Saturday, December 29, 2012

Does my visit to the ancestral home of the Charbonnet attest to the differences in racial relations in New Orleans, as opposed to other places ... ?

When I think of how warmly, how easily Paul, and Shirley, and I interact -- and of how the stories of the accommodations to traditions of the times fit that profile, it's cause to wonder.  I sensed no holding back; no self-censoring -- in the leisurely evening talks in the kitchen at the end of each day of my brief visit.  We honored the opportunity to share meaningful time together, and used it to exchange the most intimate details about where life had taken us over the eons of separation, especially with Paul.   I've grown so fond of them both .  We have truly closed the circle, and are inside, together. 

I'm not certain that this new relationship across the racial lines are much different from those of our fathers and grandfathers of old.  Surely there are enough stories among those passed along by my father that would suggest this.  He spoke often of how Judge Charbonnet would intervene when one of his 7 brothers ran afoul of the law; would speak with them privately and send them home to their father with a caution that they mend their ways and pay attention to his word.

The story that brought Paul and I together was my writing of how his father, Paul, and my uncle, Louis,  both contractors -- would bid on the jobs that fell on either side of Canal Street in order that there be an equal distribution of opportunity.   I'm not certain that this wasn't just some silent gentlemen's agreement.  Surely there was no formal contract; just "family". They apparently did not defy southern tradition by mixing socially, as Paul and I do, but it was a different era, and there was custom and southern tradition to be honored.  There was something to be said for everybody having a place in the society, and honoring whatever status they enjoyed in life.

Though today's residents of the Tremé are very aware of Congo Square as a place of slave-trading, I'm not certain that Creoles ever considered themselves as a part of that story.  Surely my parents never passed any hint of a consciousness of the slave experience as personal.  That story needs more fleshing out.  My mother's slave ancestry is recognized, however, on our paternal side, there are few if any slave references -- yet ... .

Ours is surely a historical pattern indicative of the uniqueness of New Orleans culture, which recognized Creoles as a third class with relationships to both sides of the racial equation.

I often wondered at my Dad's reference to "when the Americans came."  I'm more and more certain that this referred to non-New Orleanian whites who brought with them from other parts of the country a different form of racial prejudice; one that was less tolerant of the subtle variations in attitude that was specific to the times and place.

The Charbonnet Family was probably typical of an easy-going cultural landscape with complex liaisons that may have had to do with a liberal sexual attitude brought from France where such affairs were tolerated by society, and only gently frowned on by the Church.

Surely this was true of Amable Charbonnet, who experienced in Haiti a culture that was led by a mulatto elite --  made up of sons of the Napoleonic French fighters who defended against the rebel forces of Toussaint L'overture -- bi-racial sons who'd been sent back to France to be educated then returned as the ruling class.  It was among the members of that brown culture that he seemed to have found meaning, at least comfort enough to have returned after the Revolution for a significant period of time before returning to New Orleans to take up life in one of the cultural centers of the new nation.  It was surely that experience which prepared him for taking up life with a mulatto woman with whom he fathered the descendants that formed my branch of the family tree.

Ken Norton's "Lydia Bailey," resonates as a wonderful telling of my story.  Also, Isabel Allende's more recent, "Islands Beneath the Sea" reads like Amable's personal account of that history.

 
Revising history after visiting with relatives ... .

I remember clearly the day cousin Ruth (Isabel Allen LeBeouf Warnie's daughter) and I were driving back from the Golden Gate Federal Cemetery in San Bruno after discovering the earliest microfiche records of our great grandmother.  In the Catholic Church records in Baton Rouge that of Leontine's mother, Celestine ("of no last name"), had turned up as being married to slave owner and planter, Edouard Breaux, of St. James Parish, Louisiana.  That was in 1865 as enabled by the Emancipation Proclamation.  At the time of that marriage, Leontine was 19 years old.

I'd assumed that this was an intact family that consisted of Celestine, Eduoard, Leontine, and Theophile (whom we've lost track of).  According to Diocesan records, 3-year-old Theophile's birth was legitimized by the marriage.  I remember wondering just how it had been possible to limit that little family to two children, and by what method was their spacing accomplished?

But the important fact to me was that -- atypical of many black family histories -- ours had not resulted from rape or sexual exploitation, but that there was a traceable familial relationship sanctioned by the church.  How naive was I?  Having learned over time that it was because of the fact that the Cajuns were an agrarian people with a long history of working the fields alongside their slaves at that time, that marriages were not a rare event, but were fairly common.  It was clear that Leontine was the result of a bi-racial union of some sort. 

I suppose that I was so wedded to that positive story, that when we received the documents from the War Department that included testimonies by the neighbors and friends in St. James, I failed to notice that Leontine provided the name of her father as Sylvestre Breaux, who is listed in the census of the time as Edouard's older brother.  These were the testimonies submitted to justify her as deserving of a widow's pension ($45/mo) for her husband, George Allen's, Civil War service to his country.

It is cousin Sandra's suggestion that Celestine had been raped 19 years earlier than the 1865 date of her mother's marriage to Eduoard, and that Leontine had been aware of her parentage all of her life.

I suspect that rape would have been so common at that time, that it would have been of no particular importance in the scheme of things.  In 1846 -- more than a dozen years after the British had outlawed slavery (1833) -- American slave-owners were producing their own "stock" by impregnating their female slaves in order to compete in the marketplace; in order to have chattel to pass along to their heirs; in order to preserve the Southern economy and the time-honored southern way of life which had been built upon the slave trade.  I've never gotten over the fact that those planters were quite literally producing and selling their own children.  Under those circumstances, it was necessary that Blacks be regarded as less than human.  Were that not so, the entire system would be undermined.  You can imagine that such a practice would been one of the inhumane results of human bondage that ended with the Emancipation Proclamation -- but would have been left out of history books in defense of our national integrity, or at least the integrity that we claim in theory.

But then I would not have been viewed as a part of the "we," at that time, since white male supremacy ruled the day, much as it has since that time.  White supremacy along with white privilege have been prohibitive of social change and has resisted any attempt at altering the lens through which we see "American" life in the century that followed.  

Small wonder that we've never been able to process that history. It says horrific things about us as a nation and of our trail of cruelty and abusiveness since we landed on these shores over 300 years ago. 

That's a part of my maternal family history, and there is no escape from its influences upon my life to this day.  Maybe the best we can hope for is that the country gradually begins to own its history and find ways to excise the trauma in order to move on.  There are visible signs that this is happening, at least in my world.

There is still significant work to be done before we're home free.


Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Mecca!

... Paul, Shirley, and I searched in vain on Sunday morning.  We arrived at the wrong St. Louis Cemetery (there are four), for the tomb of our Charbonnet ancestor-in-common; the elusive Amable -- whose history involves some years in Santo Domingo (now known as Haiti) both during and after the Revolution in the early 1800s.  According to Paul's narrative, he was apparently quite comfortable living among the native population, so returned  to spend at least a part of his life on the island before his eventual return to New Orleans.

