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Saturday, June 21, 2008

Juneteenth Celebration!

...and in the city of Richmond this is one of the big ones!

There's a move afoot to get Juneteenth legislated into a national holiday, but so far it's still on the back burner and comes waaaay after we elect a new president; begin the ending of the war in Iraq; clean up the sub-prime mortgage debacle; create an equitable universal health care bill; renew the debate over offshore drilling for petroleum and whether or not we close Guantanamo, but someday... .

In case you're out of the loop on black history, you'll want to know that June 19th was the day that the news of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation -- announcing freedom for all who were enslaved finally reached Texas. This was long after the rest of the states had been notified.

Having grown up in the Bay Area without the richness of that history, I knew nothing of this holiday until I reached young adulthood. It still feels very "Texan" and doesn't stir the kind of strong identification for me that comes with any mention Faubourg Tremé or the French Quarter in New Orleans, but it does speak to the diversity that exists in the black community where many of those in today's parade expressed Carnival with such joy! The Caribbean influence is strong here. I sometimes forget about just how diverse we are -- with many sub-groups expressing a variety of black cultures.

Our staff created a great display that featured panels telling of the launching of ships built here during WWII by Henry J. Kaiser and named for prominent African Americans of the times. There was a panel showing photos and a story about the first (interim) superintendent of the National Park Service, an African American named Capt. Charles Young (1864-1922), the son of former slaves and a graduate of West Point. He rose from the ranks of the Buffalo Soldiers -- the black cavalrymen who were the first caretakers and protectors of both the Presidio and Yosemite Valley. Captain Young figured prominently in the early days of the development of the national park system. What a great day for us to revive his story as a part of this important celebration.

Happy Juneteenth!

Remember that at some point the campaign for its naming as a national holiday will become an issue in your town -- and you can remember this entry, and the reason why it's important to so many.


Photo: Exuberant Janet Johnson and her granddaughter doing "Carnival!" in today's parade. If you'll click on the top thumbnail, you may be able to make out some of details of the exhibit.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Of course you've by now become aware of my granddaughter, Rosie, and her dramatic introduction into our lives only a few weeks ago ... .

Here's beautiful little girl Rosie with her two sisters. It's not hard to see why she would have been confused about her identity. That's Rosie in the center. (see link - Creolebelle's weblog)

Been thinking a lot lately about a song I wrote many years ago that may have been prescient. It was about my racially mixed bloodlines. It was written at a time when the Black Revolution was raging and racial identity was critically important to all African Americans. It was the late 60s and early 70s at a time when I was living a painfully troubled life in the white suburbs at a time of tremendous social change. It was at a time we were one of only two families of color in the entire Diablo valley.

I was very active, politically, and battling my way through an identity crisis with a passion. There were days when I was not quite white enough in my daily suburban life -- and not quite black enough in my innercity and national political life.

Living on the bridge of racial ambiguity is something that my bright and beautiful young granddaughter has been spared. The implications of that keep me awake some nights ... wondering how she'll work her way through it. Signs are that she is resilient and ready for whatever lies ahead.

How is it to discover one's African American connections so late in life? She has been spared the pain of rejection and low self-esteem that has plagued so many. In her innocence she has been free to live without ever having to doubt her abilities or to be limited by the low expectations of others due to lack of understanding about the capacity of black or mixed-race children to learn and adapt.

This is the grandchild who finally escaped the binding restrictions of race. Rosie is a forerunner of what the people of the world will look and be like in some future day when all these ideals we pretend to strive so hard to live up to are finally achieved. Rosie and people like her provide hope for us all. She is proof that miscegenation does not foul the gene pool. To the contrary! Under the Mendelian Law of genetics, it is claimed that the hybrid is superior to those from which it sprang. Not sure that theory holds up for hybrid from hybrid from hybrid, but it sounds comforting to those of us who can no longer track our bloodlines with any degree of certainty. (Tiger and Barack?) This is surely a human construct that needs reexamination.

If there is a blessing in all of this it is that the year is 2008 in an era that is far more enlightened than those in which my children's generation had to forge their identity. Our children's Charbonnet lineage harkens back to the late 1700s in this country -- before the Revolutionary War and with a racial legacy that embraces French, African, Shoshone, Islenos (Spanish from the Canary Islands), and the Reid's line which is African, Jewish, Seminole, English, etc. David's marriage brought Filipino bloodlines into the mix - presenting beautiful mixtures of still another gene pool to the grandchildren they brought forth. I know nothing yet of Rosie's mother's racial makeup, but surely it adds still another element to this exotic racial jambalaya!

Meditating on all this -- wondering about the implications for Rosie in this entirely new configuration of her identity -- has brought me, finally, to the realization that it's all really crazy! Does my small Afro-centric art collection and fine library of black literature suggest more determination to identify than any real knowledge of or sophistication about the genre? Just an affectation, maybe? I truly don't know, but I think not. There's a resonance that draws me in ... .

