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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Another symptom of the aging process?

I'm experiencing an interesting phenomenon that may not have been noticeable in former years. I appear to be entering a place (a mind space) where former life lessons are colliding with current ones, with the result that newer experiences are being crowded out of consciousness in many cases, leaving me with a head wallpapered with question marks! As crazy and convoluted as that sounds, it appears to be quite true.

It's as if I'm being forced to accept new values that contradict old ones -- yet a part of me refuses to give up the old. I'm tending to hold all of the conflicting truths in equal status -- and it all appears to be at least tolerable. It means that I'm sure of less and less as time passes -- with the assumption that this (inconsistency) is the nature of life, and that when I begin to draw conclusions based upon these fragments of truth, it will be the end.

Example: My experience with the Daughters of the American Revolution two weeks ago. I brought so much angst into the experience with me -- so much of which was associated with a past that I did not live -- a past that was the legacy of long dead generations. (And could they not echo these very words?) That legacy didn't hold up in the presence of today's DAR reality--at least not in that meeting room in San Francisco. But one might wonder -- if blame is never assigned or acknowledged -- what happens to accountability? What happens to atonement? To reconciliation? To redemption?

Yet, the noose symbolism is a direct descendant of that old "Constitution Hall - Marian Anderson" history, and is undeniably relevant to what we're seeing today. Those echoes of racial bigotry have found their way into the legislation that governs our lives -- and continues to color our times and pollute our national domestic and foreign policies. Racism remains an unresolved national dilemma. The cancer is by now so well-buried in our national psyche that the everyday effects are hardly recognizable anymore, except in the extreme. The cancer may have by now become who we are in the world. What a frightening thought!

In the middle of the experience at the War Memorial I was totally unable to bring those collective memories forth -- so was only able to see the immediate scene before me -- and that scene was benign; dear well-dressed ladies in a time warp. I was as much an anomaly in their lives as they were in mine. Probably not one of us in that room would hold the experience in mind for long but would move on as if it never occurred. They would remain as an interesting surprisingly pleasant experience for me, and I -- on the other hand -- would perhaps simply become this one-of-a-kind African-American woman in a park ranger uniform who appeared out of the blue -- and is surely "not a bit like those others ... ." And we will have all survived the Saturday afternoon experience at the San Francisco War Memorial without having to alter our values or our notions about one another or the nature of our shared national Life one iota.

Is there something that is necessarily protective that enables us to re-arrange "mind matter" in ways that saves us from having to question our sanity at such times? Could I have handled the memories of those searing images of the Ethel Waters performance had it been necessary to hold those competing realities in mind simultaneously? I suspect there is. As surely as I was able to compartmentalize those two entries only inches apart here on this screen. It is as if they rose from two different lives -- from two different minds -- and several generations apart. But both lives are contained under one skull -- sharing a brain -- living my life.

But are they?

I thought again today about " e=mc squared", and of these curious bursts of intellectual energy that appear without warning from time to time -- about the relevance of the time continuum ... and about over-lapping realities .

If this all seems inconclusive -- it is. This is another Saturday -- two weeks hence -- and I'm still chewing on the dramatic contrasts life continues to present.

...there's something telling about the way my mind has separated these experiences. In a way they really are not related, except in my head.

Sunday morning: Last night I was rudely awakened by a flash of insight. The third paragraph above does a fine job of describing (in microcosm) just what may have happened to that long-awaited apology for slavery -- and reparations. You have to read it as a Reader's Digest condensed version, of course. Or maybe a Fox News or Hard Ball sound bite, but the elements are all there, I think. This may describe our national amnesia on the subject of race relations. But, of course, that's silly. Or is it? Dreams and middle-of-the-night insights have their way of collapsing wisdom into ridiculously simplistic bits and pieces -- but sometimes ... .

Yet can this huge rubber-band ball of a mind of mine be stilled -- ever -- or will my conflicting truths continue to build until I'm no longer sure of anything at all?

Sunday, October 21, 2007




About those nooses ... and ... I would have been only about twelve when she was soaring on Broadway ...
Her name was Ethel Waters, one of the earliest of black Broadway stars -- the very first to receive equal billing with whites. Later I would remember her co-starring in Member of a Wedding with Julie Harris and singing "Happiness is just a thing called Joe" in the old movie, Cabin in the Sky. But one of the memories that burned its way into my brain was from stills I once saw of the Broadway revue, As Thousands Cheer. In it Ms. Waters was featured in a number written especially for her by the celebrated Irving Berlin. It was highly controversial, as it would surely be today. It is this image that rises to the surface when people speak of nooses as pranks, let me describe it for you:

There she would stand alone in the spotlight dressed in a traditional plaid gingham dress covered by a long apron -- with hair tightly wrapped in a print kerchief. The stage was completely dark -- except for the giant silhouette played against the back curtain -- the shadow of a man's limp and contorted dead body hanging by the neck from a noose attached to an extended tree branch:


Against this chilling backdrop she would quietly sing:

Supper time I should set the table cause
it's supper time

Somehow I'm not able
cause this man o' mine
ain't comin' home no more


Supper time, kid's 'll soon be yellin' for their supper time
How'll I keep from tell'in 'em
this man o' mine
ain't comin' home no more.


