Wednesday, December 30, 2015

... evening light at the Jefferson Memorial
Much has changed -- and I'm still trying to decide just what that is and what it means ... .

So much has happened since our return from the great adventure.  It all came to a crashing halt yesterday when I hit the proverbial wall and I'm still reeling from the impact!

In the days immediately following our journey up the Yellow Brick Road, everything seemed normal -- or however normal is now defined.

Landed at SFO on Saturday, December 5th.  Had two days off (Sunday and Monday) as is my usual schedule -- and reported to work in full uniform on Tuesday.  Except for having experienced the highest point in my long life just a few days before, one might have described my return to schedule as totally without incident.

In my pocket was the only evidence that it wasn't all a fantasy -- the presidential seal -- to be shared with my co-workers.  Otherwise, everything appeared to have returned to "all systems GO!" and I was able to close off the larger-than-life adventure; save it for re-living in those few minutes before sleep each night.

My week was completed with office time at headquarters; filling out travel information and turning in receipts for processing; answering my co-workers questions about what-it-was-like to meet the president, etc., then -- after a few days getting back into real life it was time to deal with Dorian and the need to take on Christmas shopping, finding a tree, digging out the ornaments, making the calls to find out who would be coming to dinner, etc. 

Each night I'd sit at my computer and try to post the story of the National tree-lighting ceremony, and each night I'd give up and go to bed early to avoid trying to organize thoughts that defied every attempt.

Then it was over.  Spent 5 days at home and resting.  It was then that "the world" re-entered with all the hoopla of the holiday season; the awful news of the debates of the presidential campaigns; the new dangers to America's Muslims from the unenlightened; ISIS; Trumpism!; and Tamaya's 18th birthday celebration on Saturday evening (family had postponed from December 1st).  And then it was all over -- everything in the foreground that needed taking-care-of had been done, and it was time to return to work and "normalcy."

Yesterday I returned to give my regular two-o'clock presentation at the Visitor Center and found myself unable to cope with the new celebrity status -- the image of my appearance with President Obama in an embrace on the stage before the giant Christmas tree had been aired on PBS several times, locally, and it's as if the gloves are off -- and I've become a true publicly recognizable "celebrity," and suddenly I'm experiencing a feeling of vulnerability that is new and strangely discomforting.

Did you send this to me?  Would love to know ... .

My feelings of a personality "split" has grown, and thinking of myself in the third person -- which had started out as a joke -- has become quite real, and disturbing.  "Helen" is now personified and sharing life with me.   

Found myself unable to deal with the lines of visitors in our lobby, waiting for tickets to my two o'clock presentation -- and ended up sitting in one of the downstairs offices to get away from whatever madness this had turned into.  Elizabeth, our lead ranger, found me there and said, "... we're going to have a capacity crowd, so you'll need to stay here until we clear out the theater for the next seating.  We'll call you when we're ready."  And then, after years of comfortably sharing my story with friends and strangers with ease, I was now in full panic!

Everything went as planned.  And I walked into a crowded little theater and a hushed audience -- and climbed onto my plain wooden stool to begin my talk.  My palms were sweaty.  Thoughts scrambled.  The first words somehow uttered themselves, and I was on automatic pilot.  I was miserable with no idea what had changed -- except for some X factor that was unidentifiable at that point.

My talk ended about ten minutes (by the wall clock) before it should have.  I'd left out a lot of my story in a rush to end the experience.

I was close to tears much of the time, and had no idea just why that was.  Yet, the audience was clearly not disappointed.  I'd communicated enough to satisfy expectations, but that was no more understandable than anything else ... .

It was in those few moments after my talk ended that I settled for this explanation:

This was the first time that I'd not been sitting on my stool as folks arrived.  They were always coming into my space.  I'd insisted, always, that I introduce myself to my audiences.   It was in the small chatter that the tone was set -- that identifying the faces I'd speak to, the eyes ... .  Had never wanted to be presented.  Today, they were all seated and waiting -- and I'd walked into their space.  Had I always known this?  Could it be as simple as this?

Can it be that I'll not return to the sense of magic that I've always treasured -- without the need to understand until I've processed, fully, the Great Adventure?

We'll see, as I allow myself to re-live it in small pieces over the coming days.

Maybe it's just too big for that ... .

Maybe some things are simply felt too deeply for words to convey ... .


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

It was a most memorable moment in all of the proceedings of those 3 magical days ...  a moment that threatened to compete with even the widely photographed presidential hug on that stage ... .

... and it had little to do with the historic tree-lighting ceremony, but of family, and requires some review, but it's worth that, I think.

It unfolded just moments before the girls and I were scheduled to meet Martha in the hotel lobby to leave for the National tree-lighting ceremony where we would meet the First Family.

Just as we were moving toward the door of our hotel room, one of the girls looked at the other, and saying ...  "oh, we almost forgot."  So saying Alyana turned back and dove into her luggage and came up with the exquisite little silk beaded evening bag that I'd given to their elder sister some time ago.  Along with the gift I'd included a letter explaining that this was given to Aunt Emily, eldest daughter of my great-grandmother Leontine, by her husband, Dr. Raleigh Coker, on the occasion of their 35th wedding anniversary.  It carries a Paris label, so was a treasured artifact.  It was later given by Aunt Emily to my mother's younger sister, Vivian,  upon her graduation.  Vivian had lived with the childless couple through her years at Xavier.  It was Aunt Emily who provided a home for a number of Mamma's grandchildren as they moved out of St. James Parish to pursue educations and to start lives in New Orleans. 

Years later Aunt Vivian would present the little treasure to me along with the story of its beginnings.

When my son, David's, eldest daughter grew into (what I'd hoped was) enough maturity to understand its value, I wrote a letter explaining its origin, wrapped it carefully in tissue, and passed the beautiful little gift along to my granddaughter, Kokee Amanda Reid.  By now, though never spoken of, it had evolved into a woman's ritual of love that we were all a part of.

On another track; in Freedom Summer of 1964,  we were living in the suburbs about 12 miles out of the city -- where I was a member of the Unitarian Universalist church.  It was at Fellowship status, with about 25 young families daring to form the beginnings toward full church status.

Among my friends (white) was a father, Don Sanford, who'd lost his wife, the mother of two young daughters when the girls were quite young.  Over the years, Susan, his eldest daughter, and a university student then about 18 --  having been raised by a wise father in a politically liberal environment -- was now ready to try her wings as a volunteer teacher in a Freedom School in Canton, Mississippi, as a member of SNCC.  Susan was a student at the University  and -- along with others was giving up her education for awhile in order to become a part of the struggle for civil and human rights -- the challenge of her generation.