Maybe our family has joined with all those other forerunners who've made racial designation as irrelevant as those little racial identity boxes that we ceased to neatly fit into decades ago. Since I couldn't find one labeled "Creole," I took to checking them all; even "other"! I suspect that Rosie's current status totally blows away the entire box and the paper upon which it is printed!

For my other beautiful grandchildren, Alayana and Tamaya, Kokee and Rhico, I'd guess that race may continue for a little longer to be little more than a political choice. At this point they appear to approach the question individually, and with variation; a freedom they're allowed; a freedom that Rosie, too, is also free to exercise. It's like the tradition of freedom of religion in our family. I once witnessed Rhico self-identifying as Latino, and it seemed quite proper at the time. After all, Greatgrandmother Victoria Morales Charbonnet was Islenos (Canary Island Spanish). It's a floating kind of thing that each will come to terms with in their own way if and when it matters at all.

However -- I still choose to live off my black edge. I still feel that part of my being viscerally -- with music and dance and - yes, politics, and wouldn't give up my African American identity if my life depended on it.

And maybe it does ...

still.

There is no one else I'd rather be; despite all. It is my black life that is the source of strength and compassion. I'm sure of it. It is all of the pain of growth and lessons in forgiveness and atonement that provides the power that sustains me in these final years. Makes one wonder to what extent I was shaped by the black experience? It's in the humiliation, the pain, and the shared black rage that continues to fuel my work toward justice and fairness. It is whatever makes up the black sensibility that gives me this strong sense of connectedness with other people of color and that forms a deep grounding in aesthetics -- it's still with me in the sound of the drum. It's embedded in something as simple as clapping on the second and fourth beat because that's the rhythm of the African heart. Synchronized! Syncopated!

Black!

Will all of that pass into oblivion with me when time runs out?

Then the great question becomes, "what is shaping my children and theirs?"

Sunday, June 15, 2008


Noticed in transferring photos from my camera onto my hard drive -- this series showed up ... .

Earlier this month a teacher from the local adult school invited me to speak before her class. These were young people, ages of 18 to 25. Most were studying for their GED and in most cases had dropped out of school long before completion.

This would be the second visit to their classes for me, and I wasn't all that sure how successful the first visit may or may not have been. It's often hard to tell with this age group.

There is also the problem of relevance. Just how much interest was there really in World War II among today's youth? There have been many wars since that time, and each with its own stories. This one was now 67 years old and most of those who fought or worked in that effort were now gone. We're talkin' grandparents generations here!

A few weeks ago I took along my little DVD of "Lost Conversations," some literature about the mutiny at Port Chicago; brochures on Rosie the Riveter WWII/Home Front Historical National Park (phew!) and gave it my all. They seemed interested enough, though it was hard to tell how much I was getting through with my stories. After all, how would young people -- who in many cases came from single parent households headed by women who've had to work all their lives -- relate to the stories of Rosie the Riveter?

I tried holding eye contact with those who would accept my gaze but with minimal success. The two teachers in the room were probably my best audience, sadly.

At the conclusion of my one-hour visit I invited the class to come to the Rosie Memorial soon where, perhaps, I could make the stories more real and where they could see the "swords into ploughshares" transformation of Kaiser's Shipyard II into what is now a fine shoreline housing development and city park that holds this very moving memorial to the women who had entered the nation's workforce for the very first time. It felt as if I were reaching a bit in extending the invitation -- as if -- with a bit more time the message might get through ... .

A few days later their teacher called to say that the young people really did want to visit the memorial and would I meet them there for a continuance of our WWII experience? They would have to board two city buses in order to get there, but that she'd love to have them do that if I could arrange a time.

Two weeks ago I arrived at the Memorial at precisely ten o'clock as planned to find that they'd preceded me and were eagerly waiting for whatever was to come next. This morning in sorting through photos to add to my collection, I noticed how deeply engaged they were. They were totally present in the moment. I remember how moving it was to me to walk with them the entire 433 ft. of the memorial (the length of a Victory Ship) while individual students volunteered without prompting to read aloud for the group each plaque that was embedded in the time line set in concrete - a time line telling the story of the mobilization and the home front effort of Americans to defeat the enemies of Democracy. The reading was halting and the teacher occasionally pushed through when a word was misread -- but there was no embarrassment. The content completely erased any fear of failure. Amazing! The experience of these young people who lived in this city but who had little or no information about its history to date was exciting to everyone. It was a privilege to participate in their discovery.

When I got back to my office later it occurred to me that this experience could be extended. Next month we'll make the trip out to Shipyard III together to tour the SS Red Oak Victory with one of the men who is volunteering in the restoration of this -- the last of the victory ships built in that shipyard in 1945. She sailed as late as the Vietnam War before being mothballed at Benicia then donated by the Navy to the city's Museum of History.

Whatever made me think that young people in baggy pants and caps on backwards sporting gold chains and fancy sneakers with Hip Hop as their credo couldn't be stirred by something as mundane as local history?

I don't think that -- at the time -- I was aware of just how truly engaged they were. These snapshots are wonderful to view after the fact. I might have forgotten ... .

Quite affirming, really. Something to review on those days when I'm feeling less than effective -- and old.

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