How'll I keep explaining when they ask me where he's gone?

How'll I keep from cryin' when I bring their supper on?

How can I remind them to pray for their humble board?

How'll I be thankful when they start to thank the Lord, O Lord!


It's supper time I should set the table cause it's supper time
Somehow I'm not able cause this man o' mine
Ain't comin' home no more.

The year was 1933. The number of lynchings in the decades prior to 1930 was approximately 50 blacks annually. In 1933 Irving Berlin dared to risk reputation and economic well-being to bring this statement to the Broadway stage. In much the same way Yip Harburg would risk writing Strange Fruit for Billie Holiday to perform to stunned nightclub audiences. Both would pay heavily in years to come. Harburg would become one of the defiled Hollywood black-listed writers.

I find myself wondering whether it is really ever possible to separate out black history from our national history when so much or our fate has been facilitated by others; in this case two Jews with the determination to defend the lives of others at the expense of their own well-being.

This all came to mind upon reading today's article in the New York Times about nooses turning up across the country in a variety of settings and institutions ... .

"... Nooses have been looped over a tree at the University of Maryland, knotted to
the end of stage-rigging ropes at a suburban Memphis theater, slung on the doorknob of a black professor's office at Columbia University in New York, hung in a locker room at a Long Island police station, stuffed in the duffel bag of a black Coast Guard cadet aboard  a historic ship, and draped around the necks of black dolls in the suburbs.  The hangman's rope has become so prolific, some say, it could replace the Nazi swastika and the Ku Klux Klan's fiery cross as the nation's reigning symbol of hate ..." .


Frightening.

In case we've forgotten -- as recently as June 14, 2005, 20 members of the U.S. Senate (19 Republicans and 1 Democrat) refused to sign anti-lynching legislation. They refused to do a roll-call in order to avoid being on the public record. (For their names see the archives entry for that date.)

Never really commented on the Ken Burns series, did I?

Haven't known just what to say about it after the huge build-up. Disappointed? I suppose so. It felt excessive and self-indulgent to me -- but then what do I know, right? A good editor could have sharpened it up by cutting drastically. The brutality was so repetitive that I found myself turning away for long periods and then tuning back in hope that it would have eased up. Never thought I'd see the day when a few commercials would have helped by providing much-needed breaks from the sheer misery of what was being shown on the small screen. However, that, after all is the nature of war. What did I expect?

Watching the replay of WWII against the background of current news from the everyday horrors of the Mid East made it even harder to deal with. But then, maybe that was the intent of the epic series. I'm not sure. I hated the fact that we've learned so little from that horrific experience not yet a lifetime away; that we're still willing to gouge out eyes as souvenirs of war and to burn small children in the interest of the protection of oil reserves and Empire. That primal cruelty is still so close to the surface of humanity. That -- in our lifetimes -- we would be splitting hairs over what constitutes torture. And -- I hated the idea (stronger with each day) that We the People are fast-becoming "the Good Germans."

I'm under no illusion that -- as an African American -- I'm exempt from such a charge. To the extent that I, too, benefit from policies that rape the planet and destroy humanity, the guilt is shared by us all. Though I feel as if we've been duped into believing that -- along with white privilege would have come white power and white wisdom. How naive a notion that should have been outgrown years ago! That, combined with current awareness that power, wisdom, and privilege can be abused by any human beings, regardless of skin color. One needs only to look at Central and West Africa and the Arab Emirates for evidence of privilege gone wild.

I was wrong about the African American story not being told. It was. However, that only served to increase the silent rage I've carried around for a lifetime by being a reminder of things I'd pushed back for decades; things I knew in the deep recesses of my mind, but that were suppressed for the most part. The extent to which I felt renewed humiliation is probably a measure of how far we may or may not have come in what is now socially acceptable behavior. That I can express the anger with hope of being heard is new. My parents simply acquiesced; made do. They expected far less than I do in the everyday living of life. Along with those new freedoms, though, comes the acceptance of shared guilt and responsibility for what my nation does in the world, and the sense that those around me are as helpless as I to bring change. That, too, is new.

The tools with which to bring change seem so fragile, don't they? "Get out and vote!" "Lobby your congresspersons!" "Conserve energy!" and the ever-constant, "Send us a check!" These all seem so useless in turning around the Ship of State. I suppose I'm no longer envious of youth, and in a strange way am somewhat grateful for having lived these last 8 decades (and more) and that time is winding down now. The next 8 are frightening to anticipate. Those will be the years that our children and grandchildren must survive.

Oh how I wish for a way to stop the clock -- just so we can gain the time to better match our future to our ideals! But then maybe the real problem involves fine-tuning our ideals so that they better conform to those who conceived the Constitution and Bill of Rights ... though flawed -- they at least created the blueprint that should have sustained us as a nation. The erosion of principle under today's policies is staggering!

I'm no longer certain that my continuing anger at Ken Burns isn't a simple case of wanting to kill the messenger.

But I have to deposit it somewhere or it will eat me alive!

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