I believe I may have had Susan as a student in my religious education class at the Mt. Diablo Unitarian church.  Connections with the Sanford family were only casual, but it's interesting to note that my deepest involvement in the Civil Rights struggles of the Sixties was largely in concert with the white social activist members of my church and their children.  That congregation went through the Civil Rights Revolution right along with me, and facilitated my participation in the struggle at the national level.  

This was happening at a moment in my own history when my marriage was slowly disintegrating, and the pearls that you see were the symbol of the need for re-consecration.  The little necklace had been the gift from my young husband on our wedding day, May 24, 1942.

The evening before Susan was to leave for the hostile deep South, I was invited by Don to join the family for a farewell dinner.  It was then that I gave the pearls to Susan with the words, "... I'd love for you to wear this under your tee shirts as you work -- to keep you safe, and to give me a presence in this important undertaking."  There was no possibility of my joining that struggle since I had four young children needing care.  This struggle was far beyond my reach.  At the end of summer Sue returned home and the pearls were returned to me, having completed their work successfully.

When Alyana graduated from high school, I wrote a letter explaining the story of the little necklace without a feeling that anyone could possibly understand fully what they meant to me.  How could one so young and uninformed possibly know?  Summer of '64 was hardly a footnote by now, but at least I was passing what I believed to be a connection that one day -- maybe -- the significance would reveal itself to her.

The three girls, Alyana, Tamaya, and Kokee, had apparently gotten together just before leaving home and determined that the little bag and the pearls needed to be included in some way in this momentous occasion we would be engaged in, together, on this historic night in Washington.

If you're wondering why my face was so colorless in those photos of the event, I'd cried away my makeup hours before -- and my appearance was simply of no concern.

A few hours later, I would stand at that lectern with my great-grandmother's picture in my breast pocket, holding my notes in one hand and Aunt Emily's lovely gift in the other.  Inside it would be the blessed-by-history little pearls and the presidential seal that had been quietly slipped into my palm by the acknowledged Leader of the Free World!

Somehow the kids knew.

I needn't have doubted that.

Somehow the importance of legacy had been transmitted, and from this day forward it will go on with Leontine's descendants, despite the distractions of whatever the future holds ... .

I've returned both the items to their proper owners, but have kept the commemorative Seal for just a little longer ... .

Monday, December 14, 2015

Still processing the Washington adventure ..

                   "Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.  They want rain without thunder and lightning.  They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters ...Power concedes nothng without demand.  It never did and it never will."
                    Frederick Douglass - Letter to an Abolitionist Friend - 1857              


... and, now that I've been home for a few days, those fresh memories are becoming a jumble of impressions -- out of sequence, and disorderly -- when I sit down and try to organize them into words that march together in a parade of new understandings -- and logic.  But, no, they persist in moving into my consciousness in full rebellion, refusing to line up as they should, but instead just schmush their way to my frontal cortex like some bawdy vaudeville act!

There's the continuing unfolding of thoughts born at the end of that second floor alcove window overlooking the Capitol -- when I first became aware of the great Frederick Douglass, the man, whose mansion has been preserved so beautifully, while we have less awareness of his ideas as he lived them, and -- through them -- influenced the Abolitionist Movement, and the Lincoln presidency as well.  And how today's continuing struggle for human and civil rights appears to have lost its ties to those which came before by a succession of iconic black leaders.  Oh, they're remembered because they're deeply embedded in black history, and still memorized diligently by black school children to this day, but not by mainstream American history as they should be.

Then it dawned:  Much of that history was limited to a handful of black publications -- The Pittsburgh Courier,  the Chicago Defender, the Amsterdam News, the Crisis, etc., but that means that only African Americans learned of historic events like the Double V Campaign started by James Thompson's letter to the Pittsburgh Courier; the Port Chicago Explosion that cost 320 lives, 202 being black naval  personnel; the mutiny trials for those 50 sailors who refused to return to reloading ammunition; the exploits of Bessie Coleman who went to France as a young woman where she had to learn the language in order to be trained in aviation because she couldn't do that here at home; and Fannie Lou Hamer's valiant but hopeless attempt to seat the Mississippi Freedom Party in the Democratic Convention.  So many stories that only came to light because black Pullman porters traveling across country on the rail lines, took on the responsibility of dropping off bundles of black newspapers at depots along their routes -- to be picked up locally -- and distributed by and sold in barber shops, and beauty salons, and newsstands in black communities, throughout the nation.

Such stories were simply not seen as relevant to the American Narrative; 'tis the pity!  How different it might have been had there been a recorded blended history so that we could now find ways to more accurately restore and preserve our nation's story as it was lived by all of its people. 

Our national park is dealing with a more recent history that is more easily captured because that history occurred at the dawn of a more enlightened era.  It will be more difficult to go back and try to trace the connections between the ideas of Douglass and those African American icons who followed his lead down through the last century.   But I'm sure those links are still traceable, and that America would be the greater for knowing our true and more complete history.
Brilliant Ta Nehisi Coates - activist and writer for the Atlantic

I suspect that it is those of us now living -- those of us who were readers of the black press -- who can help our National Park System to do that work, starting with the Frederick Douglass site. Today's generation of emerging black leaders need these truths in order to find the footprints left by those who've gone before.

Small wonder that we evolved as two nations, one black and one white,  "separate but not equal", without the benefit of being able to build a history in common because the lives of black people remained invisible to the rest of the population, except weakly, and often through unknowing well-meaning white voices.

We should be seeing today's Black Lives Matter as but another pulsation in the long struggle for equality -- one that extends from the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 to the present.  Instead, from a white perspective, this most recent iteration of the Civil Rights Movement is simply seen as one more illogical spasm of unreasoning, disconnected,  inexplicable attack of madness, rising from an ignorant people hopelessly locked into a level of poverty and criminality that defies the country's greatest efforts to bring change to lost lives.

I was reminded of all this upon seeing, once again, the Capitol building and surrounding magnificent structures built long ago by black slave laborers.  

Being so overcome with good feelings about this great adventure that it was impossible to mention this painful truth to my unknowing granddaughters.

... maybe next time... when the glow begins to fade ... .

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Clever grandmother outfoxed by technology ... .

Still on Pacific Coast time, I'd climbed into bed early after our first day in Washington.  I was tired, but wide awake; though pretending to be asleep.

Tamaya stayed up to await her sister's arrival sometime after eleven, and was in a constant state of "texting" Alyana, her Dad, and friends back home on the West Coast.  Such is the state of technology these days; either connecting us to those we love, or, helping us to avoid those in the foreground.

