Sunday, May 24, 2009

Betty, Phyllis, the BBC -- and my other woes ... .

My career as an internationalist crashed and burned on Saturday at Shipyard 3. This day would qualify (in Dorian's word) as a complete disastrophe! I had been dreading this event for some unknown reason and had cautioned the producer, Ms. Caroline Miller, that I didn't much see myself as appropriate for their documentary. She'd insisted and -- despite earlier misgivings, I gave in after an exchange of emails.

On Friday I'd asked for a meeting with Martha in a plea for some guidance; saying that I was feeling some need of support -- that this might need someone along to meet with the film crew. Knowing their documentary was about the Lend/Lease program (about which I knew little), I felt unqualified to add much, and said so. I was unaware that there would be 2 other women and that I would be asked to be a "Rosie."

My instructions were to meet their film crew at the old SS Red Oak Victory at five o'clock on Saturday evening. No other details. At about four o'clock I got into uniform and left 30 minutes later for the short 6 mile drive to the Port of Richmond. It was cold and dreary with the fog belt hanging over Berkeley sending stiff icy winds into Richmond and cutting through the harbor. I'd dressed in my Washington, D.C.-inspired long johns and heavy winter uniform but the bitterness cut through despite all.

Upon reaching the old Warehouse and within sight of the cameras and crew I spotted two women whom I've met on many occasions over the past years. They were the Rosies whose stories have been oft told in the inscriptions carved into the Rosie memorial and elsewhere in the literature. I believe their names are Phyllis and Agnes. Because of the cold (I thought), I chose to not leave my car to join them but instead turned off the motor at a spot overlooking the water; set the brake; and rummaged around the back seat for the crossword puzzle book I always have on hand to use at times when I'm waiting for Dorian while she's engaged in some activity or other. I was feeling depressed but without a visible reason ... .

I finally began to feel rude so put away my pen and puzzle book and left the warmth of my car to walk the 50 or so feet to join the others. This, in response to a tap on my car window from Caroline Miller letting me know that shooting was about to begin.

Three large empty wire spools had been gathered together by the film crew upon which we were to be seated with the old ship providing background. The 3 of us were to do a group interview, being questioned -- each in turn -- by a member of the team. The air was chilling! The wind was bruising. I was increasingly uncomfortable but it would be only during the first round of questioning that I would begin to understand what was happening to me. The constant interruptions by aircraft flying overhead distorting sound added to the dissonance I was feeling.

Phyllis had been asked a series of very specific questions about her experience as a young welder on the ships during the war; about her life just before being hired; about the kind of resistance she'd encountered as a women in her non-traditional role; etc. She was great with an active memory of events and feelings at the time. Agnes -- who was next -- also came through with authority and an ability to eloquently reconstruct the times and conditions under which she'd worked. She demonstrated pieces of her equipment, welding helmet, and leathers, and seemed to relish in the chance to relive the experience of her WWII exploits.

Then it was my turn. I was asked to give an overview of the City; the big picture of the times, and to describe the shipyard and harbor which lay before us. I felt the tears begin to well up behind my eyelids and fought to control them. I felt totally out of place in the role, despite the fact that I'm dealing with that history throughout my work day. I've reacquainted myself with the period through extensive reading and doing interpretive tours at the Memorial and elsewhere. That being so -- what on earth could be going on?

Then it struck me and I stopped. I said, "this doesn't make sense to me. I never saw this shipyard or even a ship in 1942 or beyond. In fact, I had never seen this shipyard until I came to work for the National Park Service. I worked across town in a Jim Crow union hall because the unions were segregated and black and white workers were processed differently at a different location -- at 16th and Barrett Avenue. My experience is not reflected in this place. I was not then and am not now a Rosie."

It was then that the cameras stopped for a brief time while Ms. Miller came over to reassure me that they were aware of this and that they were anxious that their European audiences learn something of the African American story of the time and that it was this story that I was to share with them. She whispered to me softly that England had a shared history of the colonials they'd brought in to work in their war industries then abandoned once the war ended and that "... the effects of those years are still with us." I could see the rationale for why I was here on camera, but something was happening to me emotionally that stood in the way of my being able to deliver that story. I should have been interviewed alone and not in the role of "Rosie the Riveter, the Woman of Color" version.

The cameras started again and I tried, this time trying to tell that story of inequality and shame -- but the damage had been done. The other two Rosies sitting in that little circle had become the white kids who wouldn't let me in their tree house! I'd lost focus and felt alien in that setting. My story was lost and I couldn't regain it. I mentioned about how unfair things had been and of how blacks and white were paid differently and that black men and women were held to lower level jobs and had been served by powerless unions. But I was trying to do this sitting in the cold in this alien setting in the shadow of the old victory ship and the warehouse that had played no part in my personal history. I was out of context and it was devastating!

To make matters worse. Phyllis asked if she could speak with me directly. She turned to me and said "my first supervisor was a black man" and besides that, we all worked together and were paid the same wages." I was being challenged. I was being called a liar, publicly. I looked at her and tried to figure out how to respond without going into an argument that would shame us both before the cameras. I chose to remain silent.

What I did not say was that she had only moments before told how she had been one of the first women to be hired (in 1941 under the Lend/Lease program) and that the boss had attempted to provide escorts for the few women in that first crew because they had no idea how the men would react to their presence. Think of the times: Black men were still being lynched for appearing to even leer at a white woman. Black men were assigned to lesser positions until 1945 after many labor protests and demonstrations against the Boilermakers Unions. How on earth would one ever imagine that those white workers would have allowed a young white female welder to be supervised by a black man? It's possible, of course, since I wasn't there to be able to challenge it -- but was it likely? I really don't know. But this was not the time to work that through. I swallowed hard and waited for the filming to end.

I do know, however, of the wage differences since I was a worker in the union where such information was available and protested regularly once black workers began to organize against the inequalities that they faced. Those figures have been upheld by subsequent studies that fill the volumes of accumulating information on those times in black literature today.

So, why, then was this happening now? Why was this woman in the year 2009 putting forth such an argument? I'd faced this before from those who would insist upon the unlikely story that we were all united -- embracing the concept of Democracy -- and in harmony at a time of great struggle and persistent discrimination. This revisionism is something I've sought to challenge and has formed the basis of my work with the park service. Re-visiting those times in the effort to measure more accurately the distance we've come over the decades is a prerequisite to understanding the kinds of social change we in America have endured and overcome; a true narrative far more powerful than the myth.

I kept my silence for the sake of the moment, and avoided eye contact with Phyllis for the rest of the filming, but largely because I was having such a difficult time holding back the tears and crushing down those refreshed feelings of alienation that this setting evoked.

Also, only 100 feet away stood the deck of the SS Red Oak Victory from which I'd scattered my son, Rick's, ashes combined with a dozen singly-tossed red roses ten years ago. I'd almost forgotten that until I'd climbed back into my car as soon as the cameras were shut down and driven quickly away without looking back. I'm sure that that memory was playing there in my subconscious for those few painful hours, unrecognized but powerful still. I let the tears be for Rick in a desperate move for sanity and in recognition of this Memorial Day weekend.

... and today, Sunday, May 24th, in the year 1942, Melvin Reid (1918-1987) and I were married at St. Bernard's Catholic church; an act of faith of two confused young Americans at a time when the world around us was devolving into chaos.

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