Amable was married for a time to a French wife, but took up life with my ancestor, Marie Beaulieu, (a mulatto enslaved woman) with whom he fathered a separate family -- here's where the Charbonnets went to "living color" somewhere around the mid-1800s.  It is of interest to me that, according to the records, Marie lived to the age of 104.

On Sunday we arrived to find that the cemetery was closed for the day, and that we'd need to come back on Wednesday, prior to boarding time at United Airlines.

Louis, Shirley and Paul, Betty, Armand, Simone, and Kim Charbonnet
After some hours spent searching, Paul felt "summoned," just as we were about to give up what was obviously a failed odyssey.  He called out to us that, indeed, the protective iron fence -- which had been our clue to identifying the tomb had disappeared -- obviously a victim of Time -- yet it was evident from the inscription that here lay Amable Charbonnet, b. 1790.   His daughter, Emma, a girl only 7 year's old, shared his burial place.  

The grave had suffered years of neglect and  surely had suffered the effects of Katrina, but its beauty was still awesome.  It was carved of white marble and was created in Paris.  The artist's signature was prominent on the front of the tomb, and one can only wonder who was responsible for commissioning this work of art?  Did Amable order it prior to his death?  It would have been brought by ship, of course, but that would have been some years after his demise.

Our cousin, Armand Charbonnet (of the Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home -- about a two blocks away from the cemetery) -- explained that -- from the appearance of the grave,  Amable's body had been lowered into the ground, and the tomb added at a later time.

It was a moment that will be remembered always.  After centuries, the Charbonnets are now one ... and it appears that I've become the matriarch of a legendary American Family.  

Sunday, December 23, 2012

A simple act of kindness in the information age ... .

Received an email message from new friends, Nigel and Raynel Hamilton, shortly after reaching home.
Their brief words confirmed that the New Orleans experience was, indeed, not wrought by my imagination, but had really happened.  They've promised to stay in touch, and to visit our park when next they travel to the West Coast where Raynel's mother still lives.

Corpus Christi School
Haven't yet decided just how I will begin to incorporate the new chapter into my twice-weekly presentations in the Visitors Center theater.  They were surely important to capturing my life as it progresses now with the speed of light!

There are still things learned that are too disturbing to share -- at least not yet.  I'd not realized how wedded I've become to what was once purely speculative and now needs to be given up for the sake of truth-telling.  But then I'm still not certain that -- since there is no way to know when one's speculations outweigh those of others in geneaology -- just why I shouldn't just keep to a "truth" that may be less disturbing remains a mystery.

There are two new elements in the tracing of our family histories that may provide a more accurate record than before.  My late  sister, Lottie, was doing some great work -- separate from mine -- using Ancestor.com's program.  My work was largely based upon stories passed down from my mother's sister, Vivian, and my grandfather, Papa George.  I'd gathered what I could from census records and the Family History Center of the Mormon Church.  Two family researchers had helped along the way, son, Bob, and cousin Doug Allen.  Together we'd built a fairly accurate history that is online and accessible on the left side of the screen above the archives.

Recently, Cousin Paul Charbonnet (paternal line) opened up the Ancestry.com work and invited me to join him in that endeavor, and a new channel of learning popped up in my life, and Lottie's earlier work was revealed to me for the first time.  How I wish we'd worked together before she took leave of this dimension!

This is also true of Cousin Sandra Colomb (maternal side), with whom I was able to share a wonderful day during my visit, and it was her work that revealed new speculations on our great grandmother Leontine Breaux Allen's origins that begins to make sense when one considers the times in which she lived.

If my visit to our ancestral home accomplished what I'd hoped for, it was that the Circle of Life was completed for me.  In the Tremé I was able to remember the sounds of the street vendors (now gone), and remember things from early childhood as if there had been no interruption that brought me so far from what was surely home.

I now have the answer to the question of what to do with the dozen or so engineering volumes, the blueprint of the banana conveyer; the fading photographs of my grandfather, Louis Charbonnet; of buildings, a baseball field in the Treme, and other structures should be sent to the Amistad Collections at Tulane University.  There are already articles based on his work there, and -- with what I've learned of the value of ephemera through our park's cultural resources division -- I need to send those artifacts home.   I will send copies of the original blueprints to be exhibited at the Charbonnet-Labat funeral home to be hung beside the rest of the family photos. The processing firm that reproduced a copy of the banana conveyor included a disk from which more copies can be made -- will donate that to Armand and Louis for their collection.

But first I will confer with my children over Christmas dinner on Tuesday. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

My friend, Lewis Watts, Professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz sent these great black and white photos of a jazz funeral at the Charbonnet Funeral Home and they begged to be shared ... .

... found myself wishing that he'd been along on this pilgrimage.  My photos are still in my camera, waiting for me to find the installation disc to free them from lock-up. I've acquired a new computer recently, and the software isn't able to make them accessible, so I've been scavenging whatever others have sent until Olympus or those Mac geniuses answer my calls for help!


Lew was reading my blog and it reminded him of the unforgettable experience of his first jazz funeral, so he sent his images along.  Hope he doesn't mind my sharing them.  They'll be included in his soon-to-be-published photo book on New Orleans life.

R.I.P. Uncle Lionel Batiste Funeral Fri, July 20, 2012

I want to share this amazing video. It almost defies logic, but is the work of my cousins at the Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home in New Orleans ... .

"Uncle" Elliott Batiste was an old jazz musician who's family decided that they wanted him to be standing up at his service (he was laid to rest in a casket the day after the viewing).  He was "second-lined" for 3 days after, according to my cousin Armand, co-director of the mortuary.

This is a fine example of cultural differences between white and black religious traditions.  There is little distance between the sacred and the profane in African American culture.  It's all a part of life and to be celebrated in the cultural language of the deceased.  The funeral procession with its somber dirge-like cadence of Amazing Grace contrasted with the spirited jazz once the procession reaches the Mahalia Jackson Auditorium in Congo Square is a fine example of this.   The traditional, "Oh didn't he ramble" is a favorite of the second-liners, and in the case of Uncle Elliott's funeral -- it's clear that every jazz musician in town was in that procession.   According to cousin Armand, "they second-lined him for 3 days!"

The Charbonnet brothers have never revealed how they managed to pull this one off, and it remains a mystery to this day.

We Charbonnets do rise to the challenges though, right?

Uncle Lionel Batiste's Last Stand

It occurred to me that new readers may need some context through which to catch up with my stories, thus the re-posting of "This is Us" ... .

This was produced about 3 years ago by PBS, and gives a fairly good portrait of my work with the National Park Service. 

This Is Us! Betty Soskin

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Musings on the 2012 WWII International Conference in New Orleans ... .

Thinking about that audience of WWII historians, authors, veterans, and descendants of that generation.  I've mentioned that I seem to have outlived my rage without losing my passion, and never has that been more true than now.

