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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Another week has passed, and today is Saturday and the day of the 26th Annual Kite Festival on the Berkeley Marina ... .

Dorian and I will get out our sweats, warm hooded jackets, binoculars and cameras -- pack a picnic lunch -- and head for the marina.  We'll spend the morning lying on our backs with eyes cast skyward, and if we're lucky, there will be not only kites of every possible description, but wind surfers and graceful sailboats to wonder at as well.

This afternoon at one o'clock I have a tour to guide for some members of the cast of "Rivets," starting at the SS Red Oak Victory and ending at the Rosie the Riveter Memorial; a full day in a week of full days.  But for now, it will be kites on the Green!

There are small rewards in life, one of them is that precious blue placard for the handicapped prescribed for Dorrie that proves to be almost equal to valet parking.  It means that we'll have no need to consider the walking distance from our car to our destination;  at times a real challenge.

Received a call from New York from the son of a childhood friend earlier this week informing me that his mother had died in late June.  In my busyness I'd not heard.  He was inviting me to her memorial service on August 20th here in Richmond.  A momentary flash of guilt clouded over as I remembered that the last time we talked by phone  (perhaps in late May), she sounded so confused -- hardly knew my voice.  I'd noticed when we last visited that her hearing was failing.  I stopped by a day or so later, rang her doorbell, and felt almost relieved when there was no answer.  Jacqueline was in the hospital at that time, and I didn't know.  I made a silent pledge to myself to stop on my lunch hour in a day or so to visit with her again; a pledge I failed to keep.  Having recently learned of another friend, Careth, on the eve of her eightieth birthday suffering a stroke, I felt a chill running along my spine, and invisible bumps along my lower arms.  Survivor's guilt?

But today is kite day on the Marina, and the last time Dorian and I attended this great event was a few years ago on the day that we delivered the remains of her beloved cat to the Berkeley SPCA for disposal (see post for July 31, 2005).   She woke that morning to find that Speedy -- who was pretty old and had been ailing -- had died during the night and was now frozen board-like into a lifeless lump.  Dorrie was devastated!

On the return to Richmond we saw them, kites of every size, shape, and hue dancing high against the cloudless sky.  Hoping to distract her from the feelings of loss, I impulsively slowed and pulled off the freeway to double back to find a place from which to watch.  We parked and walked along the road (this was before her accident and she was not yet needing a walker) where we soon found ourselves following the huge Sunday crowd to find a place where we could lie on our backs for the next few hours of pure joy!  I watched Dorrie's delighted face as the kites soon lifted her spirits skyward.   It didn't take long.   She asked if Speedy could see them ... .

Maybe kites will work for me today.


Later:  A dirge has been sounding all morning in the background of my mind; a feeling of disquiet; life-dulling disembodied overwhelming sadness. And once settled on our sleeping bag  (remembered seeing it in the trunk of the car, luckily), and lying on our backs watching the sky dance of an amazing array of kites -- suddenly the tears began to flow as I remembered that this is July --  the one year anniversary of the death of my younger sister, Lottie.  It was last year on the Day of Remembrance of the Port Chicago explosion in 1944.  I'd worked at the ceremony.  On arriving home from Concord, the call came from my niece to let me know that Lottie had died that morning in approximately the same time period as the ceremony; some time between eleven o'clock and noon.

This year's commemoration ceremony was held last Saturday, and though I was aware of this sad anniversary, I've been able to fend off the affects until now when it, uninvited, rose to consciousness to be dealt with and tucked away.

Just as the tears began to flow Dorian shouted out urgently, "Look, Mom, it's a cat!"  And looking up there she was, a black and white "tuxedo," a large kite replica of her beloved Speedy complete with four legs and tail and prancing kitten-like on the winds high overhead -- to Dorrie's total delight!

Then came the hugging, the rolling on the ground,  and the laughter at the absurdity of it all!

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Thursday, July 28, 2011

 And finally ... .


