Wednesday, March 12, 2008

"Of Lost Conversations and Untold Stories ..."

(Written for the April park newsletter)

It never dawned – while filing change-of-address cards or taking dues payments in the small office of the racially segregated Boilermakers A-36 union hall -- that I might live long enough to actually become black history; but so it seems. Despite a fading memory of working in that unassuming little office at 10th and Barrett Avenue in Richmond, and a reluctance to identify as the proverbial “Rosie the Riveter,” life has placed a soapbox under my feet and I’m speaking publicly for a generation for whom my presence in the workforce was questionable at best. As one of the diminishing female home front workers of World War II still standing, I often feel undeserving of the “Rosie” title. I’m increasingly called upon to speak for a generation that helped to save the world from Nazi imperialism – but often feel that I’m fulfilling that role by default since so many of those voices have been silenced by time. And since the equality for which we worked, fought, and died, has yet to be fully realized.

Due to working far from the shipyards, and despite being a part of 93,000 home front workers who moved in and out of the Kaiser Shipyards 24-hours-a-day and 7-days-a-week in one of the most intensive production efforts in human history, I never saw a ship under construction; never witnessed a launching. Neither do I recall feeling the surge of patriotism that inspired the monumental achievement of completing 747 ships in 4 years and 5 months of the war.

Time tends to soften, alter, and revise history, and the home front stories of WWII are no exception. As a 20-year old politically naïve woman of color with little understanding of the war except for the disruption it brought to everyday life. Confusion reigned as if a major fault line had shifted under the weight of the unprecedented population explosion that changed the social fabric of the Bay Area, the West Coast, and the nation.

The confusion was driven by still raw memories of a nation that, in 1941, assigned 91% of black women to work in few categories – agricultural, household, and industrial service jobs. Performing clerical work – menial though it might be in the scheme of things – working in a segregated union hall was a step up from making beds, caring for children, and mopping floors for white Americans.

Yet, in the wake of having become a full time park ranger for the National Park Service, I find myself invited to speak for that generation – to share the stories of the times (and there are as many stories as are there are workers who lived them) – to groups large and small. Over the past months I’ve been invited to participate in black and women’s history observances throughout the Bay Area. I’ve served as the representing “Rosie” as a panelist for the Oakland Museum; given talks for the US Department of Agriculture; Bay Area NOW; the County Welfare Workers; the Republican Women’s Club, the DAR, and the Valley Baptist Church. In the past I’ve appeared before the Social Security Administration, The Department of Forestry, before Berkeley Arts Magnet’s fifth grade classes, in a long distance interview with middle school history classes in Bakersfield. Over the next month or two I’ll be speaking for the University of California retirees and the American Association of University Women among others.

Does it feel real? Have I learned to accept my role as spokesperson for a period in history that holds painful and often humiliating memories? Oddly enough, the answer is yes. I find that today’s audiences are ready to explore the WWII era with an openness that holds the potential for promoting a continuing movement toward positive social change. This might well insure that my granddaughter’s generation will benefit from my participation in this long overdue national conversation.

The silence that worked against change has given way to new possibilities for measuring progress toward a more equitable society, and Rosie the Riveter World War II/Home Front National Historical Park is in a position to accelerate that movement through the “Lost Conversations and Untold Stories”* that I’m able to provide in this new public role.

Perhaps the trajectory of my life from a young and confused file clerk to full time national park ranger on a soapbox illustrates as much as today’s campaigns for the presidency – a woman and an African American – just how far we’ve come in the on-going process of growing our imperfect democracy to the benefit of the world.

March 9, 2008

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