In the dark of evening -- long after we'd left Arnaud's restaurant in the French Quarter where the presenters had been wined and dined with elegance by our hosts -- the sorting out was well underway. Seated to my right was author historian, Nigel Hamilton, who wrote the definitive book on JFK: Reckless Youth and the authorized biography on Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, among others.  To my left, my co-presenter earlier in the evening, Jerry E. Strahan, author of Andrew Jackson Higgins and the Boats that Won World War II
I'd just been photographed standing with the grandson of General Omar Bradley, a tall distinguished kindly man of grace and humility.  These were the giants of that history; all men of great accomplishments.  I felt honored to be among them.  I've rarely experienced greater respect.  I was treated as an equal in every way.

I've mentioned that I was the only person of color among the 500 participants in the 2012 International Conference of the WWII Museum.  But the reasons were  obvious when I'd had time to give it some thought.  These were the descendants of WWII at a time -- 3 years before the desegregation of the Armed Forces by executive order from President Harry Truman.  That would not happen until 1948.  Separation of the races was clearly their reality, and it could hardly have been otherwise, given the seriously-flawed social system under which we were living at the time.  No one knows better than I of the importance of telling that story as it was lived in order to provide a baseline against which to measure how far we've come over the 70 years since.  Any revising of that history would rob us of the truth of what has been endured over time, and of the gains we've made in the process of making the much-needed corrections.  By re-visiting those years with eyes wide open, we can find the hope needed to complete the transformation to true democracy over the years ahead. 

When I started to speak on Friday evening, the first sentences that came to mind as I looked out at those white faces in the audience were, "... what gets remembered is a function of who's in the room doing the remembering." I repeated those words to provide emphasis -- as the truth of that experience rose to consciousness.

At the time  -- early in development of Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front Historical National Park --  I had to give up any notion that my story was omitted from history through some grand conspiracy.  My stories had simply slipped from memory through neglect.  There were no villains around the table of planners in the early stages of park development.  I was the only person of color in those days, acting as a field representative for a member of the State Assembly, and the only one with a memory bank that included so much of that forgotten history.  I recall how shocked I was upon realizing that we were about to create a national park that would enshrine sites of segregation, and that no one else was aware of it,  or had any reason to be.

It should be no surprise that these good folks of the WWII Conference had no awareness of the need to include the descendants of the Tuskegee Airmen, the highly-decorated 442nd Americans of Japanese descent -- in some cases drafted to serve out of relocation camps to fight the bloody battles in Italy; the heroic All Black tank battalion, the 761st, that fought so valiantly under General George Patton in the invasion of Germany.  Were they included, that room would have looked very different.  But whatever places of honor that have been established to honor their service are still separated by the racial barrier from the mainstream -- as represented by the WWII Museum.

... and I saw no villains in that ballroom, either.  Just an unknowing of the need to present the complexity of those times, and that by sacrificing that complexity, they've omitted a substantial portion of "Truth."


Photo:  by Sandra Colomb
My father, Dorson Louis Charbonnet
About that anger sensed by cousin Paul as the first words of my speech began to form ...

Earlier in the day I'd visited the Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home on Claiborne and St. Phillips with my first cousin, Armand Charbonnet.  He is a co-director with his brother, former Louisiana State Senator, Louis Charbonnet.  They are both among the notables of the Creole world of New Orleans.  Together, they are the  team known for the legendary jazz funerals of New Orleans.  This impressive family enterprise was established in 1893, and has survived even Katrina, when it was inundated by 4 feet of flood waters.

He'd gathered me up at the WWII Museum on that day for a lunch of stuffed shrimp at Dookie Chase restaurant in the 7th Ward -- where there were huge photos of both President Obama seated at a table feasting on one of the specialties of the house, and George W. Bush doing the same.  This was storybook New Orleans Creole cuisine with art-to-die-for hung from the walls of the newly-restored building; post-Katrina.

Grandfather, Louis Charbonnet
During the visit I learned the answer to a question I'd wondered about all of my life.  Why on earth was I born in Detroit, Michigan?  My parents were both from families firmly-rooted in New Orleans, yet both my sister, Marjorie, and I came into the world in Detroit.

Armand:  "It was awful! Your daddy, Dorson, was working on a job with our father when a white man approached with a question for your grandfather.  Now -- as was the custom that no black man ever addressed a white person by their first name, and only by the surname.  On the other hand, no white man ever addressed a black person by their last name."

On that particular day, the white man spoke to my proud grandfather and in so doing called him, "Louie."  On that note my equally proud father, Dorson, called him on it saying, "... do you know who you're talking to?  And followed the impertinent question by using the forbidden first name of the offender.

click to enlarge
"Our father had to rush him out of the State, and to Detroit where your mother had relatives (the Breaux/Allens) until it was safe to come home."  That must have been in about 1917 and my mother was probably pregnant with my sister, Marjorie.  I was born 4 years later in 1921, and we returned to New Orleans shortly thereafter when my grandfather's health failed and the end was in sight.  My father joined with his brothers to complete work on St. John de Bertrand's Convent, for the first Order of Black Nuns in this country -- the Sisters of the Holy Family.

These photos tell the story, I believe.  I'm not sure there were ever two more prideful and handsome men.  The little business card served as my grandfather's resume, I suppose, and provides a picture of his eminence in the community.  He was a legend in his time.

Hearing this unknown ('til now) story just before having to face that audience of white faces in that grand ballroom of the Astor Crowne Plaza -- in the place where it had all happened -- was almost unbearable.  I stuffed it down into a corner of my brain until I could get through my speech, then cried myself to sleep upon reaching my room that night.  It was only in realizing the full impact of how much the human condition has changed with the times, and that some of the angst and hurt could be washed away by the triumph of the event in the grand ballroom earlier in the evening, that I was able to "let it go," and continue to exalt in the present.

Tomorrow cousin Paul and his wife, Shirley, who were my hosts on this trip -- would take me to St. Louis cemetery where we would locate the tomb of our ancestor-in-common, Amable Charbonnet, b. 1790 d. 1833, and reset our personal histories to take us into the future in truth.

More to come ... .

Challenges of entering WWII examined

Challenges of entering WWII examined


Down the rabbit hole once more ...

Where does one start?  Maybe with the culminating event of the WWII International Conference at the Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel on Canal Street -- just outside the French Quarter.  Yes, we'll work our way from there:

After three days of presentations by eminent scholars and historians from a list that boggles the mind, plus noted authors and military experts from every branch of the service, and all of them male save one -- a Holocaust survivor who was interviewed by her son.  I had just about overdosed on "The War!"  In order to see the presenters in the grand ballroom (500 attendees), we had to peer through a veil of testosterone dense enough to obscure  all but the most obvious.  And the most obvious was that there were no other people who looked like me in that audience.  Only the hotel maids, bellhops, clerks behind the reception desk, and other assorted service staff were African American.   But it was also true that there were some hotel guests of color at the time, just not connected with the Conference.

I was reminded that it wasn't all that long ago that my relatives could only be admitted to such a hotel in the city of New Orleans through the back entrance, and only if they were providing a service or making a delivery.  That's a kind of progress, right?

...but this was the third day of the Conference, and my presentation would occur between 5:00 and 6:00 that evening.  I would share the lectern with Dr. Jerry Strahan, author of a book on Higgins Industries, and a charming and very personable man -- who gave me an autographed copy of his book on the French Quarter at the end of the evening.  The inscription is to be treasured.  Higgins was the New Orleans version of our Henry J. Kaiser, but he built PT boats.   I was later to learn from my first cousin, Armand Charbonnet, that 3 of my uncles had worked for Higgins on those boats.  They were super craftsmen.