35.  What specifically encouraged you to pursue the path your life has taken?
Answer:  My life has been neither  planned nor predictable.  It seems to have not been "a" life, so much as a series of incarnations that recurred in 10-year cycles starting about the age of 40.  Every decade appears to have served as an opportunity to re-invent myself.  However, that's only seen in retrospect, and none of the roles in which I found myself (beyond those of wife and mother), were in any way planned or anticipated.  I've tended to live life in a constant state of surprise.  It has been one grand improvisation, and for that I'm grateful since I'm still waking up to new days to own, and fresh expectations with each new sunrise.
 36.  What do you get to control as far as the development of the park goes?
Answer:  Not sure how to answer this question since it's not so much a question of control as there are opportunities to influence events through my participation as a "first source asset."  I bring those with whom I work a sense of the era of WWII simply by having been a part of it.  That my role is atypical of the experiences of other women of those times by virtue of being a woman of color, my presence as a member of the interpretive staff provides an element that's otherwise missing from the narrative. The reality as we lived it is so much more powerful than myths that we've created to describe that era.  But I'm also an American woman (sans the hyphen), whose life experience in many ways reflects the human experience of my generation, yet with greater complexity than most.  It is through those aspects that I feel that I'm helping to shape this national park, and with the full consent and support of the National Park Service.  And much of that comes not so much from "doing," but simply through "being."
37.  In the face of the racism and sexism you've experienced in your lifetime, how have you channeled that into courage and motivation for change rather than into fear, anger, or violence?
Answer:  Haven't a clue.  I believe we grow and evolve in direct relation to how early in life we develop the tools with which to survive and prosper.  I'm not sure just when the transition came for me, but somewhere along the way I outlived my rage without losing my passion.  This has enabled me to look beyond the insults and outrage in most cases, through the gradual realization that none of it was deserved, so that I didn't have to own it unless I so wished, or was going through some temporary vulnerability.  My race may have been your problem, but rarely was it mine.
I once overheard a friend remark to another mutual friend, "it's really difficult to feel superior to one who refuses to be inferior!"  She was referring to me.  I grinned to myself because I knew that Eleanor really "got it," and that she was both bemused and relieved by her own insight.  I rarely remember "owning" the negative, and more likely felt empathy for those who didn't realize my worth as a person and as a potential friend.  I credit those with whom I "grew up" in the turbulent Sixties -- at a time of re-definition and activism that has guided my destiny ever since.  For at least 2 decades during those years I lived a life of affirmation.  That period may have provided the cushion against hate that I'm enjoying through these final years.
38.  What social justice do you hope to see in the United States before the end of your lifetime?
 Answer:  I'd give almost anything to see an end to the broken system of justice that's been so crippling to the nation; the shameful incarceration of so many young black and brown youth; to see the necessary corrections made to the system of public education that has been all but demolished in our time; an end to capital punishment -- the need to end the  insane policy that causes us to kill people in order to show that it's wrong to kill people!  And, world peace can't happen soon enough for humankind, but I'm fearful that there's little hope of that occurring any time soon for reasons beyond comprehension.

Lastly, I don't envy your generation and the problems of climate change to solve.   I look forward with fear as the signs of melting glaciers and rising seas becomes more threatening with each day, and, as the scientists warn of irreversibility (a dreaded word!).  But it may be helpful for you to know that the models for how to solve the emergency of your time may well lie in studying how my generation met with the emergency of its time.  It was in the period of the Home Front mobilization (1941-1945) that, under Franklin Roosevelt, we formed ourselves into the great Arsenal of Democracy which produced (in Richmond) a workforce of 98,000 unskilled Americans -- and built and launched 747 ships in 3 years and 8 months led by the visionary industrialist, Henry J. Kaiser, who had never built a ship.  Together, despite having to do so under the badly flawed social system that ruled our lives at that time; we helped to save the world from the brutality of Fascist domination.  We know it can be done because my generation did it.  There is little doubt that yours can, too, given a more enlightened nation achieved through many decades of continuing social change, and unimagined technological advancement at your command.  How can you not?
Had it been possible to choose the era in which to spend my time on planet earth -- even with the often bitter challenges it presented -- I would choose my own, 1921 to whatever time of exit.  It's been a great run.  I wouldn't have missed it for anything.
 And in the words of the great Stephen Sondheim and his muse, the much-beloved and celebrated Broadway diva, Elaine Stritch ...
"I'm still here!"

Home from work today waiting for a plumber to repair one of life's unexpected contingencies; so while waiting I'll continue our conversation ... .


29.  What advice would you give a woman who is trying to make a career in a basically all male profession; for example engineering?
Answer:  I'm not at all sure that I could give advice to anyone since my life experience did little to prepare me to do so.  However, at this late date I find myself in a somewhat gender-specific role of a park ranger among a staff made up, primarily, of  young men -- and all that seems to matter is that I do my job with integrity and to the best of my ability.  Maybe that's all there is to it, at the end of the day.
 30.  How exciting is it to see the world change so greatly in such a short period of time?  Is it exciting?  Or scary?  Interesting?  The inventions ... mannerisms of people ... war tactics ... how we treat one another ... cell phones ... have all changed dramatically since the early 1900's.
Answer:  Having lived such a long life that "change" and "progress" seems to have happened with lightening speed!  Looking back -- it all went so fast -- and so much of it with little advance warning. Hope lies in the fact that so much has occurred over my lifetime that has thrust us forward.   I have the eerie feeling at times that I'm living in the future that I helped to create as time began to fold in on itself!
Having grown from Betty the Little Girl for whom Christmas took 365 endless days to return each year -- to Betty the Elder for whom Christmas now occurs every six weeks, is dizzying.  The illusion of time is stunningly under-appreciated.  I'm as fascinated by Einstein's Theory of Relatively and Stephen Hawking's black holes and parallel universes as I once was at the mysteries of the virgin birth and the resurrection, and with little need to choose between, but to consider them as acceptable conflicting truths for those who so believe. 
Much of scientific theory and religious belief I now think of as the way in which various civilizations have explained the nature of the universe to themselves down through the ages.  I suppose that one of the hallmarks of maturity may be an increasing ability to live comfortably with uncertainty, though I'm less drawn to religious thought these days, and more to the continual unfolding of Darwin's Theory of Evolution and to current studies of an expanding universe.  I'm struck by the way that science projects forward with hypotheses to prove or disprove which thrusts the edge of what is known ever forward -- while religion continues to reach back in time for its references, and measures new discoveries by how well they fit into belief systems set in antiquity; centuries before written language was widespread.  People of goodwill have debated interminably which of these leads to salvation, and I'm sure that it will not be solved in my time; but at this stage, I opt for the scientific approach, even though I can barely grasp the meanings of current writings from the sages of the academy.  I'm more intrigued by their mysteries.
Cell phones?  Who on earth could ever have predicted such a thing?  I came from a time of two tin cans connected by a string!
(I'm not sure that my answer bears any relation to the question posed, but it's where my mind went -- maybe to the inner change that is the more important to me.}