This seemed neither, however, but simply provided cover for the obvious gap between my age and hers, so that feigning sleep was not only convenient, but allowed enough time and space for me to process the experience of having entered this historic first day on our great adventure.  I suppose that we were both vibrating with anticipation, and fully appreciating the self-imposed silence at the end of a most exciting day.

Life, for me, was moving far too fast at this point.   Fortunately, Martha was wise enough to control how much to prepare me for coming events, so it never became overwhelming.  We just came together each night and shared briefings as they emanated from NPS staff.

We were sharing a room with two Queen-sized beds, one shared by the two girls.  Great accommodations provided by your tax dollars and great planning by our hosts, the National Park Service.

Alyana would arrive late on Wednesday night and would take a taxi from Ronald Reagan airport since she was in the middle of finals back at the University of California at Irvine, and couldn't travel on Tuesday with her sister, grandmother, and Martha Lee.

The fact is that we were traveling on Tuesday, December 1st; on Tamaya's 18th birthday!  We will celebrate Alyana's birthday on December 23rd.  They will vote for the first time in the upcoming election cycle.

You'll want to know that Tamaya is two years younger than her precocious elder sister, and has lived in that shadow all of her young life.  Alyana is in her sophomore year on a full scholarship, having entered with a 4.12 GPA and who can follow that?  Grandma was sensitive to the implications of her status having spent an entire childhood and adolescence as a middle child between two very pretty and talented sisters.

As we waited for Alyana's arrival, I feigned sleep while being aware that Tamaya had spent a mind-boggling day of touring the memorials; visiting the Capitol and our congressman's offices, and -- by being careful to not be too obvious, I was in a position to hear her reactions voiced to her elder sister -- and wouldn't that be interesting?

Tamaya is naturally quiet and not in any way demonstrative so this might be my only chance to know how she was really feeling about how this very special birthday had been spent.

Unfortunately, at around 11:30 the desk called to announce Alyana's arrival and I had to "waken" long enough to confirm that we were expecting her to join us.  I did so as "sleepily" as I could so that I could continue eavesdropping -- a grandmother's privilege under these circumstances, right?

A few minutes later came a gentle knock at the door; then silence.  I knew that she'd entered the room but there was not a sound.  No welcoming giggles.  Nothing.  Nada.  Since the two of them are separated by 500 miles with Alyana in southern California and Tamaya living at home and in a community college in the Bay Area, there should have been an explosion of sisterly greetings.  The two are very close and intimately connected.

Waited while not doing any giveaway stirring out of my "sleep," ... until I could bear it no longer.

Then,  carefully drawing the blankets down enough to peer over at the other bed in the darkness, I could see the two girls lying side-by-side -- each huddled silently over their laptops -- busily typing away in a conversation that would not be penetrated even by a loving though scheming grandmother!

They were just being considerate of their weary elder ... but she'd outsmarted herself.  Should have simply chatted with them about the incredible day we'd just spent together -- and of whatever was to come on our exciting tomorrow when we would meet the president and his family at the National tree-lighting ceremony!

Damn, damn, damn!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Tamaya Reid, Grandma, and Martha Lee
Still in recovery mode from the wildest and most exciting 3 days of life that I've ever experienced ... at least until tomorrow ... .

From the time that our United Airlines flight landed at Ronald Reagan airport in Washington, D.C., and the quick ride to our hotel by taxi -- finding granddaughter Tamaya  and I in bed on Eastern Standard Time (far too early!) when all of my nerve endings were still on Pacific Standard Time was crazy!  But it was unavoidable since we would be picked up early on Wednesday morning for the beginning of our great adventure.  Her sister, Alyana, would arrive later that night from the University at Irvine -- staying behind to fulfill her work as a student in her second year.  She would complete her assignment for finals between events over the time of our visit. 

Ranger Jerry Hawn, who is normally stationed at the WWII Memorial, had been assigned to us as driver and well-informed interpreter for the day which was to begin at the Lincoln, Vietnam, and Korean Memorials, followed by a visit to Congressman Mark DeSaulnier's office for a box lunch and a tour of the House; then to the site of the Frederick Douglass home in the middle of the black community in nearby Anacostia.

Martha and I had visited the Douglass home some years ago when we visited Washington hosted by the National Women's History Project, but at that time it was closed for some reason, so this would be our first look at the interior.  What a beautiful mansion it is!  It has ten bedrooms, and suggests more luxury than I'd ever imagined.  To learn that Douglass's first wife was black and his second marriage was to a white woman is surprising until you know his explanation which was, "my first marriage was related to my lineage as a slave, and the second to the people of my father."  Makes a kind of sense, right?

Of course, the rooms are all roped off by velvet ropes, and -- in order to present the home as authentic to the times as possible -- there was no electricity so on a gray day in the heart of winter, being that authentic left a lot to be desired.   The darkness added to a feeling that this was more like a mausoleum than the home of a once-active former slave who rose to a position of power as a colorful and wise adviser to President Lincoln.

An alcove window at the end of the hallway
The home that once sat in the middle of 12 acres atop a hill that overlooks the Capitol, the Congress, the memorials and monuments that make up the seat of power for the entire known Western world.  But here it sits as a long-dead symbol at a time that -- were Frederick Douglass still living -- he would have been actively leading the Black Lives Matter movement.

From a brief conversation I learned that there is almost no involvement between the site and the surrounding black community; though I'm sure that this is surely not by intent.  Why, do you suppose, that would be?

The nation has entered another pulsation in the ongoing struggle for full equality as the result of the cleavage between African Americans and the Justice System as the result of excessive incarceration rates of young black and brown men, and, the growing incidents of brute force resulting in death by militarized police forces across the nation.  There is now and will continue to be demonstrations, nationwide, by the young in response to -- not only the injustices -- but as the result of the growth of social media as tools for organizing toward a more compassionate future.

It is hard to imagine that our great leaders of the past (Douglass, King, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Fannie Lou Hamer, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, et al) would not be leading in a continuing struggle were they still among us.  Their ideas should continue to prevail.

We've developed some strong new young voices that echo those messages; Ta Nehisi Coates, Joy-Ann Reid, Isabel Wilkerson, Kahlil Gibran Muhammad, and others -- and a generation of artists who are re-phrasing those messages in new ways (the playwright Miranda and Hamilton!), and finding willing listeners of every size, shape, color and race to speak to and march with.  It's a very new world.