With Omar Bradley Beukema, grandson of General Omar Bradley
As usual, I'd prepared nothing and there were no meticulously-ordered notes to lead the way -- only whatever truth I could bring to the surface in the moment.  I've learned over the years with the National Park Service to trust my memory in combination with an innate ability to read audiences.  But this was "prime time,"  after all Tom Brokaw had been among the presenters in 2011.  Whatever was I thinking?  I felt a moment of panic as Jerry Strahan brought his prepared sheaf of papers to the lectern and preceded my talk with 25 minutes of well-delivered facts about his subject.  I would depend upon my inner clock to tell me when to stop talking, and (hopefully) the words would come when summoned.

As the applause ended for Strahan, I walked to the lectern and stood silently for what seemed an eternity while waiting for the thoughts to get organized like metal shavings against a magnet.  I opened with the fact that I was a 20 year-old file clerk in a Jim Crow Union hall in Richmond, California; that I'd not ever seen a ship under construction, but that being a clerk was a step up from the only opportunities available to me as a woman of color -- working in agriculture, or, as a domestic servant.  (Later cousin Paul Charbonnet told me that I sounded angry during those first few sentences of my talk.)

I'd brought along "Lost Converations" my little 4-minutes video created with NPS Ranger Naomi Torres, in the early days of my service.  I'd handed it to the technicians prior to my presentation, but it felt like overkill, so I didn't give the signal at the point where it was to be inserted into the program.  By the silence in the room, and the looks on the faces as the words began to flow -- in much the way it does in our little theater in my afternoon talks -- we were as one.  There were suddenly no strangers in that vast room.  The magic was at hand.  And, as usual, it was an overwhelming experience, and I felt that I stopped more abruptly than intended as I realized how fully engaged they were, and of my obligation to fill the silence with meaning.

... then the thunderous applause, and the rising from the chairs in a standing ovation that still rings in my ears in the silence of the night.

But that's only the beginning ... . 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Before I get into my report on the New Orleans trip (and wait'll you hear!), I do want to share this image of a new item in our gift shop at the Visitors Center ... .

For months I've been lobbying to get products that reflect the diversity of the home front work place.  Finally, after a steady dose of nagging, cajoling, being insistent, she arrived on our shelves -- this brilliantly designed image of an African American "Rosie," -- on both red and black tee shirts.  They're stunning!

The design is by graphic artist, Rich Black, who is a Berkeleyan who does the art work for the Ashby Stage, otherwise known as the Shotgun Players.  Rich graciously agreed to donate his services and artistry to the cause, and "Richmond Rosie" is the result. 

My complaint was based on the fact that I've never been able to identify with what has become the "We can do it" Rosie we've come to accept as the symbol of the women who answered their country's call to replace the men called to the battlefronts.  She was ubiquitous, but she was not representing the women whom I knew.  There seemed to be little recognition of the fact that the universal use of that design seemed to suggest that "white" folks were the generic folks, and the rest of us were "somethin' else," or in more formal words, "exotic."  No one seemed to understand my resistance to accepting this as "my" symbol.

C'mon, guys.  You gotta see that we've extended the diversity issue and made the gift shop more relevant to a broader community by adding some spice to the mix!

Sunday, December 02, 2012

In midweek I'm jetting off to New Orleans in another grand adventure ...

... it has been many years since I've visited my ancestral home.  I believe it was in the mid-Eighties when Bill and I -- on impulse -- hopped on United to spend part of the Mardi Gras season.  This would be his introduction to the Creole world of my childhood and my family's pride.

It was a strange time that started off with our landing with summer clothes in February (brrrrr!) thinking the weather would be tropical.  My last visit had been many decades earlier -- in adolescence -- when I was allowed to travel South to represent the Northern California clan at Mammá's birthday celebration.  I remembered it as steamy and overgrown with empty lots looking like mini-jungles -- with board sidewalks on unpaved streets in the parts of the city where some of my relatives lived.  I remembered short downpours almost daily during that summer.  But this was something quite different.  The steaminess was replaced by a moist chill that penetrated to the bone.  And we were like the tourists seen shivering along the Embarcadero in tee-shirts and sandals in a wintry Bay Area July.  We were completely unprepared, climate-wise.

This time I will be arriving in town as a guest presenter for the International Convention of the WWII Museum, and, as representing the National Park Service.  The conference site is the Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel, a place where my grandparents and parents would visit only when delivering goods or services, and through the servant's entrance at that.  My memories go back to a segregated city fully committed to southern tradition.

Over the past weeks I've been silently re-living that southern tradition as I recall a trip to Washington, D.C., with Bill when he was scheduled for a visit to N.I.D.A. in relation to his continuation grant, I believe, and would be my first trip to the Capitol.

While there I was anxious to see the historic places which meant renting a car to drive to Mt. Vernon and Monticello -- then to Williamsburg, Virginia.  At Mt. Vernon and Monticello, I was simply an American exploring my country's historic sites, and nothing more.  However, by the time we reached the exclusive hotel in Williamsburg, I'd experienced enough southern history to have been transformed into Betty with her white husband (I'd forgotten about that), and guilty of something that my growing up in the liberal Northern California community had not prepared me for.  In the world of the University, we were simply seen as having reached a level of sophistication that made racial and cultural inter-marriage somewhere beyond the norm.  We were "international."

I remember (shamefully) that -- as we drove into the carriage entrance to this exclusive hotel -- I was so overtaken by fear (remember, we'd been visiting slave quarters only hours before), that I was (head down and eyes averted) carrying luggage and walking a few paces behind Bill -- trying as hard as I could to escape notice.  I hovered behind a potted plant as he checked our reserverations at the desk.  I was miserable!

That night we made our entrance dressed in evening clothes for a fancy supper in the ornate banquet room. It was obvious that I was the only person of color -- other than the waiters -- in that elegant space.  I'd not been sharing my discomfort with Bill, so he was unaware of my misery.  As the neatly-uniformed all-Black dining-room staff began to peek out of the circular window of the door from the food preparation area, I was absolutely vibrating with mixed feelings.  I could imagine conversations in the kitchen about this mixed couple.  Could they be imagining that I was "passing" or at least trying to?  Or far worse, were they imagining that I was someone "of color" picked up for an evening's  entertainment?  I was surely pretty enough for tongues to wag.  A mere sexual liaison?  My imagination painted a horrifying picture, and for reasons that are unclear to this day, I felt guilty and guilty of what, I had no clue.  Makes one wonder at the potency of racism that appears to have the power to inflict its pain over generations.  Whose guilt could I be channeling, and why?