31.  You mentioned that one of the reasons you began your blog was because you had a particularly hard time reclaiming the history of the women in your family.  Could you please illustrate a little more on your process of discovering those stories, if you were able to, and some of the reasons why you think those stories in particular were harder to uncover?  How do you feel that the loss of women's histories within families affects the broader narrative about women in history?
Answer:  There's no mystery about why women are so hard to trace; their names changed through marriage, and in the event that there has been more than one marriage, the mystery deepened and they became lost.  If this is true in the search within families, one can imagine how it affects the story of women in the larger society.  As an amateur genealogist, it was frustrating, thus the birth of my blogging so that future family researchers might have the benefit of not only my life story, but all of those female ancestors whom I've been able to place into the record.
32.  In one of the videos you tell a story about a high school experience you had in drama class.  Specifically you mention how the teacher, though obviously stunned by your performance, wouldn't cast you because of your race.  You mention that your reaction to this as thinking, "Oh, of course, how could I have thought otherwise?"  I guess I was just wondering how experiences like this have affected you, and whether or not you think that the societal messages you received as a young black woman are similar to the ones received by young black women today?  If you believe they are different,  how would you describe the change?
Answer:  I suppose that my response to the situation had to do with the fact of my acceptance and understanding of the difficulty of her position.  I can remember there being such mixed emotions at the time, but I was not mortally wounded by the situation (though it was burned into my memory where it remains to this day).  I understood both her recognition and appreciation of my performance and her regret that she couldn't handle a confrontation with the prevailing attitude at that time in that community.  There was little for me to do (since I felt personally supported by a teacher whom I truly liked and respected, despite the circumstance in which we found ourselves), but then immediately switched to a class in public speaking where such a situation might be less likely to occur. It was a matter of needing self-protection, and taking control of a matter that I had no answers for at the time.
I'm not sure that a young black woman of today would tolerate such an assault upon her dignity, and stifling of her ambitions.  I'm certain that she should not since doing so only invites further abuse.  But then, the institution is on the side of today's student.  At that time it was not.
33.  Why do you think there's a negative connotation to the word "feminist" in mainstream America, even among women?
Answer:  Haven't a clue.  Maybe because the declaration of emancipation of today's women upsets the status quo and re-defines the traditional role of the men in their lives as well.   But that's only a guess.  About the women for whom the word "feminist" is not acceptable, that's less understandable, but at least in my experience the anti-feminist women also tend to be relatively conservative in other matters.
 34.  How difficult was it to get substantial information in regards to your family tree?
 Answer:  Surprisingly, it was extremely easy, given the availability of Internet access which introduced me to the Mormon's Family History Center with its tremendous resources and volunteer assistance to the amateur researcher.  Once the search begins and family names are entered into the system -- the mysteries begin to unfold and -- added to that, other researchers from everywhere begin to find you and for comparing notes and, over time, unbelievable discoveries begin to be revealed.  I've found related family researchers across racial lines in all parts of the country and the world.  At one point I was sent 26 generations of my maternal line by a family researcher in Louisiana.  To have lived into such a time so rich in possibilities is almost unimaginable.
35.  As long as you've been in your line of work (as well as your lifetime ) what is the greatest change for the better (or worse) that you've observed as far as the evolution and a result of social justice and CRGS (critical race, gender, and sexuality studies) activism?
Answer:  The changes have been monumental -- more than one might have imagined even over such a long lifetime.   The rate of change has accelerated dramatically so that generations that use to be measured in lifetimes are now measured in 5 years or less.
My grandfather could tell my father what the world would be like when Dad reached adulthood -- and it would pretty well be realized as predicted.  My father could predict and prepare his children for what our world would be like, and to a large extent, he was right in what he envisioned.  The changes that occurred between my birth and those of my children were so extreme that the world they inherited from my generation was no longer predictable.  My grandchildren are living in a world that -- even with my admitted intelligence, sensitivity, and intuitiveness -- is a total mystery to me and, I believe, to my generation -- the rate of change has so dramatically accelerated over time.

 (This conversation is almost over.  Will conclude with the next post)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Continuing conversation with Humboldt State University students ... .