I am so aware that our park, Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park, is successfully layering back into the national narrative -- the complexity of those life-changing years of 1942-1945 -- years during which the seeds for the modern Civil Rights Movement of the Sixties were planted and nurtured.

Those dramatically life-altering black lives need to be re-examined for clues toward finding answers to the ongoing pursuit of the American Dream for all of our people. They, along with the abolitionists and conductors on the Underground Railroad who tried to leave footprints for others to follow, but who have been insufficiently studied over the recent past.

We've done a brilliant job of saving and restoring the bricks and mortar parts of that history, but it is the legacy of great ideas that gets distorted and/or forgotten over time.  We've not done justice to the contributions to the building and maintenance of an evolving nation that those vibrant and dedicated American leaders left in their wake.  We've done a far better job with the legacies of Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir in creating a robust movement in relation to the environment, but in the continuing struggle for equality and justice, our record is not nearly as complete nor effective. 

In light of the precarious state of the world,  it may be critically important that we revisit the legacy of those early leaders of this young nation for signs that we're  beginning to really listen, and the National Park Service is the agency best positioned to witness and encourage that growth.

We've done a far better job of integrating minority populations into our democracy than is evident anywhere in Europe.  We've stumbled in the process, but those folks who've been always "trying to get it right" down through history are showing signs that they're succeeding despite the temporary setbacks and occasional repressive detours.

Past efforts by the great historic black leaders of the past must be refreshed and re-examined if our nation is to continue to provide leadership for a restlessly changing and increasingly dangerous world.  In the current period of international unrest, I think that you'll find echoes of the pleas of much of the developing world and its constituents.

There are, of course, those opposing voices that would have us repeat much of our painful past history to our detriment -- but under the freedoms set in place by those leaders of old, we have the opportunity to engage in dialogue and debate that will help to create new pathways through the jungle of deception and injustices, but we can't get there without knowing from whence we've come.  It is through the National Park Service that those places for transformation are being clearly marked by enlightened leadership.  I'm so grateful to have been a part of that process over the past decade.

It was one of those moments -- that come more often in these years -- when my most fervent wish would be that there would be enough time left ... .

But this was only the first day of our 3-day magical trip up the Yellow Brick Road, and I had not yet met the Wizard!

More to come ...


Monday, December 07, 2015

That unbelievable moment when time stood still ... .

Should Fate follow the pace now set by forces seen and unseen, Life should be anything but bland over the next few years!  I'm way overdrawn at the Wonder Bank.  Can't imagine how the beautiful people manage to live through it all ....

The only item left on my bucket list is Lyn Manuel Miranda's Hamilton!

On Saturday when we landed at SFO I'd not yet seen the televised event that I'd participated in just 24 hours before.  In fact, it was hard to realize that it had all happened within 3 days.

I'd walked through the Frederick Douglass house in Anacostia with Martha and my granddaughter, Tamaya; re-visited the Lincoln, the Vietnam, and Korean Memorials -- all in a drizzling rain that dampened everything but our spirits.  We'd met Ranger Jerry Hawn who generally holds forth at the WWII Memorial, but who had been assigned to serve as our guide and interpreter for the first day.  He was gracious and well-informed and served us well throughout the day.

Wednesday's schedule included an invitation to spend considerable time with my congressman, Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, who hosted our group (Martha, Tamaya, our filmmakers - Doug McConnell and Stefan), for lunch in his stately offices.

His current work includes the gaining of exoneration, posthumously, for those convicted of mutiny, for refusal to return to reloading of ammunition after the tragic explosion at Port Chicago on July 17, 1944, in which 320 American lives were lost.  It is our hope that President Obama will sign that bill before leaving office, and Rep. DeSaulnier's goal is to see that this happens.  Since the president signed the legislation that made Port Chicago a unit of the National Park System, chances are good that we'll be able to close the books on this project soon.  We got to talk about the bill's progress through channels.

He then led us out into the long hallway of impressive offices marked with plaques announcing legislators of note -- through Statuary Hall where Rosa Park's statue has now been installed, as only one of two women present among the iconic men of history.  There was a moment of conflict for the Unitarian-Universalist in me since it was the statue of Rev. Thomas Starr King whom she replaced; a Californian whose work prevented California from entering the Civil War on the side of the South.  I'm told that his statue is now back home on State grounds in Sacramento.

Then on to a trip down to the level where our leaders transport themselves to the Senate and the House where bills are debated (at least theoretically).   As our group made its way down that long lower pathway, a surprise!  Suddenly walking towards us is the East Bay's longtime activist and my friend, Representative Barbara Lee,  and we were both rushing forward to embrace as if we were at the corner of 14th and Broadway just leaving Geoffrey's Place back in Oakland!

Led by our host, our group was able to sit for awhile in the Members Gallery in the House where we listened to young Rep. Joe Kennedy, grandson of Robert Kennedy, passionately urging the renewal of the Education Bill on the floor of the House.  It was a moment to remember for my granddaughter, Tamaya, who was wide-eyed through her special moment in time.

More later ... .

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Arrived home yesterday from the greatest adventure of my amazingly adventurous life ... .

... and I'm so far up the Yellow Brick Road that it may take considerable time before I'm back in touch with reality!

I've been to see the Wizard, and he's all-powerful, brilliant, and worthy of our patriotism and dedication.

But I cannot get to this remarkable historic story without starting at the end.  Right now this small object is dominating every thought and consuming all of the intellectual powers at my command.  I can think of little else.  I'm still savoring the moment:

We'd been marking time in the Talent Tent, a large canvas structure that was well-heated and where those gathered prior to performing in the National Park Service holiday special; the National  Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in President's Park in the Ellipse -- with the President and First Family.

First of all, the Obamas are physically and unbelievably beautiful!  Though I've seen countless photographs of Michelle -- nothing prepared me for how stunningly beautiful she is!  He, of course, exudes a boyish charm, but power emanates from every pore and sinew.  I had a visceral response the moment they walked into the room preceded by a bank of Secret Service agents.

I suddenly felt that I might understand something that had escaped me until that moment.  I suspect that this beautiful and powerful couple is unreasonably frightening to the unenlightened.  For those born to white privilege -- a bedrock component throughout our nation's past and present, and threatening to our future in a fast-changing world -- this has to be demoralizing at the cellular level.  How on earth does one maintain superiority to this remarkable pair who simply refuse to be inferior?  There are inexplicable reasons why these two are threatening in irrational ways; as irrational as the insistence that this president not be allowed a second term by forces in the Congress at the time of his first inauguration.  For reasons beyond comprehension, and even at the risk of the ruin of the nation, this man must be contained.  None of it made sense until that moment.  Might it really be as simplistic as this?  Surely not; but then ... .