There was a live orchestra that was making dedications occasionally from the bandstand.   I was puzzled as I watched Bill whisper to the bandleader at one point, and surprised to hear the next dedication -- a waltz -- "to Dr. and Mrs. William Soskin of California on their 35th wedding anniversary!"  Of course we had only been married for a few years at that point and this date held neither of my anniversaries, but if you counted my earlier marriage to Mel, at least I'd been married for that long, just not to him. Giggles took over and fear was replaced by sheer joy!  Everyone applauded, and we danced on the graves of all the southern traditionalists in Virginia -- and, almost everyone in the room rose and were dancing with us before the song ended. This was a far different world than the one in which I'd been trapped for all those lonely hours in a luxurious hotel suite so far from home and the world of freedom that I'd so taken for granted 'til now.

Bill (the psychologist) had noticed.  He had found a way to help me to confront my fears in a most beautiful way.

The waiter smiled knowlingly as he served our after dinner aperitif but his insinuating grin no longer threatened my sense of self.  I quietly wept my relief into a beautiful brandy snifter and filed the memory away until now.  Strange how time and memory work together so that all of the affect of that moment has been refreshed into my fingertips as I write this -- and tears are brimming ... .

Maybe I'm the Avatar who was meant to bridge this gigantic chasm of a racial barrier for the entire Charbonnet/Breaux/Morales/Allen ancestral Grand Opera!  We are America, are we not?  We've lived the great American narrative, and it is colorful and epic.

If you hear a great hullabaloo over the next several days, it may be the white and brown ancestors either doing a stately celebratory 18th century quadrille; prancing a sprightly Mardi Gras "second line" between the graves, or, furiously hurling fragments of headstones at one another in one horrendous fit of total outrage!  Either way, cousin Paul Charbonnet and I will know that our coming together over the past years was/is a milestone in the lives of one of the great pioneer American families of Old New Orleans. 


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Would that I could rid my mind of this debate  ... but it is not to be, at least not yet ... .

As I was dropping off to sleep last night, after answering Linda's last message, I was reminded of a conversation with my husband, Bill, many years ago:

It was one of those days when he was deep into grant-writing for the continuation of Project Community, the research project he had created through the psych department at the university.  He was in the early "thinking through justification" segment of the application; that part that I couldn't help with anyway, so there I stood in the doorway all bundled up ready to join some demonstration or other that would soon be underway down the hill on the steps of Sproul Hall on campus.  Somewhat petulantly but with good humor, he affectionately tucked my bright red wool scarf a bit closer to my chin saying, "you know, Hon, that it takes many decades to get measurable social change, and sometimes it takes centuries.  All of your marching and protesting and letter-writing campaigns are meaningless against that truth."  I guessed that his words were simply an expression of his wanting me to be somewhere in the house where he could hear my footsteps overhead as he worked in his big Charles Eames "thinking" chair beside the fireplace in the downstairs library.

I remember looking up at him and saying with conviction, "... but if you didn't have dedicated crazy folks like me marching, protesting, and letter-writing today, you scientists wouldn't have any social change to measure over time!"

I think my exchange with Linda speaks to that truth.

For all of my understanding of well-traveled journalist Linda's more sophisticated and informed position,  my disappointment in the president's dismissive treatment of the Rule of Law remains steadfast.  Even understanding the risks to life and limb of our citizens overseas; even understanding the dilemmas leaders are faced with in guiding the nation forward while carrying the burden of the errors of previous administrations; and, despite the limitations and vulnerabilities of being human -- somewhere among us there must be those ordinary folks, like me, who have our eyes firmly set on our ideals and demanding nothing but "perfection," even when the word has to be set in quotes.  Maybe we serve as lodestones, stars to set our compasses by, and are only meaningful when viewed from space.  Maybe we only hold influence in the aggregate, and are insignificant, individually.  But, maybe it is we who keep the faith with each succeeding generation as, together, we create and re-create participatory democracy in our time.

Maybe this is but one more example of the relative comfort with "conflicting truths" that I've matured enough to have aged into.  (and,  yes, I'm aware that this is worded awkwardly, but it's precisely what I mean.)

Monday, November 26, 2012

Took the liberty of adding you to my blog ...


From: Betty Reid Soskin
To: Linda 
Subject: Took the liberty of adding you to my blog ... (with no identifying mark except for your first name)
Date: Nov 26, 2012 8:02 PM


...was really interested in your response. It pointed up just how naive are my opinions at times, even when I dig deep for meaningful answers to great questions. My somewhat sheltered existence comes to the surface in a disconcerting way, especially when confronted with Linda, whose career and life experiences are so much more expansive. I've lived my entire life within 30 square miles, and have never been in a foreign culture except for a trip to Hawaii -- if that counts at all. It wouldn't have dawned on me -- the deadly threat to those living overseas had Osama been held for trial. It just didn't occur to me that he would not be, under our system of governance. My reaction to the brutal assassination and the sadness that followed over many months may have had to do with my needing to come to terms with a new national reality that is clearly far more gray than black or white.

I'd completely forgotten about the backgrounds of those two Nobel Laureates, Yasser Arafar and Menachem Begin, two former revolutionaries who dared to outlive their colorful pasts to become "Men of Peace." Our president's record is in no way comparable, of course.

One must factor in the Marshall Mcluhan effect before drawing conclusions. That I neglected to do, unfortunately.

Betty


Re: Wheels ever turning ...


From: Linda
To: Betty Reid Soskin
Subject: Re: Wheels ever turning ...
Date: Nov 26, 2012 9:28 AM

Betty, I've been meaning to respond to your amazingly thoughtful email. Please excuse my delay - holiday eating and shopping caught up with me.

I do hope you'll place these ideas in your blog. They are powerful and certainly release a host of heated themes. That said I often wonder if a president should be judged by his character and actions within the handcuffs/context of the era in which he governs.

The delicate race balance is a fascinating issue. Though, your comments on how Mr. Obama has worked to perpetuate the changing shape of war: endless war against unknown individuals. Though this is more a testament of the civil strife he inherited, no? Osama had, in a sense, become the only KNOWN unknown individual, a person who could be crushed and possibly symbolize the end of this type of war, the transcendence to another way forward. (just playing devil's advocate here). I do believe placing Osama before a global court of law would have been the just thing to do - though it would certainly have placed Americans living abroad in harm's way (including myself at the time).

"How on earth did he end up the only Nobel Peace prize recipient with a kill list?" I remind you that Yasser Arafat is also among the recipients.

How does America continue to be a beacon of opportunity and hope when there are such coordinated global efforts to trample it? Constitutionally speaking, it's by making sure no one is above the law. Though when has America ever truly operated under this mandate? Obama had us convinced that he would be the first and by doing so would refresh America's brand. This did NOT happen. And in that sense I truly understand your grievance.

So fascinating to engage in dialogue with you. And I'm glad this exchange helped. It appears my editor is taking the economic route for the larger in-depth video. I am disappointed, but Peter cheered me up  by reminding me of our documentary (a work in progress which will be done on our terms).

Meanwhile, we'll be sending you a wedding invite today. We're so happy that you'll be a part of our really special day.