22.  How has knowing a living relative who experienced slavery firsthand affected your personal identity?

Answer:  Mammá's persona was present throughout my childhood by virtue of the fact that the relatives with whom we lived most of my younger life had all grown up in her little house along the levee in St. James Parish in Louisiana.  Papa George, her eldest son and my grandfather; my mother, aunt, and 3 uncles who were her grandchildren, plus many cousins, made up my world until I was about twelve.  Upon arrival in California in 1927, (with the exception of the cousins) we all lived under one roof in Oakland for a time.
There was a constant stream of stories that gave form and personality to my great-grandmother long before I met her for the first time as a teenager.
Strange.  I can't recall ever hearing stories about how slavery affected her life, or for that matter, slavery as a subject never came up at all until I began to learn about it in high school while studying the Civil War era.   The shame of it must have been unspeakable; visceral.   The pain of it must have been equally so, and denial may have been the key to survival. 
Even then, I can't remember having made the connections with my own family's experience.  Those facts may indicate how little even some African American families have processed that history.  That white families have not done so should not be surprising.  It is a shameful chapter in our national story, and one that needs to be exorcised in order for the much-needed healing of the national psyche to begin.
23.  In an interview you gave regarding your role as a park ranger, you said you felt it was your job to promote important conversations.  What types of conversations were you referring to and are there any topics that you believe to be as important that maybe you do not have the chance to cover as a ranger?
Answer:  I find that -- if I allow myself the freedom to express whatever rises in the course of the telling, either on a bus tour or on a walking tour of the Rosie the Riveter Memorial -- there is a connection between me and those who are in my charge at the moment.  There are variations that rise up each time, and, though the truths have been long-hidden and sometimes troubling -- I'm always aware of the distance we've all come over the past 67 years on this journey toward eventual freedom and greater equality.  Each experience I've had over the years has brought me further along the path toward a deeper understanding of myself and of those with whom I interact as an interpretive ranger.
Since my work doesn't make up my total life experience, what other "important   conversations" occur fall into other areas of a very complex daily existence.

24. In a video you mentioned not listening to the voice inside you.  What was the voice telling you and why did  you ignore it?
Answer:  Probably different things at different times.  I would have ignored it depending upon how vulnerable I may have felt at the time, and whether I felt strong enough to listen and be guided by it.
 25.  What specific experiences led you to advocate for women's rights?
Answer:  I've never seen myself as an activist in the feminist movement, nor have I ever advocated for women's rights, specifically.  I've often found myself marching for human rights -- in which women's rights are incorporated -- or for peace and justice, or against the death penalty, but rarely have I been drawn to the cause of women in particular.  Not sure why that is, but it is.
26.  When African American women were admitted to work in the shipyards, was their work different or more difficult than the work being assigned to white women?  Taking racial segregation into consideration, what was the difference in treatment of black and white women while performing industrial work?
Answer:  I had no experience working in the shipyards.  I was employed as a clerk in a Jim Crow (blacks only) auxiliary union hall, and never was aboard a ship under construction.   In fact, I never saw a ship under construction. Therefore I have no firsthand knowledge of the working conditions of those women -- black or white -- who were in that world.
27.  I'm sure that she will continue her research in genealogy of the history her family, but as she wrote in her blog post the other day that she's "so afraid that it will remain unfinished even as this amazing American family saga continues to unfold ...".  Should this occur, have there been any family members or other relatives who have expressed interest in continuing or helping her out with this?  Has she thought of compiling her blogs of research into a book or some sort of keepsake?
Answer:  By now younger members of the family (both a son and a younger cousin) have been drawn into continuing the work.  As they age, as happened to me, the importance of keeping it current and involving others yet to be identified will  surely maintain it for future generations.  I believe that no one is indispensable, and I trust that others will step in as the needs arise, if only out of enlightened self-interest.
I'm considering having my blog published in annual volumes by one of the online publishers soon (miracles of miracles!), so that the "keepsake" will be fulfilled for my family.
28.  Even though women were asked to join the work force in helping to build ships and planes during WWII, was there any animosity from men not at war but working in the factories toward the women workers?
Answer:  Of course.  Though I had no experience in the workforce except as a clerk in a somewhat distant small office, the times and the social climate would indicate that the rapid changing of the traditional role of woman as caretaker and domestic helpmate to "Rosie the Riveter" or "Wendy the Welder" would have been threatening to the men who were surely uncomfortable by their presence on the job in what was seen until then as belonging exclusively to males. 
That the women proved to be capable and in many respects expert at the non-traditional jobs they held proved to be more than some men could tolerate, and they acted out accordingly by being disrespectful.  By the end of the war an uneasy truce was in place, but upon the return of the veterans -- and the need for them to re-enter the workforce, women were unceremoniously dismissed to two decades of watching Donna Reed and June Cleaver in aprons and high heels on television as models of society's expectations of the "weaker" sex.
(continued ... )

A conversation across the generations continues ... .

 

15.  Your blogging experience has evolved over the past seven years from speaking about the past and passing on to current events.  Now your blogging is about day-to-day thoughts.  What has influenced your stories?

Answer:  I can't recall when it happened, but at some point my contemporary life became more colorful and interesting to me than my past life experience.  From there the transition followed seamlessly.

16.  Betty, in several of your online interviews our class has watched, you use the word "story(s)" a lot.  This is the main theme of our class -- to examine the dominant narrative, and understand why the non-dominant narratives are so far and few between.  When did you first become aware of  your own family story and did you ever consider it a "non-dominant" (narrative) story?