As I approached the two, who were standing between the flags of our country and the United Nations, my president offered his hand in greeting.  In that magical moment he took mine and slipped from his palm into mine -- the Presidential Seal!  It was done in secret; subtly.  No fanfare.  Nothing but pure undiluted pride and honor between two people.  This is the way I would have wished it to be, were I asked for guidance.  Obviously, somewhere in their research, someone on staff had discerned this truth, and had shaped my moment in this most memorable way... .

It was then that we were photographed with the President and First Lady -- as a group that included my two granddaughters, Tamaya and Alyana, -- then with me, alone, with the Obamas.  The photos will be sent to us after being signed by the President of these United States of America.

More tomorrow ... .

Friday, November 27, 2015

Are we not hearing their cries?

Between moments of silent grins at the great good fortune now existent in my own life, I've been painfully aware of the awful state of the world, and the catastrophic happenings beyond our borders.  I'm also aware of how much we've forgotten of the era that my generation experienced--that of WWII.  The devastating mistake of not only ignoring the plight of Jews trying desperately to escape the holocaust taking place in death camps in Europe, but also the unjustified imprisonment of Japanese and Japanese Americans in our country at that time -- a mistake we would later admit and atone for as a nation.

Some of us have completely forgotten the courageous fighting men of the racially segregated all Japanese 442nd Combat Unit who -- while their friends and families were imprisoned behind barbed wire in our country -- became the most highly-decorated unit of all for their valor on the battlefields of Italy.  The others, Americans of Japanese descent, who worked diligently in secret throughout the war in Building 9 at the Presidio in San Francisco translating and giving guidance to our War Department in preparation for the invasion of Japan.  We've forgotten all that; heroes all.

Nor do many of our leaders appear to know that much of the information now being gained -- providing what defense there is against the terrorists -- is coming from refugees who are now streaming out of the wartorn middle east in waves of unmitigated misery -- refugees who are either already settled in their new countries, or, are awaiting asylum in camps inadequate to their needs.  It is Syrians and other middle eastern victims suffering under the unspeakable brutality of ISIS who are most in jeopardy and pleading for our help.

Fate is giving us another chance to get it right.

How on earth do we not hear those cries?

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Thoughts while watching media coverage of candidates aspiring to lead us ... .

... and noticing a simple thing that has failed to catch my attention until now, but could be of vital importance. 

Listening to the stump speeches of some of the most bellicose -- now being honed into whatever goes as politically expedient and poll-worthy.

Found myself wondering just how inclusive is their use of the word,"we."  Tiny word, but one with hidden powers beneath its simplicity.

Do you suppose, when that little word is a part of a sentence about our need to protect the people of our country from the scourge of brutal terrorism -- that the man who operates the Taco Truck that delivers lunch to factories and office complexes; the black handyman who cleans the gutters and stops the leaks and his wife who runs the beauty shop; the cleaning woman who can only come to work on Tuesdays because her other jobs take up all the other days; the newly-arrived middle-eastern family who haven't yet mastered enough of our language to stray more than a few blocks from home; their young daughter whose head scarf may still set her apart from her peers and is beginning to weigh heavily;  and those young people living in fear of deportation because -- though they were born and brought up in this country, cannot gain citizenship because their parents are undocumented?  Are all included in the WE?

If those who aspire to lead us were forced to study and explain their "we," and if they, themselves, understood the depth of meaning in its use -- do you suppose they could continue to defend current regression into a kind of isolationism that is indefensible within the context of our founding documents?  That they could -- in good conscience -- be shouting over the voices of the reasonable about closing the borders against those seeking asylum from the unspeakable brutality taking over their homelands?

American lives of every racial group, economic status, culture, and religious affiliation, have been sacrificed to gain and defend our freedoms in decades of endless wars.  All that cannot be waived so that only those who make up the top 1%, or whose skin tones fall in the white/ivory/peach part of the spectrum, would fall under Homeland Security protection.  "WE, the people" come in all flavors, but there's something that sounds hollow about that word as it slips out onto the air waves from the lips of some who would hope to lead us into an increasingly dangerous and separatist future.

... and why does the phrase American exceptionalism make...  my... skin... crawl?

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Whiplash!  Out of total despair -- into sublime joy!

Yesterday, upon arrival at the Visitor Center for my first program of the day, the familiar big yellow school bus arrived from Vacaville, California.  Pouring out of it were 55 high school students with perhaps 5 instructors.  It had been explained that these kids were advanced placement students and had studied this era so were prepped for my talk.  Still  I was more than a bit apprehensive.  The inescapable feeling of late, that someone far younger than I should be interacting with teens -- that the distance between their ages and mine was simply too great for me to hold their interest.  I felt so inadequate.  These could be my grand- and great-grandchildren! Why did anyone believe that this was appropriate?  One of the younger ranger surely should be interpreting this history for them.

But this had been scheduled for me, and there was nothing to do but comply.  Later in the day, at my 2 o'clock presentation, I would have the grownups, and my confidence would return as before.

To add to the confusion, two members of the team who will be filming my talk had arrived and were standing at the back of the theater trying to scope out the existing lighting and to learn how to supplement ...

The kids got seated and I introduced the 15-minute orientation film without incident.  When the lights dimmed and I did the usual -- moved my wooden stool to a place against the wall just beyond the entrance and the black velvet curtain intended to dampen the sounds from the hallway.  It was then that the curtain was drawn back slightly and Wes, one of the docents, tapped me on the shoulder and whispered that there was an urgent telephone call from Tom, our superintendent, - and I must immediately go into Elizabeth's office to answer.

Mind you, I'm still wearing a lapel mike attached to my necktie and it was live!

I made my way across the short hallway; picked up the phone, and at the other end of the line was Director Jon Jarvis of the National Park Service calling from Washington to announce an invitation for me to attend the tree lighting ceremony at the White House with the First Family on December 3rd!  Not only that, but that I was being asked to introduce the president of the United States of America!  I was stunned.  I'm not sure where my feet were, but somehow they fell into place beneath me and took me back into the theater where the film was still in progress.  (Fortunately, Michael, who was serving as my techie had rushed into the office to cut off the mike just before the call came, but not before my voice had boomed out into the audience while en route!)  
Photo by Carl Bidleman
Climbed back onto my stool as "Home Front Heroes" drew to a close.  Looked out at those lovely young faces and said, "You won't believe what just happened.  There was a call from Washington, D.C., and ...", in a few sentences blurted out the incredible story.  "You're the first to know, and you'll just have to keep our secret until it hits the news cycle."   I didn't know at the time whether the news should be shared.  I simply could not have continued my talk with those words crowding out everything else.  They had to be voiced.  Surprisingly, after taking a few quieting breaths, I was able to pick up the next few sentences of my presentation, and allow the excitement to be quelled until the
work was done.  Time enough later to go out to the water's edge to stand quietly to let it all in.