Love,
Linda

Message

To: Linda
Subject: Wheels ever turning ...
Date: Nov 21, 2012 1:17 PM

Been thinking since your recent message -- about just how I'm feeling about this second term.  I've learned a lot, not the least of which is that -- while I'm generally quite satisfied with his first term, there are some profound disappointments as well.  And they're not race-based, surely not as much as one might expect. I've been getting some practice in trying to field questions posed by the audiences during my twice-weekly presentations in the little theater of the Visitors Center. Your recent message inviting me to wonder about the comparisons between then and now (the Inaugurations), really started the wheels turning. Whether or not such thoughts are of any value to your (potential) assignment, I've learned a lot from these me-to-me "discussions."

I'm finding that -- where there is a general feeling of satisfaction with Obama's first term, and a good deal of hope for the second, there are some major disappointments as well.  Obviously, he's had to toe the line in a delicate balance in an effort to be president of "all the people" in the face of dashed hopes of African Americans who've been waiting in line for justice and equality since the Emancipation Proclamation, at least. I'd hate to have been faced with that impossible choice. With Prof. Cornel West and Tavis Smiley leading the charge, it must have been extremely difficult at times.

But in the end, it was not the racial issues that were the most disturbing. The most crushing disappointment for me personally, was trying to come to terms with a side of his personality that was unseen prior to his ascendance to become undisputed Leader of the Free World. It was his abandonment of the Rule of Law -- the bedrock of our whole system of governance. I remember weeping as I watched him stand at the lectern to announce that we'd brutally killed Osama Bin Laden. The stark presence of an air of vengeance in that moment was almost too much to bear. Why had we not captured and tried Bin Laden in our courts for the whole world to see?

When had we entered into wars against individuals? At my age, I had experienced WWII, and painfully come terms with the essential wars of defense against governments.

It was distressing when we drifted into wars against 'terrorists' under the Bush administration, but I'd believed that was an aberration, and -- when they left office, sanity would return. Instead we've drifted into an endless war against unknown individuals who might have been dealt with by Interpol at an earlier time. Instead, I've grown less and less comfortable with the continuance of Guantanamo and the disturbing image of military technicians sitting in bunkers somewhere in Colorado -- lobbing Drones into faraway lands to slay those who've been judged as "terrorists."

It's been a slow decline from WWII when 54.8 millions lives were sacrificed, worldwide, and when we were still counting civilian death -- to now, when any casualties but our own are summarily dismissed as "collateral damage."

Why do I lay this at the feet of our president (for whom I had such high hopes)? It's because his education and background -- even before his experience at community organizing -- was in constitutional law. How on earth did he end up the only Nobel Peace prize recipient with a kill list? Has he really abandoned the Rule of Law, and if so, what hope do we have for not becoming the scourge of the world?

That night as he announced the killing of Bin Laden, there was more than a hint of having avenged a wrong. "An eye for an eye" is a step back into the dark world of the past, and somehow I hoped that we were better than that, and that he would lead us to our better selves.

Disturbing thoughts on the eve of his second inauguration, right? Maybe my hopes were just too high. Perhaps we should be satisfied with his domestic successes - which are considerable. But in a fast-changing world that is shrinking so fast through technological advances and unprecedented mobility, we're impacted by forces that are shaping our future in ways that we can hardly comprehend. It was impossible not to feel the urgency of the "Arab Spring," and to not share the hopes and dreams of other peoples in other places over our breakfast coffee and the first search of the Internet each morning. We can't afford "vengeance," at a time when the world is crying for "democracy" of the kind that both our president and our people (of whatever color) have been yearning for over the millenium. We need to keep being the hope of the world, and if Obama has a mandate, it's international, and achievable -- I believe -- and if his abandonment of the Rule of Law is any indication of his mindset -- I'm not sure I want to know it.

Betty
Request for a proposed interview by a major newspaper started the wheels a-turnin' ... .

... and the torrent of unexpressed thoughts and opinion roared into consciousness.

The inquiry came from a dear friend, and a member of the press whose work in the international media is truly impressive.  (Not having her permission, I resist the urge to name names here).

It came in the form of, "I'm proposing some ideas to my editor for a piece about the up-coming inauguration for the second term of President Obama, and one might be asking you to talk about how you feel now in comparison to what you felt in 2009?"  I'm guessing that she was referring to my hopes, and whether or not they'd been fulfilled.

I lay it aside for a few days, always with a nagging feeling that there was something resistant in me to form the words that had been lurking in the dark corners of my mind for some time now.  I realized that allowing myself to "go there" could enable me to more comfortably field the questions that come up in the small audiences who attend my commentaries in the little theater of the Visitors Center twice-weekly.  Since I do mention the first inauguration, and my responses to it, at some point such question will surely arise. This I needed to think about, and Linda's proposal just might provide an opportunity that I might otherwise have casually tossed off.   Whether an interview would ever actually be published, or that any product beyond the conversation between us would be the outcome became less important than that I think it through.  Her editor disappeared from the foreground, and the following exchange took form:

(With her permission, I'd like to post both my response along with hers.  I learned much from her more sophisticated worldly response, so the two make for an interesting counterpoint. I'll seek her permission before day's end.)

Monday, November 19, 2012

Marcy Wong stopped by the Visitor's Center today ... .

... and was reminded of an unfulfilled item on my bucket list; that of getting Marcy Wong, Astronauts Mae Jemison and the late Sally Ride; brilliant  and feisty Rachel Maddow; courageous journalist Amy Goodman, et al, recognized as present-day successors to Rosie the Riveter.  This park must not end up dying because it became a mausoleum for women of the past.  While celebrating those of us who served our country on the home-front at a time of need is a worthy cause, the social changes that accompanied our emancipation have continued to have an impact on the nation and must be noted.  Today's young women's lives are a reflection of our on-going struggles for equality in the workplace.  Equal pay for equal work is not yet fully realized, and the Equal Rights Amendment has never been ratified.  Even equal representation in Congress, though growing, falls far short of the 50% that would be needed to match our percentage of the population.

Marcy is the award-winning designer/architect responsible for the restoration and reconstruction of Ford Point, the old Ford Assembly Plant at the end of Harbour Way South -- on the scenic shoreline in Richmond.

Ford Point - Craneway Pavilion
The magnificent quarter-mile long structure was designed by Albert Kahn in 1931, and built to assemble Model A autos.  About ten years later, the plant was taken over for the assembling of 43,000 tanks and jeeps for the war in the Pacific theater of WWII.

The building was almost totally destroyed by the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1987, and -- for a time its continued existence was seriously threatened by those who firmly believed the property would be of  far greater value if the hopeless ruins could be dismantled and hauled away. Fortunately for us, the preservationists won out in the end and the iconic structure was saved

Visitors Education Center
Enter the dynamic developer, Eddie Orton, of the Emeryville-based Orton Development Company -- with brilliant Marcy Wong onto the scene, and not only was it restored to historic preservation standards, but its Craneway Pavilion's cathedral-like grandeur is now available for public events on a scale previously undreamed of.  Not only that, but the building is filled to capacity with green businesses, plus being included as one of the scattered sites that form the Rosie the Riveter /WWII Home Front Historical National Park.  Our Visitors Education Center now welcomes visitors from throughout the country and the world.