Answer:  I'm not sure that I have a clear understanding of the terms dominant and non-dominant narrative, so my answer may prove wide of the mark.  Were I to guess at the meaning, I'd probably say that there was a time when my interest in family history was keen -- sparked by an upcoming family reunion during the Nineties -- and at that point it was surely the "dominant" narrative.  That experience provided a context for my life and times that placed me squarely in the continuum of that history. I've since seen my life develop countless "sub-plots", each with a resonance of its own, but always -- in the background are those newly discovered ancestors who provide a sense of rootedness that serves to keep me grounded in the present.
17.  Was there one specific event that made you choose to get into work with the Park Service, or was there a culmination of events that led to your employment there?
 Answer:  At the time that I became involved with the Park Service I was employed by the State of California as a field representative for a member of the State Assembly.  As such, my work placed me right in the middle of the beginning processes that resulted in  the creation of Rosie the Riveter WWII/Home Front Historical National Park.  One of the scattered sites which forms the park (the Ford Building) had been built in 1931 upon air rights over state-owned land.  This meant that there was a state interest involved.  The park was legislated into being in Richmond, one of the 5 cities of West Contra Costa County which lay in the 14th Assembly District where I served as field representative to Assemblywoman Dion Aroner, and subsequently, for Senator Loni Hancock.
 Over time, during another election cycle, my work with the State ended -- and by that time my connections to the park had grown into a position as a private contractor.  This allowed for a chance to continue to help in the shaping of a brand new national park -- an opportunity not to be ignored.  In the years since, my accumulated knowledge through research and the re-awakening of my own history of the era have made me a "first source asset," a rarity of significant value in these early days of park development.  Since that time I've become an interpretive park ranger.

18.  In the Story of Assata, written by Assata Shakur, she writes about a memory from childhood where her mother got her into a segregated amusement park by speaking Spanish to the people selling tickets.  Assata's mother said that they were from a Spanish-speaking country and just visiting, and that they should be let in because they weren't black.
Answer:  Then as now, parents tended to use whatever they needed to in order to gain access for their children.  Mine were no exception.  If it took the speaking of a foreign language to gain entry, they would not have hesitated for a moment.
19.  You said in one of your blog pieces that your mother wanted you to learn Spanish instead of French because you may be able to pass as Hispanic and get a better job.

Answer:  At that time this didn't seem the least bit strange to me, simply the reality that we lived.  Then, as now, opportunity was often dependent upon one's physical appearance. Creole people were exotic racial mixtures and often took advantage of the ambiguity of appearance in order to move more freely in the society than those who were more clearly racially identifiable as being of African descent.  It is with a great sigh of relief that this is much less true in our time, and mixed-race people tend to feel less compelled to identify as anything other than what they are; an amalgam of all there is, and a forerunner of a world to come.
20.  Growing up do you feel like African Americans empathized with the Mexican-American experience, Asian-American experience, poor-white experience, or was their resentment between these groups.  Has it changed today?

Answer:  Growing up I wouldn't have been aware of such issues; it was such a different world then.  The immigrants whose lives touched mine would have been largely Irish, Portuguese, and Italian.  Mexicans, Central or South Americans, and Asians were rare in my schools or neighborhood.  My childhood friend's parents were suffering the same financial hardships as mine (we grew up during the Great Depression), and were being served by the same welfare agencies and county health clinics.
 In later years I've been troubled by the lag in my own acceptance of illegal immigration as a means of entry, and it remains a sensitive issue for me.
This coincided with the draconian legislation that ended welfare for all purposes, leaving the unskilled black labor force unemployed -- even for these menial jobs -- without a safety net, and largely dependent upon an underground economy fueled by the illegal drug trade.
While I was working for the State of California I tried hard to encourage conversations about the displaced service workers but was invariably frustrated by the fact that -- almost without exception -- those discussions disintegrated into talk about the problems being faced by a growing immigrant population who were entering the country illegally often at the risk of their lives -- for a better chance at life than was available to them and their families at home; or escaping real day-to-day peril from political unrest.  I felt guilty for even bringing up the subject at times, and gradually gave up trying to call attention to what I saw as an unexploded time bomb that would grow over the years and spread disunity among those who could least afford it. 
The question remains unresolved.  Rather than turning their eyes toward the industries that were taking advantage of these marginalized groups, they were being made to feel competitive among themselves; to wrestle over inadequate wages, and to invite continuing abuse by not understanding and/or exercising their basic rights, and by allowing dissension to form where unity would have better served the interests of all.

Obviously, I've not worked this through, and am still chewing on the fact that I watched helplessly as the nursing home where my mother spent her last days replace their staff of black nurses' aides with a host of workers from the Philippines over the course of 3 months.  I often wondered what became of those displaced black workers.  And, I wonder at times, if I might be the only person who did?
21.  Does this separation between marginalized groups like immigrants, African Americans, and women deteriorate the activism from being affective or make it more affective in your experience?

Answer:  "Women and minorities."  I'm uncomfortable when "women" are separated out as a distinct class from "minorities," which makes the woman as subject a white woman, since at least half the other classes of people mentioned (minorities) are also female.  This suggests that the white woman is the generic and that all others are exotic.  This may be where the problems begin.  How we use language can and often does predict attitudes and outcomes.
 (continued)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Humboldt State University -- a conversation across the generations ... (continuing)

10.  Working as a ranger for the National Park Service you get to share counter-narrative stories about the war effort.  Do you feel that the government is making a concentrated effort to air these stories or that it takes the efforts of knowledgeable individuals such as yourself?

Answer:  My experience with the National Park Service has led me to believe that the nation is finally ready to face the conflicting truths that have remained hidden for so long.  History tends to slip into the "generic" when left without the complexities that occur naturally in life. 
The mission of the NPS is to conserve and protect the nation's artifacts, natural resources, and stories -- and fortunately the home front era provides us with a rich store of women's changing roles, remarkable industrial feats, examples of conservation and reclamation, black history, dramatically shifting demographics, the shameful internment of Americans of Japanese descent, and much more -- but also that of average Americans struggling to move into a more equitable society while having to do so under an antiquated social system based upon white privilege that resisted change -- in stark contradiction to the very meaning of democracy.  I'm not in this alone, but with an enlightened Department of Interior and an Executive Branch which supports and encourages that work.
11.  Do you feel that living in the Bay Area gave you an advantage in defying the dominant narrative and in witnessing the full extent of social change over the years?

