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Saturday, July 25, 2009

It's now posted: "The Greatest Wartime Home Front Mobilization", article published in the California Historian, Spring 2009 issue.

Click the Betty Reid Soskin pages link over on the left side of the screen -- above the archives. You'll be taken to those pages where you'll scroll down to the bottom of the directory on the left. Please do comment by email, if you will (use "email me" link at the top of the list). I would truly appreciate the feedback. Remember, I'm still a novice at this.

So much to write about ... so much happening ... and seemingly unrelated, but maybe not ...

Prof. Henry Louis Gates, eminent Harvard educator and recent humiliated proud black man.

I don't believe there is a person of color who didn't immediately grimace in pain upon learning about his arrest on his own front porch in Cambridge.

Immediately my mind rushed back to the many times when we lived in our lovely redwood creekside home in suburban Walnut Creek in the Fifties; when I would answer my doorbell to some salesman or solicitor who would look past me, over my shoulder, and ask if the lady of the house was at home. I was invariably assumed to be the maid. How I wished that I could have screamed and pushed the offender off into the bushes, but instead I would say simply, "I am the lady of the house." There was no graceful way to rescue the idiot with the egg on his face except to quietly close the door and push the insult to the back of my mind in order to get through another day of being diminished.

Then there was the time when -- at my father's invitation -- I attended the annual banquet hosted by his St. Vincent de Paul's Society at a fancy Italian restaurant in downtown Oakland. Dad was an officer of the organization and was to be honored for a year of outstanding service. I'd dressed in my most elegant outfit complete with hat and gloves and drove in from the suburbs to join him and mother for the evening of celebration. Getting there early, I found that I was the first to arrive and that the doors were still locked. I sat in my station wagon at the curb for a while, then -- as I watched -- as a man drove up who was obviously preparing to enter the restaurant, I approached cautiously to inquire about the dinner (maybe I had the wrong date or time?). He welcomed me with a smile and, assuring me that I had the right information. "Just follow me," says he. In so doing I found myself being led through a side door and into a huge bustling kitchen where he pointed to a shelf near the door -- indicating crisply that here was the place to stash my hat and purse -- so saying he handed me a checkered apron and walked away ... .

What does one do with those awful moments? Racial profiling? Of course. The kind that has followed people of color throughout our lives. They have a double-edged effect. We're not only embarrassed for ourselves, but almost always for the offender as well, because we know they're caught up in an age-old stupidity that is almost reflexive -- the default -- born of something bigger than either of us. It's this awful ambiguous situation so easily denied ("you just didn't understand") that builds up until all you can do is push back for the sake of your own sanity. For me it was many years too early so I swallowed my pride and added the incident to a growing body of insults that exploded in a quiet rage fueling my soul in marches and demonstrations and protests as I grew into my anger. This was so hard for well-intentioned liberal friends to understand or appreciate, so it was lonely. The charges were guaranteed to send conservatives into spasms of irrational rages of their own that further alienate (or did you not hear Patrick Buchanan's comments this week?).

Professor Gates could afford to push back because times have changed and there are now both black and white Americans pushing back with him from the same side of the racial divide. But the push-back comes at a very high price for everyone involved; and to him more than to anyone due to his exalted position in the academy. The unfairness adds to his rage, I'm certain. Despite this awfulness, the social climate has changed and I, too, would have expressed my outrage freely were it to happen to me today, and I'm confident that there would be many across that racial barrier who would understand and support me in my fury, as there are for him. I would have liked to count President Obama among them.

I would have preferred that our president had resisted the temptation to be so "even-handed." His first response was the right one, from my obviously biased perspective. And I'm sure he knew that. The weight of the presidency is in delicate balance -- but just this once -- I wish that he'd placed his thumb on our side of the scale. I admit to feeling the sting of disappointment in his later backing away and giving equal weight to both the young white officer's claims and those of the rightfully offended Skip Gates. The president obviously hoped to placate all who have been handed that checkered apron over a lifetime. All it did for me was to re-open old wounds and re-ignite the embers of bitterness I thought long extinguished.

We all have much work to do, still, do we not?

Photo: That would be a photo of me taken in 1957 about the time of the incident at the Italian Restaurant. How did he even know that I was African American? Beats me, except that I'm sure that I appeared more so in person than this picture would indicate. My neighbors had no problem whatsoever pegging my racial identity.

The day has come when the Charbonnet -- from across the ages will reach out and touch for the first time in 300 years of American history ... .

Suddenly, on an ordinary day less than a week ago, my cell phone rang and a voice at the other end of the line asked if it would be convenient to talk. His voice was vaguely familiar, and my heart raced as if somehow I knew the next few minutes would be like no others. It was Paul. I was sitting at my desk at the office working on confirmations for next week's bus tour and he was somewhere in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and the "Twain" is about to meet.

"Things have eased up here and Shirley and I have reservations to arrive in San Francisco for our visit on Tuesday. We have a suitcase filled with family historic items to share and can't wait to see you."

After several centuries of separation, we are slowly moving toward reunification of our black and white families -- and the excitement is almost palpable! Neither of us knows how many cousins will follow our lead, or how many generations more it might take for full realization of our hopes, but it matters not one whit. We're taking the first steps with eyes wide open and arms outstretched!

What an amazing time to be alive ... would that our fathers and theirs could have seen this day!

If you notice a slight shift in the pull of gravity on Wednesday morning at around 9 o'clock, it won't be an earth tremor or an errant comet striking the planet. It will be the moment when we meet for the first time to begin the long march toward a new future as one great Southern American family no longer apart. It is my hope that we will -- from this day forward -- be unified on the same side of the racial divide facing up to racism, together, by the simple act of an embrace that will be as significant to the two of us as the electrifying touch of fingertips between God and Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


"I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Their sons ought to study geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain."