I mentioned this to someone yesterday, and the fact that we might want to be thinking about creating a Feminist Hall of Fame someday, a place where young women who have found their way into the workplace in non-traditional careers and occupations might be recognized and celebrated.  He reminded me that Maria Shriver had established such a place in Sacramento, and that I should look into it:



... so?  Should there be only one such site?  Does that site reflect the relationship between women entering the trades, politics, arts and culture, and corporate leadership with Rosie the Riveter's entrance into the American workforce?  If it doesn't then it's missing a critical linkage between then and now.  We can establish that connection.  Someone should.  The Women's Movement of today is but one expression of the struggle that has been going on since early in the 20th Century -- and before.  Today's young women harken back to Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, and Sojourner Truth, but the historic record tends to skip over the times celebrated by Rosie's era; at least until we came into being ten years ago as the omission was finally realized.  The Movement needs to double back and pick up those unlearned lessons in order to fully understand our history in order to move into the future better informed.

Maria Shriver's contribution to the cause of the women's and human rights is immeasurable.  Her televised annual conferences were/are unforgettable and profoundly effective.  That's indisputable.  But it doesn't stop there.  There's still work to do, and -- the responsibility for continuing that work falls to those of us who temporarily have the public's fickle attention.

Marcy Wong personifies a great achievement in her field, and public recognition does more than simply add to her list of personal achievements, but also serves as a model for young women whom she might inspire to follow in her footsteps.  In my imagination, her work on Ford Point and the Visitors Education Center are equal to that of Maya Lin, Kazuyo Sejima, Zaba Hadid, or Julia Morgan, and should be celebrated as such.

Sincerely dreaming,

Betty

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A fragment from the life of Leontine Breaux Allen, family matriarch for many decades ... .

My mother's younger sister, Aunt Vivian Allen-Jernigan, adored her grandmother, and loved to tell about how -- once the chores were completed in the fields, and at the end of the day,
"When I was a small child "Mammå" would sink into the living-room rocking chair and with an ever-so-slight motion with her hand would send me to a secret place beside the fireplace to bring forth a little corncob pipe and tobacco pouch from behind a loose brick.  She made me feel as if this was a secret shared between us.  She would then send me to bed while she remained seated -- silently drawing on her pipe until the house of many people would settle down for the night.  It was only then that she would climb under the mosquito netting of the big bed -- until the first morning light."

By far the most intriguing story had to do with the critical role Mammå played in the little community of St. James.  She was the town "medical assistant," serving as "intern" for the circuit-rider doctor who came through on horseback about every 3 months.  She also served as the town's midwife and delivered not only family babies, but for most of the women in their village.  I suspect that this would have been for African Americans, only, though I'm not sure about this.  After visiting the African American Historical National Park in Anacostia -- and seeing the exhibits of those women who served as midwives -- it wasn't made clear.

During the few days before the doctor's visit it was she who rode her horse through St. James calling on all those who may need medical attention.  The routine was that she'd place a white towel on the gate posts of each home where help was needed, and that this determined just where he would stop. According to Vivian's account, the doctor would confer with Mammå  on patient's aftercare, and that it was she who would be accountable for their health issues until his return months later.

Those stories made her one of my personal heroes early in life, and during the 1995 honoring ceremonies -- being named one of ten outstanding women by the National Women's History Project I had cause to wonder ... one never feels worthy, I suppose, but I came to terms with the proceedings upon realizing that I'd spent my whole life -- never seeking public office or acclaim (though surely was courted from time to time) but that, instead, I'd been completely satisfied to find fulfillment in draping symbolic "white towels" over imaginary gateposts anywhere help might be needed throughout not only my community, but as a field representative for the 14th Assembly District in later life, and, now in my role with the National Park Service.

"Children will listen,"

It is her work that provides shape and form to mine to this day, and she is cited in my commentaries at the twice-weekly theater presentations -- and with great pride and humility.  She and I are players in the great American narrative, as are so many extraordinary ordinary people.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The story of Leontine Breaux Allen; my great-grandmother ...

I can hardly imagine that I haven't put this story to words before now, but a quick scan of the archives indicates that this may be so.  The story is one told by both "Papa" George Allen, her eldest son, and his youngest daughter and my aunt, Vivian Allen Jernigan:

Leontine was born into slavery in 1846 and with her mother, the slave Celestine, was a house servant.  Vivian tells of their cooking in the kitchen of their plantation owner, Edouard Breaux, and walking down to the fields 3 times a day bringing meals to the field hands.  After the Civil War she would marry Corporal George Allen of the Louisiana Colored Troops -- a man who served his country as a soldier on the side of the North.

The lovely family tale is that she was sitting in her front yard pecan tree when the soldiers came marching down the road.  George Allen left ranks and coaxed her down from the limb and carried her on his shoulders for more than a mile before letting her down.  He later became a boarder in the New Orleans home of a family member and their courtship continued.  I believe he was originally from Ohio, but that's not certain.  George remains a shadowy figure in our lives, without even a photograph to remind us of his existence.  It's said that there once was a large portrait hanging on the wall of their little home beside the levee in St. James Parish, but that home was destroyed by fire long after her death and the photo must have been devoured by the flames.

I remember the day that the marriage records turned up in the archives of the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge in the form of a brief statement written in French attesting to the marriage of Edouard Breaux and her mother, Celestine ("of no last name").  There it was, his signature and her "X".  That occurred in 1865, at the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation,  At that time, Leontine was 19 years-old. And, yes, Edouard Breaux was the master who owned them both.

Knowing that England had outlawed slavery in 1833 -- and that the importing of human beings from Africa as chattel was no longer legal, the trade no longer involved those shipped into the country, but were now "property" traded for goods; won and lost to settle gambling debts; left in Wills at the death of some owners; and sold and traded within the nation's boundaries as the foundation of the economy.  When it was no longer possible to bring human beings into the country, plantation owners routinely created their own "stock" by brutal rape and other forms of sexual exploitation of black slave women.  Those unprincipled white men were quite literally selling their own children.  Only by a continuing practice of dehumanizing people of color could they have done so, and we have many stories that illustrate this unspeakable truth.

You can imagine my surprise and delight to have discovered this important marriage document that proved that the family lore that told of how the Cajun people -- who were agrarians -- worked the fields with their slaves, and that it was fairly common for deep friendships to be formed, and marriages between Cajuns and black folks were often seen.  Apparently Edouard and Celestine had been in a common-law relationship throughout Leontine's nineteen years, and married in a Catholic ceremony as soon as it was possible to do so -- at the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Leontine's marriage to George Allen, Sr., followed soon thereafter.

In going back through the voluminous packet of legal documents received from the National Archives some years ago, I've been able to pull together (along with those family stories I learned as an inquisitive teenager) a picture of those lives.  Since my great-grandmother, Leontine, lived to be 102, (1846-1948) I was privileged to have actually known my slave ancestor.  I was a 27 year-old married woman and mother of two when she died -- 3 years after the end of WWII.

More later ...


Sunday, November 04, 2012

Thoughts about Leadership ... .

