|Giving a talk on board the USS Hornet some years ago|
Last week a call came from our Chief of Interpretation inviting me to think about giving the welcoming address at an upcoming celebration on March 5th. This is a traditional National Park Service program that will take place in the beautiful cathedral-like expanse of the Craneway. This is a first-time ceremony for our park, the birth of a new tradition? It will celebrate the status of 75 brand new naturalized American citizens, their friends, and families. What an honor!
The call came at a time when I'd just returned to the administrative offices after a ten minute "cool down" drive following a presentation in our Visitors Center theater. As always, I feel spent, but affirmed by the experience which tends to leave me always with an emotional high -- though the why of it is puzzling but in a good way. The urge to escape immediately into my car and onto the highway -- caged into its isolation chamber where I can climb back into my skin and re-set all the buttons into a neutral position. Since the end of my work day coincides with the end of my commentary at these "performances," I usually hastily head back to the office where there is quiet and a way to disengage from public scrutiny in the confines of my cubicle before heading home.
It was in just such a state that Morgan's call came -- I heard it as just another outreach assignment which of course was not to be questioned, but to be added to my to-do list and noted on the big shared calendar.
On the drive home it began to dawn -- how significant an event this could be. It will surely require much more than my usual impromptu oral history talks which that have been so successful in our little theater's twice-weekly sessions. Those only required an active memory and a willingness to share experiences of the home front of WWII. This was radically different. I just may have to actually write this one down, lest I lose control in mid-speech.
Could I, an African American, find it within me to create a welcoming speech as an "American," in a nation whose half-hearted treatment of its minorities over time has so effected my entire existence? Would I need to acknowledge that duality in public, and at the same time, be ready to set aside criticism of my country and its incomplete journey toward "liberty and justice for all", at least long enough to uphold our pride of national purpose? And -- could this be done without forfeiting at least a bit of my own integrity?
Such thoughts have kept me awake these past nights, but have also convinced me that it can be done.
Last night I went to my bedroom bookshelves to retrieve my copy of the fellow rebel, author Ken Kesey's, "Sometimes a Great Notion" from its place where it has lain for so many years (except for an occasional dusting). I opened to a page where a small shriveled dried-up nosegay of wild flowers the late Kesey had picked from the dunes -- and which he presented in an act of mock-courtliness --and in a game of self-imposed silence. It was a fog-bound morning at Asilomar where I'd gone to reassert myself as an American, and to reclaim the symbols that had been given up over a lifetime of cynicism and political discontent. It was the early 50s, and a time of a nation's chaotic but ever-lasting transformation.
Note: If you'll type the name, Ken Kesey, into the little white search bar on the left side of the screen -- above my photo and the banner -- you'll better understand the references in this post.