As the kids took leave (after the usual round of picture-taking) I realized that those years between us made us miles apart, but that our humanity was the equalizer.  I don't think that I'll ever experience such fears again, at least not until the next time.  As a parting gift, each took the time to jot down on small slips of paper, their impressions and gratefulness for the experience.  This was surely planned in advance of their coming.  The notes were thoughtful and sincere -- they left me with more than 50 slips that I will treasure against the dark days.

It was then that the filmmakers (who'd followed me out to the water's edge) told me that they were planning to make the trip to Washington with me -- if the permissions were granted by Homeland Security, and for the first time -- I realized that I was probably the only person who didn't know that this was programmed to happen on this day ... .They'd filmed those moments of my explanation to the students in those words that I shall never be able recall ... but maybe it matters not.

... and maybe it was all for the best.  I could not possibly have endured the painful pleasure of anticipation.


Sunday, November 15, 2015

Somewhere in the early days of this journal I'm certain that I wrote of "Betty's 500 ft. area of responsibility" ... .

In the light of the unbelievable savagery experienced in Paris this weekend, I could feel myself shrinking back into the desperate mindset of those days:

On the streets outside our little store in South Berkeley the drug trade had claimed territory and our building was right in the middle of it.  We were at ground zero.  Within a few weeks -- at different times -- I witnessed 4 young black men brutally shot down on the streets; it was a turf war. A police car in fast pursuit in the middle of the night crashed through our plate glass windows.  On a quiet Saturday afternoon with customers browsing the record bins, a bullet screamed through our window from a police action across the street -- and was embedded in the wall behind the counter.  A meeting held by the tenant on our second floor -- a meeting which included the police chief caused the suspicious drug dealers to affix barrel bombs to our 8' plate glass windows and blasted them out in the middle of the night leaving us vulnerable to looters.

Another dark day, due to the indescribable fetid odor of decaying flesh reeking from our dumpster, the garbage collectors found the remains of a fetus that had been festering for a number of days -- from some unknown troubled young soul, surely.

Over time I developed the ability to imagine that there were buttons just below my rib cage, and that I could press one of them as I got out of my car each morning -- to enable the ability to dumb down to a level of insensitivity that would allow me to exist over another work day on the street -- before climbing back into the driver's seat on an exhale upon closing.  Just another day of survival in my state of existence as 3/5ths of a human being (as an African American).  And I suppose, another 5th might be knocked off for my status as woman

At that time I had more money invested in irons bars on my doors and windows than in merchandise for resale.  It was then that -- when I attempted to buy insurance coverage the agent told me that if I could lift our building up and set it down 3 blocks in any directions, they would be happy to write a policy, but where it stood there was simply too much risk.  I could not count on help, either from the insurance company or the police department who were reluctant to clean up the area,  "... because when something happens in other parts of town, we know the most likely place to pick up the culprit!"  They were using our neighborhood as a catchment area for their own purposes. 

Though I've never shirked my political activist role, it was during those years that I stopped trying to change the world and made a commitment to limit my personal area of responsibility to changing just 500 feet!  It worked.  The world would have to take care of itself but everything that lay within my self-imposed boundaries had better shape up or ship out!  It only was then that life became manageable, and the awful panic subsided.  That familiar feeling of a chronic state of panic has returned since Paris ... .

Over past years I've allowed my self-determined sphere of influence to expand unrealistically; to gradually take in city, state, and at times national issues; rarely international.  Currently, my activism includes work with the National Park System, and in that work I've had some real successes.  That is, until Friday's horrific headlines from Paris.

Woke Saturday morning after a sleepless night of agonizing over the brutality -- the unbelievable savagery of ISIS in the unprovoked attack on innocent people in a bloody massacre that defies the imagination! My breathing is not as measured as before, and I have to keep reminding myself to stop the occasional dry sobs so that my palms will be less sweaty and my heartbeat can ease into a more reasonable rate.  I'm experiencing even greater fears as in those dark and frightening days when forced to reduce my world to a more manageable size.

I'm willing to be responsible for my 500 feet, again, if the rest of you will take up those on the East, West, North, and South of mine.  You'll need to recruit for the footage beyond those you designate as your own, though, if we're going to pull this off.  Maybe we can still make it work.  I have to remind myself that -- before turning the store over to my son, David, some years ago -- I had brash young drug dealers standing on street corners with clipboards in white shirts and ties - registering voters!

It's conceivable that ISIS will pose more complex problems, but I'm game if you are.

Meanwhile, I'm simply terrified.

It's this awful feeling of profound helplessness ... and the deep down gnawing suspicion that the known world has spiraled out of anyone's control.

... but this morning as I listened to our young capable President Barack Obama, I was able to lean on just a few moments of confidence in his leadership, before it evaporated into the somber sound bytes coming from NPR.  I can imagine no one in whom I have greater trust in these dark days of fear and uncertainty.

He obviously can't limit his world to 500 feet.  He has the awesome responsibility of the nation and all of the people of the world, who like me, are hungrily looking to him for guidance and assurance that life will go on even as it veers so tragically off course.  Dr. Carson?  Really?  Who else would you suggest?

Would that those who are manning those roadblocks that prevent him from fully governing would stand aside and allow his wisdom to prevail -- is there really anyone else in sight with the power and the purpose to lead us toward a more compassionate future?

Think about that, then take the 500 ft. that abuts mine (east, west, north, or south) and see that everyone who is an eligible voter is registered.

That's how we begin to re-create Democracy in our time.

Friday, November 13, 2015

... then, of course, filming did not begin as scheduled, and both the stilling of the rumor, and that momentary burst of adrenaline in anticipation had to be dismissed ...

... and what passes as normalcy has returned.

New information (received in an email this morning) is that on the upcoming Tuesday the team will arrive at the Visitor Center at 9:45 to scope out the existing lighting in our little theater in order to figure out what supplements will be needed for the cameras.  It is only after that's been done that the work schedule will be arrived at, and (of course) activities of the holiday season are fast approaching.

Since I'm planning to take a week off for the Thanksgiving holiday, later to be followed by two weeks for Christmas and the final week of the year -- it's getting pret-ty "iffy."