John Adams (Letters to Abigail)


Found myself thinking about this memorable quote after newly-discovered cousins Mike and Patricia Charbonnet and their lovely daughter, Fabienne, left yesterday afternoon after a much too brief first visit. We were meeting for the first time, and it was wonderful!

Fabienne is a recent graduate in art history from UCLA who is leaving in a few weeks to take a teaching position under the French Ministry. She will live there in the place from which our ancestors sailed some time in the 1700s to start a life in the New World. What an adventure! I'm hoping that she'll take the time to visit the Charbonnet's ancestral home in Thiers before returning to the States. Wouldn't that be something? Mike and Patricia will travel with her to locate and get her settled in her new living space -- stopping off in Paris before returning to their home in Santa Barbara.

We talked about how many of the current generation are into one or another of the arts (which is what brought the Adams quote to mind). I recalled how strong were the craftsmen represented in our lineage. All of my father, Dorson, and Mike's grandfather, Joseph Charbonnet's brothers, were carpenters, plasterers, bricklayers; "Builders." But then there have been the politicians and technocrats, I'm sure. Find myself wondering about just who we all turned out to be over succeeding generations? There are many writers among us, and now that I'm officially published -- I'll count myself among them.

Here's hoping we'll begin to come together soon in order to have the chance to explore just where life has taken us over time; to learn whether we've finally reached the place on the continuum where wars are behind us in our venerable ages-old Charbonnet Family's development -- and that final stage in social evolution so eloquently spoken of by John Adams has been attained. Perhaps we mirror the nation in that respect ... maybe. It's possible, right? We've been around long enough (since long before the Revolutionary War) to serve as a measure of national progress, don't you suppose?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Yesterday brought the 65th anniversary of the Port Chicago disaster which took 320 lives, 202 of whom were young African Americans ...

On Friday I had the great honor of providing a tour of the Rosie the Riveter Memorial for a group of men (the "mutineers") who survived that tragedy and returned for this year's commemoration.

These are my contemporaries. It's so hard to hold that in mind when I'm surrounded by younger people most of the time. It all seems to have happened in the very recent past. There is the illusion that time collapses in on itself in some strange way (awkward wording but I don't know quite how to describe it). When I'm surrounded by those from my own age group, it's disorienting in some way and I have to remind myself that I'm now at the age where birthdays come every six weeks and that others are experiencing life at the same incomprehensible speed and with this same sense of urgency!

Prior to arriving to meet me for the tour, they'd traveled in a caravan consisting of two large vans and a sedan to the national cemetery at San Bruno on the San Francisco Peninsula where they'd visited the graves of those who perished in that conflagration on July 17, 1944. Yesterday I learned during the ceremony a fact long forgotten. It was that their graves are separated from the others by race. At that time no servicemen of color were buried with the whites, but were segregated into a section "for colored only", and not in some southern graveyard, but here in California where such practices were little known. Of course this would have happened before the desegregation of the armed forces so would not have been questioned at the time. What a cruel irony to revisit! We have so much still to atone for as a nation, don't we? As I've said before, if others will continue to work on atonement, we'll continue to strive valiantly to find forgiveness.

Yesterday about 250 friends and family gathered at the monument in a beautiful ceremony to honor those lost. (Numbers are limited by available space.) It was the annual Day of Remembrance hosted by the National Park Service. State Senator Mark Desaulnier and representatives of all of our local, state, and federal elected officials were present to honor the day. Legislation is now pending in the Senate (after recent passage in the House) to raise the Port Chicago monument to full status as a national park. After introduction by Rep. George Miller in the House, Senator Barbara Boxer is carrying the bill in the Senate with passage anticipated in the very near future.

You must read University of California at Berkeley's Prof. Robert L. Allen's "Port Chicago Mutiny" for the story of the tragedy that occurred on that fateful day in 1944. It was the response to the subsequent mutiny trials of the men who refused to return to the docks to load ammunition without further training that caused President Harry Truman to mandate desegregation of the Armed Forces in 1948 by presidential order. By so doing he inadvertently ushered in the modern civil rights movement that would continue to build over the next 20 years into that which we now remember as the Civil Rights Revolution of the Sixties.

I am so proud of the role being played by the National Park Service in giving voice to the stories of our times without reservation, and for allowing the conflicting perceptions of what happened to resurface so that we can, black and white together, process that history and support one another in growing past the bitterness that has silenced our voices for such a long time. Let those conversations flourish now that we're able to finally bear the pain of remembering. The correctives are not yet all in place but the stage has been set for those exchanges to occur and for a purging of the debilitating hatred to be set in motion.

In January change could be felt in the air at the Inauguration. I feel it still among those who gather at our parks to learn of that history. I felt it again yesterday in that sterile Army building at Port Chicago that came to life again as a diverse group of people came to remember, and to honor by their presence those fallen young heroes long since dead. Our numbers now including the men who came to add their voices -- now aging but still proud of what their standing tall initiated for us all by their honest defiance of that shameful unenlightened past that we've somehow managed to survive into a more promising future. I'm told that only six remain, most of whom traveled from great distances to be with us yesterday. We were deeply honored by their presence.

Incidentally, I was reminded upon seeing him again among the visitors yesterday, that Dr. Robert Allen was one of my guests on a July 15th bus tour of the Richmond park sites. Rather than feeling intimidated by his presence (as one might expect -- given my amateur status as a scholar), it's interesting to note that I came away from the tour feeling affirmed as "historian." One day I may take those quotes away and declare myself (grin).

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