Answer:  One must understand that before WWII, the Bay Area wasn't much different from the rest of the country, politically.  It was in the cauldron of social change produced by the clash of conflicting values, attitudes, and customs brought into the Greater Bay Area with those who came to do the work that accelerated change and has continued to do so ever since.  Living in the Bay Area -- at the very edge of the continent; in the place that witnessed the birth of the atom bomb as well as the creation of the United Nations; and at the onset of monumental social change that would dominate the next two decades -- living among those who arrived daily by the tens of thousands over the succeeding decades believing this to be the most liberal place in the nation - and by so believing, made it so.  The Greater Bay Area is my definition of the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy, and I'm so happy to have been a part of it as it evolved, taking me with it.  The Greater Bay Area's greatest gift may be that we lured the world through the seduction of the possible.

12.  How important do you feel storytelling is in changing social structures and giving people of all races and genders a voice?

Answer:  Storytelling provides models from the past that make possible a less precarious future by allowing us to preview systems and pathways from those who preceded us throughout the generations.  I'm constantly surprised in these later years at how often those innocent childhood conversations with Papa George while gathering berries or tying string beans to their slim poles in the kitchen garden -- rise up to inform the course of my life.  His mother and my great-grandmother, Leontine, known to all as "MammÃ¥" was often the star of those stories, and to the extent that my life uncannily reflects hers in some important ways, -- and though she died eons ago -- her life is still having an impact on the present state of the union through the living of mine.  Maybe that's the power of storytelling as I know it.

13.  In the novel "Assata," Assata Shakur discusses various political groups, mainly the Black Panther Party.  How important do you think political groups are in advocating and encouraging social change?

Answer:  I cannot imagine the circumstances in which joining with others of like mind in pursuit of a common goal is not a good and proper thing to do.  It is in the best tradition of our democracy to do so.  To magnify one's voice by raising it in unison with those of like mind should be invigorating to the political process.  However, lending power to ideas by acting collaboratively can be perceived as a threat to competing interests when there is an imbalance in political power; which has happened in the past with disastrous results.  We saw that in the persecution of the Black Panther Party by CoInTelPro during the 60's.  The disruption of young lives, the tragic loss of many through state-sanctioned violence from an agency out of the control of the people -- poisoned the political environment by consciously creating disunity from within and havoc from without.
I do not believe that this negates the need to advocate and encourage social change, but reinforces the need to be ever vigilant, and to expose and eliminate injustice wherever it may be found.  But it might have been the high cost of attempting to do so in a nation not yet ready for meaningful change, and a reluctance to give up on the status quo.

14.  In a video we watched entitled "2010 Women of Achievement, Vision and Excellence awardee" you stated that it was very important to tell the complicated stories and history that was behind Rosie the Riveter Park.  How were you able to compile stories from all of the different areas of the park?

Answer:  I once believed that there was a grand conspiracy to deliberately eliminate everyone but men from history.  I've come to believe that what is remembered is dependent upon who's in the room doing the remembering.  To the extent that women's history, black history, and that of "the poor and the powerless," are absent from those conversations where it is determined what is significant, important, or, "of worth"  in a world dominated by male concerns -- each has been omitted from the record.  History of the home front is rife with glaring omissions.  Once I ceased to need to place blame, and saw the problem for what it was, it was relatively easy to begin to make the corrections.  Once I found myself in the room "doing the remembering" and discovered that the supporting materials were easily accessible, and that all it took was to reach into my own truths and  bring them forth in the belief that most were universal (I don't consider myself all that unique).  Then I learned to speak in declarative sentences with clarity and authority that invited challenges from those whose views of that history varied from my own.  (Out-living most of those whose memories differ from mine helped a lot!)  Once I learned to trust my own judgment, my voice gradually became stronger and others began to listen with increasing interest.
Research also revealed that there has always been -- throughout history -- those who were trying to get it right, and that history has been largely written by those who didn't.  Yet the patterns are clearly evident by the direction that our national compass has taken us in this, the 21st century.  We have been ever trending toward fairness and equality -- freedom and justice for all, and, over time, the nation is gradually fulfilling the destiny set forth in those revered founding documents.
(continued... )


Sunday, July 24, 2011

More questions ... .

7.  I read through your blog and got hooked from the start with all the rich language and moments of humor.  There was one particular line in the post about the jury summons which said, "I know that this is one of the rights guaranteed by the constitution to any American accused of a crime.  The only way those rights can be guaranteed is if ordinary people like me participate in the process.  I have never, and I would never opt out," and I was really struck by that being most people I think are rebelling against the system -- want those rights but not want to participate to get those rights.