Find myself wondering whether this can happen before the first week in the new year?  Sounds very unlikely, but since this is a first experience -- I'm not sure what the preparation period demands, and was under the impression that it's in the editing stages that time is a factor.

So much more time for apprehension to build, and confidence to erode ... but there is also time for experiences with new audiences to absorb, and for that magical warmth to build ... .

I suppose it all balances out in the end.

Maybe it just means that the expected adrenaline rush is a stage that will dissipate over the prep period, and that it will all be uneventful.  But then maybe that nervousness provides the edge that sharpens the experience for us all.

So much to learn.

So little time remaining ... .

... and yesterday, November 12th, is the birthday of my late younger sister, Lottie, and this year I'm missing her dearly which provides it own edge.  She died only 3 years ago.  That sense of urgency returns with a vengeance when I remember just how fragile is life in this final decade.  I cannot imagine Lottie not being alive. She was so vibrant!  How impossible it is to try to visualize the state of non-existence... .

Monday, November 02, 2015

I'm told that this is the week when filming of my theater talks will begin ... .

... and I'm at home today growing edgy and uncertain that I can fulfill expectations ... .

... trying to recapture images of recent week's audiences and finding comfort in the fact that among the visitors were teachers and historians; 4 members of Rep. Nancy Pelosi's staff; 4 white-haired grandchildren of President Franklin Delano and Eleanor Roosevelt; someone who introduced herself as "Eve," who asked if I would be interested in meeting Van Jones (CNN), or in coming to Silicon Valley to speak to those audiences who are changing the world even as we speak? Or, how about a TED talk? All this must mean something of worth is happening here, right?

At the time that Eve came up the adrenaline rush was just subsiding, along with whatever it is that makes it possible for the inner Betty to emerge with the authenticity that validates my work, so outer Betty was really only half present.  I would need these memories, along with that of 15 exuberant students from San Francisco State University who'd been promised extra credit for sitting in on my talk; with the 15 sober young Coast Guardsmen and women who sat at rapt attention last week (they were still and stone-like throughout, and I found myself wishing that I could be present when they were back at their base discussing the experience ... .).   Their firm handshakes as they took leave certainly expressed how deeply they'd been moved.  My presentations have grown from 3/times weekly to -- last week -- 6!  That is not sustainable, though.  The emotional demands of 6 one-hour programs in one week is simply too exhausting, and burnout is predictable.

Fortunately, I will be taking two weeks off during the holiday season.    

It is in the re-examining of those experiences -- and others like them gathered over years -- that will provide the confidence that may or may not carry me through the next two weeks of filming.

I'm often aware in infrequent flashes that a number of visitors are taping my talks with their cellphones, but -- once the work begins -- that awareness moves to an unoccupied corner of my brain -- and I'm only aware of the eyes before me; nothing beyond.  I work with the theater lights turned up to their brightest in order to make that connection possible.  Maybe my response to the presence of cameras and lights will  be no more than a momentary distraction, and that connection with those eyes will be impossible to disrupt; or so we will hope.     

It's in those first few minutes after my last sentence is uttered; just after that long silence as folks are collecting themselves; just before the Q&A is about to start.  That's when I feel most vulnerable, but invariably it is also when I feel most rewarded by the intensity of those moments.  It's in those seconds when I'm placing the stool back behind the lectern and turning to face them as they move toward me to take leave with a handshake or a warm hug, and I feel the closeness of our encounter most directly -- the cellphones come out and photos to take home get taken ... .

I need to remember that -- as a primary source -- I carry the collective truth of my generation, for those who will succeed us.  In this last decade the record of life as we lived it should leave footprints for the next generation to grow into.  I'm privileged, through the great federal agency that provided the platform upon which I'm standing,  to be a link between then and now.

Maybe the power of Truth is being tested; and is there a greater purpose to be served in this final decade?

Tomorrow we will begin.


Friday, October 23, 2015

Insight from one who remembers ... .

In writing that last post I was reminded of another statement that has become an element in my talks... but that begs for delving more deeply:

There's a place where I'm describing my introduction to the planning team of our park back in 2003, and learning about the importance of the Albert Kahn-designed Ford Assembly Plant which had been built between the years of 1929-1931 on state-owned land.  It was built on air rights, a concept only recently adopted at that time.   It was an important piece of the Home Front story because it had been constructed to assemble Model A Fords but was converted to outfitting thousands of tanks and jeeps for the war in the Pacific theater during WWII.

In my talk I speak of that PowerPoint presentation being the first time I was able to see the scattered sites that define the park, and instantly recognize them as sites of racial segregation.  I state clearly that, "I was the only person in that room who could see that, because what gets remembered is determined by who is in the room doing the remembering.  I was the only person who had any reason to know that.  There was no grand conspiracy to leave our history out, the real history was simply forgotten over time."

This morning as I slowly awakened -- just before opening my eyes to test the degree of still-darkness before sun-up -- it dawned on me that there must be many truths that only people of color are in a position to recall, and many more -- both black and newly-enlightened whites -- who care but are too young to have ever known.  There are important reasons why there are two Americas; if not more.

For instance, might there be less of a separation between black and white America if white America knew that when the Social Security System was created, two classes of workers were omitted; laborers and domestic servants?  It was the elimination of African Americans from that groundbreaking enabling system that brought stability to so many American lives and that created a permanent injustice that made the creation of wealth virtually impossible. We were locked out from the beginning by being forced to remain at the service worker level due to a lack of opportunity to rise above it. Discrimination in the work place would continue to be a barrier for decades, and in many places it still persists. 

The second was the GI Bill which guaranteed every returning veteran of WWII an education and a mortgage.  But the bill was administered locally instead of federally which enabled the local banker to control just who received mortgages and where.  The bill made possible the construction of the nationwide suburbs which were created for "whites only".  They were off-limits to non-whites through covenants written into the deeds of all new housing construction.

Nor could a returning black veteran use the Bill to enter college or graduate school unless said institutions were open to people of color.  At that time such institutions were few and far between and often involving traveling great distances from black population centers.   Have we forgotten that the illustrious Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall financed his law school education by working as a Pullman porter?

It was then that older properties within city limits were made available to blacks as white flight took effect.  The inner cores of the cities became home to non-whites as more and more such properties were abandoned by white owners who could now rent out those homes as absentee landlords to renters without the financial means nor the stability to purchase property; a known pathway toward the building of personal wealth.   Instead, the payment of those rents provided mortgage payments for absentee white landlords who were already receiving government subsidies through the G.I. bill.  Only those black veterans who bought homes in red-lined districts could benefit by the bill because bankers sat in smug approval.   The practice would insure that housing would remain racially segregated, as would the schools in such districts.; and we all know how well that worked out.