A few weeks ago an email notice from our Chief of Interpretation arrived in my mailbox announcing that all of the Interpretive staff were enrolled in a workshop on leadership -- "for personal growth."  Felt the rise of resistance as I read it, and without hesitancy wrote back to say that -- at my age and status in life, it seemed a waste of training resources for me to be included.  Offered to be on duty in the Visitors Center in order to enable other members of staff who would surely benefit more than I.

I wasn't really certain where the resistance was coming from, but it was clear that at some subliminal level I knew that -- for me -- this would be a repeat of past times during my marriage to psychologist, Bill Soskin, when self examination was practiced almost as a religion.  It harkened back to the "Me!" era of EST and Esalan, weekends gazing at our navels -- and sitting on zafus while chanting "Ohm."  Surely there was little here that could possibly benefit either me or the NPS, so I would resist.

Sent in to the workshop leader (and to my supervisor) a note expressing (in good humor) my reasons for opting out, and found them accepting, but gently suggesting that I reconsider.  I did not.

This local election this year with its often raucus and defaming campaigning has brought into focus the question of leadership in some new ways:

The most obvious would be that there are at least two kinds; those who grab their baton and megaphone and head for the head of the parade as a matter of entitlement, and those who become leaders simply by being followed.  And may I hasten to add that I've seen the first evolve into the second on more than one occasion.  I believe that I fall into the second category.

I've never sought or aspired to public office, and it is quite clear that I've been seen as a leader over the past few decades, at least.  I'm not certain of the reason, but I've come to believe that it has to do with those stories told in the kitchen garden of my grandparent's home when I was a child -- and my best friend was Papa George, chief gardener and family raconteur.  Stories about his mother, Leontine Breaux Allen (as we tied the tendrils of the beans to those little poles) serving her village as the midwife and intern for the circuit-rider physician who rode his horse through their little community every 3 months -- have always intrigued me.  Not sure I've ever put it into words in this journal, but I've told the story publicly on at least two occasions as justification for awards I've been honored to receive (in her name).  "Children will listen" comes to mind as I remember ... .

I really must do that since my great-grandmother has become an important element in my commentaries in the Visitors Center theater.  There's no time for going into enough detail at such times, but -- at some point, I'm feeling the need to flesh that story out.

I don't believe the connections are at all hard to understand since these later years have become the time to connect the dots -- make the summations for the younger family members who may be looking for themselves in my story as I do with those who preceded me in the family hierarchy.

She is so present in my life ... in my current work ... and as I interpret leadership, I believe.

Look for that story, and soon, it feels increasingly important.


Friday, November 02, 2012

Blue Spark

Photo by Heather Hiatt
For Director Heather Hiett's accounting of the Sea Shadow caper ... .

the story

This is the link that will take you there.

You'll find additional photos, as well.

(click to enlarge)

Monday, October 29, 2012

Let it be a dance!


Maybe words are not really needed  ...


True beauty speaks with eloquence enough to command attention without the spoken or written word ... .

Maybe its name is Faith.












Just maybe ... the Sea Shadow is having her say ...


Betty and Athena










It was less dance than simply movement  -- from somewhere deep within.  It felt wonderful to be
responding spontaneously to the exotic sounds filling that cavernous space after decades of voluntary wall-flowering.  I'd forgotten what it was like, and found that just yielding to the rhythms was sensual, heady, intoxicating.  How long has it been since I'd allowed myself to simply surrender my body to the moment?  The only thing that mattered was now!





How my Big Sur poet friend, the late Ric Masten, would have enjoyed this scene!  I fell asleep last night with a fragment of one of his songs, "Let it be a dance!" playing against the night:
... everybody turn and spin
                                                             Let your body learn to bend
                                                             And like a willow with the wind
                                                             Let it be a dance.
                                                             A child is born, the old must die
                                                             A time for joy, a time to cry
                                                             So take it as it passes by
                                                             And let it be a dance ... !
                                                       
Ric would have so loved this scene.


Photos by Heather Hiett

Sunday, October 28, 2012

... and then the Sea Shadow enters from stage left ... .

... as if I didn't live life in a constant state of surprise ... there was still the unanticipated, totally out-of-the-blue and spectacular introduction of this bizarre chapter in the ongoing saga called "... So You Think You've Seen It All!" 

It was an ordinary afternoon of rangering at the Visitors Center when my cellphone vibrated in my pocket.  Surely this was another of the frequent calls from Dorian -- calls that I've had a lifetime of having to accept.  My daughter is incapable of understanding that there are hours in the day when Mom is inaccessible -- and Heaven knows this time it just could be that emergency that is always in the wings waiting to happen ... but it was my niece, Gail, calling from the Out Back,  a little dress shop where she works part time -- and that is the informal Point Richmond gathering place for some of the community's most interesting women.

"How would you like to be a fairy-spirit in a filming to be done day after tomorrow?"  Just my kind of madness, and before she added the rest of the story I was already on board for another adventure.  I stopped by the shop later in the afternoon where I met Heather Hiett, photographer/surfer/exciting artist and director of the project; was outfitted with the suitable gown and jewelry for the shoot; and given the details that were head-spinningly exciting!

Leslie, one of the Out Back patrons and her husband had recently purchased at auction, the Sea Shadow.  This is a secret ship developed by the CIA at Lockheed during the Seventies.  It is currently housed in the humungous hangar-type Howard Hughes-built structure in which it was constructed, and that now sits on a great barge moored at Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay.  Intrigued?  So was I.

After make-up session, waiting to go on ...
The condition of purchase was that whoever acquired the vessel would have to dismantle it within two weeks -- and into pieces no larger than 5 feet.  (Now why would anyone want to do that remains a mystery.)  However, while it remains intact, a group of photographer/artists would have a last chance to use it as a setting for concept pieces that would exist beyond its life.  The 4-hour afternoon event would be videotaped, simultaneously, from many angles for a variety of projects -- that I'm assuming -- will be designed in the editing process.  The finished projects will be posted on YouTube.com; become podcasts, still photographs, etc.

We gathered last Wednesday at the site; Faith, a statuesque and stunningly beautiful model and her little daughter, 6 year-old Athena; Leslie, who -- with her husband -- is the current owner of the ship; Dori, the beautiful District Attorney of Marin County; and Betty, the ridiculously late-blooming author of this blog!  Dori and Leslie were wearing masks and wings, but my mask was my own, and my wings were the white scarf that would allow me to feel airborne -- and it did.

It was early evening, and we were being filmed underneath the Sea Shadow with the Oakland skyline behind us through the opening of the HMB-1 superstructure that held us all.  As a tape of exotic music played and under glaring lights, we (the spirit-fairies), would emerge from the shadows and dance toward the cameras.  It took only a few minutes to accomplish, but -- in my "fashion-forward" chiffon garb with a filmy scarf I emulated a kind of ectoplasmic ethereal Theodora Dumbkin spirit.  What a wondrous experience!  It felt great to be dancing after years of wall-flowering!  I may be the only 91 year-old fairy you'll ever see, but let me tell you -- it was absolutely magical!


Photo:  Leslie Cameron photo.  Gail Clifton in background.