And I would love to hear her talk about that the aspects of life where one might have to put aside say whether you think the justice system is doing good or say whether you think you are just too busy because you know that to get other rights doing the things like jury duty are necessary even if you don't support the system whatever it may be.
Answer:  I understand the questioner's cynicism about the justice system.  I share it to a large extent, but to not participate for me is not an option.  It is the one in place, and, unless we play our part within it -- we may not develop the skills with which to make the much-needed corrections,  You can't make them from outside the system.  Somewhere along the line I lost the sense that there exists some evil "they," and began to see an active (or inactive) "we" instead.  From that point on, it became "my" imperfect justice system with need of my input.
8.  After working as a ranger and being a role model and leading people on tours around the park which has so much to share and seeing today's teenagers, what do you think is the best way  that we students can make a difference, and what do you see that has changed in the way students view the history that you lived through?

Answer:  I'm not sure when I began to see myself in context -- as an American with a citizen's responsibility for the maintenance of the Democracy -- but it happened somewhere along the way.  I would have wished that this had happened at some earlier time in my own history.  When it dawned on me that Democracy is not a fixed thing  created for all time by some "paternalistic old dead white guy slaveholders" who gathered together in Constitution Hall in Philadelphia to write the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, but, that it's dynamic; a living breathing thing.
What they created were only the blueprints of the ideal they willed into being -- and in order to survive the rigors of a constantly changing and growing nation -- Democracy must be re-created by each succeeding generation, and modified only after much deliberation by the representatives of the people, the Congress of the United States; by the Executive Branch; and by the Supreme Court.  It is this that my education failed to communicate adequately.  Once realized, I found myself empowered by the knowledge that the Democracy was dependent upon each one of us, and what we do or fail to do, individually, shapes our collective future as a nation.
 Looked at this way, the country and the world could not afford for me to sit around on my haunches doing nothing!  My greatest fear is that your generation will not understand its individual responsibility of citizenship to not only learn to live with, but to be constantly creating positive change by participating in the most effective political system the world has yet produced.  People of the developing nations are risking their lives daily in order to replicate what we have as a birthright.
We don't need to know which direction is "right," the secret is that the correct pathway is found in the balances between opposing political forces.  Should the system yield to my wishes (of the moment) at any one time, it might not continue to serve my interests subsequently -- when I've become better informed and developed a different mindset. The greatest tragedy to befall our system of governance may be the gradual degradation of the multiparty system.  The need is for more voices and varieties of opinion to be expressed not fewer, and more of us leaning in the direction of what we believe to be positive change with faith that unseen others are leaning with us -- all that, plus the swinging pendulum with the power to self-correct.

9.  Why would the African American community volunteer to assist in the war effort (both as riveters and soldiers) for a country that has a history of exploiting them?
Answer:  Beats me!  But we did, perhaps in the hope that doing so might bring about greater respect from the nation.  Instead, the horrible abuses went on and the disappointment and resistance to change produced the Civil Rights revolution of the Sixties.  It was such an outrage to human dignity for black people to be asked to work, fight, and die to defend rights that we would not share in for another 20 years, but this produced a resistance movement that would change the nation -- not only for ourselves, but for all of those marginalized -- women, gays and lesbians, the physically and mentally handicapped -- and led to greater freedoms for many over the succeeding decades and into the present by forcing the country to confront it's hypocrisy and inequities -- it's brokenness. 

(Continued ...)

Humboldt State University questionnaire (continued) ... .

5.  Are you pleased with the current situation of women and equality or do  you believe there are major social and/or political changes that need to occur?  If so, what are those changes?

Answer:  I  think we're still in the middle of the movement to empower women in the home, the workplace, and in society at large.  We've gained in many ways,  but there is still work to be done.  In  many ways the struggle resembles that of the battle to eliminate white privilege.  No one gives up power willingly, and society still tends to favor males overall. It took a while to figure out whether woman's equality was a step up or a step down, since public relations campaigns have continued to confuse the issue for a significant number of women. 

The trade-offs were unclear at first since, as an African American woman, I didn't perceive my oppression as coming from the men in my life (who were experiencing the same oppression as I) but from whites -- and largely from white women.  In my youth, black women were employed as unskilled domestic servants in homes of white women who held the power over our economic lives -- and in many cases -- the same white feminists who now needed us to run their homes and care for their children so that they could realize their dreams for careers in corporate boardrooms!  (Since that time they've by-and-large turned to the undocumented for such needs.)  A whole lot of confusion reigned in those early days of the fight for gender equality.
 African American women were slow to join the cause of feminism for those reasons, but as educational opportunities became more available; as doors began to open to women of color, it has been easier to join with other women to struggle for equality for all.  Since we've begun to re-define roles, both genders have had to adjust to new expectations of one another and of ourselves.  I think those hopes are slowly being realized, and, despite some casualties, I think we're making progress.  I see it in the attitudes of my sons which falls light years away from those of the last generation.
I sometimes wonder, though, if the real casualties of the gender wars have not been the children?   But that's a discussion for another time.


