years? Do I become a spoiler when I remind the dance committee of the Chamber of Commerce of that disturbing truth? Has enough time passed so that I can set aside those painful memories (and that the reason I recall Port Chicago and hearing that terrifying sound and feel of the explosion on the night of July 14, 1944 is because that small group of servicemen were guests at a party in our small apartment in Berkeley because they could not attend the USO dances. Their young bodies were most probably among the dead when the smoke cleared. We never knew their names ... .)

The greatest challenge of this work may be whether I can keep my perspective clear and clean and not lose the lessons of these past 60-odd years in the noises of the present ...?

Nothing comes easy ... but then, life is complex ... and therein lies the magic.


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