6.  Which women (living or dead) inspires you the most?  Which man?
Answer:  The answer to this question has changed frequently, and in the early days could  most easily be answered by the movie star whom I adored as a teen -- Kathryn Hepburn, of course.  Then the darling dare-devil of the thirties, the ill-fated Amelia Earhart.  But Eleanor Roosevelt's political and social leadership during WWII stands out as the heroine of most young women I knew.   The spirit each of those mentioned separated them from the rest, but in looking back, each seems almost gender-neutral, don't they?  I've never thought of that before writing those words -- maybe representing the perfect balance between Ying and Yang?  Not sure.
 It's also interesting that none is African American, but as a child -- I was "American," and made little distinction between races, except those that were cultural, I suppose.  Those 3 women were universal in their appeal -- enjoying the admiration of most of the young women of my time.
My gutsy irreverent Aunt Vivian Allen Jernigan became my idol at some point - the most honest, compassionate, and generous person in my world as I approached young adulthood.  Currently, Law Professor Lani Guinere and First Lady Michelle Obama would be hands-down my idols and exemplars.  And, still, my ancestor and enduring family matriarch of those who remember, my great-grandmother, Leontine Breaux Allen (1846-1948).  She survived the horrific shame of slavery with grace to produce succeeding generations of extraordinary people who've made impressive contributions to American life in the fields of education, arts and literature, in medicine,  journalism, and the sciences.
The most admired man in my young life was my paternal grandfather, Louis Charbonnet, whose portrait hung in a battered gilded frame on the wall of our dining room.  Though I was only 3 years-old when he died, his aura dominated life in the home of my childhood.  He was an ironworker, millwright, engineer, and community leader, who left now-fading photographs of works in New Orleans that were monuments to his abilities, and to his generosity of spirit that caused the grownups in my life to speak of him in hushed tones. 
(continued ... )

A few questions we, the students of
WS 107: Women, History, Culture at
Humboldt State University,
gratefully and curiously submit for
Ms. Betty Reid Soskin's
consideration on this Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011




1.  I heard about the New Orleans flood in a sociology class last semester.  To my understanding the government chose to bomb the levees in order to sacrifice one part of town and save the other from damage. What are your thoughts on the racial/socioeconomic injustice of this?
 Answer:  I'm sure that it was far easier for such decisions to be made arbitrarily in those days without reference to the lives and property that would be sacrificed than it would be today.  Though that varies still depending upon how much participation occurs in the public life of cities and townships by representatives from all races, ages, cultures, and economic classes.  In 1927 a few powerful men made decisions based upon the threat that the Mississippi's rising was having on those parts of the city which they controlled and protected.
Hurricane Katrina brought into focus the corruption and misuse of power that still remains in many places, despite the greater representation from a broader segment of the community, so that many of the problems of access to power have resisted remediation, and many of my relatives who fled the floods  -- as our family did in 1927 -- have not yet returned to New Orleans.  
2.  Beside the future generations of your family, do you have anyone else that you're specifically targeting with your blog?
 
Answer:  Not particularly.  It would have been hard to believe that anyone but those close to me would have any interest in my thoughts in the year 2003 when I started this journal.  After awhile it was clear that at least a few total strangers were following my blog, but it has never attracted more than limited interest to my knowledge.  I would never have dreamed that university classes would be using these thoughts hastily posted at the end of my day in the quiet of my home as content for study!  I've never received more than about 2 dozen comments over all the years since all this began, so it was not hard to believe that my "audience" was limited to my own family and a few friends.  
3.  In a YouTube video you appear in, you mention having not listened to yourself up until your midlife.  I was curious about what made you listen--was it a growing/learning process, or a radical shift in your life that immediately changed your perspective?

Answer:  It was a gradual thing that is only apparent in retrospect.  I'm not sure when I noticed that others were listening -- and that I might be worth listening to.  Maybe it was when I first was elected to serve on a board of some sort and my self-worth took a leap. At some point I became more inner-directed and ceased to be totally led by external forces.  That came fairly late in life, though.  Some of it came earlier from becoming a parent and needing to "know" for the sake of my children as they were depending upon my guidance.  That can make one grow up in a hurry.  At first I was not nearly as impressed by what I knew, but with how little was known by those around me compared to how much there was to be known.  As these things came into balance -- as I started to mature, my own inner voice became louder and more insistent.
4.  I read that in the 1960's you wrote and performed songs, many dealing with civil rights; what was that like and what role does music play in your life now?

Answer:  When my daughter, Dorian, was born brain-damaged in 1957 -- and as she slowly began to develop cognitive skills, I noticed that she retained what I sang to her more effectively than what I said to her.  I made up songs to match the rituals of washing hands, taking baths, putting on pajamas, and discovered an innate ability to compose.  This coincided with what was happening throughout the country and with the advent of folk music, coffee houses, and civil rights marches -- all expressed in song.  It was an easy transition into those movements at an age where composing and singing my songs provided a way for me to "travel" in my imagination without leaving home where I was needed by 3 growing young sons, two aging parents, the growing realization that my little girl would never reach adulthood, and a failing marriage.  Through creating my songs it was possible to leave it all with Dorrie holding onto the hem of my dress; it was pure escapism at first, but when I listen to those tapes (never published), I'm impressed with how fine some of that music was. 
 And, no, I left "Betty the Artist" somewhere in the early 70's and began to live out of other parts of myself.  My interest and enjoyment of all forms of music is still strong, but only as a member of the audience.  I suspect that -- though there were opportunities to pursue life as an entertainer at the time -- it would not have in any way matched the satisfaction I found in living off my other "edges."
(continued next post)

I recently ran across a sheaf of papers brought back last spring from the trip north for a stint as guest lecturer ... .

There was little time to answer  during my talks, but in the event that some of those students are still reading here -- maybe I could respond in the hope that by so doing it may answer questions others may have had over time.

Besides, it helps to keep my mind off the Norwegian tragedy, and the 9th fatal shooting of the week here in the place where I live --

It's difficult to think of anything else ... .

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