Over time, commercial interests and services followed them out of the cities into the more affluent suburbs until today there are few banks, fewer food markets,  other service agencies within lower-income neighborhoods.  There are far fewer job opportunities with the disappearance of local retail businesses.  Low-skilled low-paying jobs that had always served as the first steps on the economic ladder for the young have all but disappeared.  Remember when there were paper routes and gas-pumping to do?

Are those the kids we see on city street corners, kids who have had to create their own underground economy fueled by the drug trade in order to survive?  This has proven to be one of the few alternatives to a minimum wage job at MacDonalds or Burger King, with little if any hope upon which to build a future.

Today there are fewer overt forms of racial restrictions on properties, but they still exist, informally.  The messages are encoded and the suburbs where Mel and I raised our children are still only about l% non-white, though that's gradually changing in some areas due to the gradual upward mobility of non-whites, but it's still minimal.

For those well-meaning and more enlightened folks (and Bill Cosby) who find themselves wondering just why those black folks can't get their act together, these now-forgotten truths may provide some understanding.  The problems are structural.  The effects of those errors in judgment have been costly, and by now there are few leaders who have lived long enough to see how damaging they've been, not only to black Americans who have been tragically under-served, but to society as a whole.  Tell that to those who see black America as over-advantaged and seduced into laziness by an undeserved sense of entitlements!

I was reminded yesterday as I watched the CSPAN coverage of the president's town meeting with folks in West Virginia -- worrying through some answers to the national drug abuse problem ... and the fact that, only now that the scourge of deaths by heroin overdoses has penetrated into White America, can we begin to entertain the notion that it may not be a problem of criminality after all, but an issue that must be addressed as a public health crisis.

... and how many young black and brown males had to idle their lives away behind bars or die violently in the drug wars before this could become visible to the powerful? 

Is it because we've forgotten these critical truths, or, that we've never known that such problems would bleed into all of America unless dealt with where they were most clearly visible? 

Is this the ultimate effect of Daniel Moynihan's ill-conceived concept of Benign Neglect in practice?

Daniel who?

Google it.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Strange how the mind works ... .

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by one of our interns, a college-aged student just entering what she hopes will be a career with the National Park System.  Allison wanted to have the interview as her contribution to an online blog, and since we share office spaces with other rangers at the headquarters in Richmond's Civic Center, it was an easy request to grant.

On that day we met in our conference room for a conversation that she would record, and that would serve as the basis for her assignment.

The chat was wide-ranging, covering a lifetime of starts and stops on my way to finding myself at 94 an active 5-day-a-week park ranger which is, in itself, a pretty startling story for the uninitiated.

This morning Allison sent her draft for my approval and/or corrections prior to submission.

In reviewing it I was curious that the point she highlighted in her sensitive and well-written paper was one that was almost an aside among what I might have considered far more dramatic vignettes from a pretty colorful life.

When I read the few sentences about an encounter I'd had some years ago with an African American woman from the community as we stood in line at the supermarket, I suddenly found myself in tears!  The few sentences were in response to Allison's questioning about just why it was that I'd made a statement in one of the radio interviews about why it is that I value the wearing of my NPS uniform as so important.   

"I was on my way home from work and had stopped for a few items for that night's dinner.  As we stood quietly together in line waiting for the cashier to check out our purchases, she asked politely if I worked at the prison?  (San Quentin prison is just across the bridge from Richmond.)  I answered with some chagrin since it was clear that this woman's frame of reference at seeing a uniform rose from such an unexpected place.  I remember feeling slightly amused (smug?) at how much her question exposed of her limited experience.  I should have guessed that this would come back to haunt me someday." 

That was then.

Since that time we've all lived through Ferguson, Baltimore, New York, and a constant stream of police actions resulting in the deaths of many unarmed young black men; the upsurge of media accounts of a failed justice system; the out-of-control mass killings; and meeting and interacting with Wanda Johnson, mother of the late Oscar Grant of the tragic and fatal Fruitvale station incident.

The depth of my understanding of that small incident in that supermarket took on epic proportions.  Maybe Allison read more into it than I did at the time, much to her credit.

with Sculptor Mario Chiodo's Remember Them
Today I'm tearful because -- after trying to connect the small audiences that I'm able to reach through my work -- I can see clearly that my unknown friend in that checkout line has experienced generations of conditioning that has created for her a reality that is counter to that of the "other" America.  It's not dissimilar to how we see police in those two divided Americas.  For her and for those with whom she shares lives, the justice system has always been a threat to our very survival, while to the other America -- it and the National Rifle Association exist for their protection in an increasingly dangerous world.

The National Park Service uniform held no meaning for her; it was beyond her sphere of recognition.  The prison system was something with which she has had lifelong experience, probably through no fault of her own -- but accepted as inevitable in life as an entire people have known it to be; how tragic!

The tragedy is that we've allowed ourselves to be segmented by such differing realities that we're no longer living in the same America, and neither America appears to be aware of it.  Our words have different meanings, and our lives are so differently defined by very real fractures in the foundations of an evolving society.

The wearing of my uniform is so much more than -- as I expressed it in that interview -- "upon being seen on the streets, in an elevator or escalator, I'm announcing a career path to children of color".

Tears may be a start, but in a very real way, it may mean that I'm being forced to look far deeper into the meaning of my work for ways to begin to knit together what is needed to bridge the divide.  That means putting my tiny pieces together with those of others toward creating a pathway leading us out of the wilderness of separation.

Could it be possible that -- of all the governmental agencies -- the National Park Service is best positioned to help us through to that "more compassionate future" that I so glibly have claimed over past months?

Or am I still not looking deeply enough?

Sunday, October 11, 2015

It suddenly dawned -- shortly after I'd posted a complaint on Facebook about television programming... .

... that today's programming pales beside the real life adventures in my everyday world!

Sure would have been nice if the World had seen fit to deliver some of the magic when I was in better shape to receive it.  Why on earth would I meet a governor for the first time after I've stopped needing a resumé?

Sure would have been lovely had I known that the world would come calling at some point, or that it would place a microphone in my hand and put me on a soapbox and really listen to me now that the major portion of my allotted days on the planet are behind me ... .

This week a colleague pointed out that a photo of 20 year-old Betty was included in the National Parks uniform catalog on the pages devoted to hats.

What is surreal about it is that I'm finding my 94 year-old self competing with my far younger self for public attention!  

Governor Jerry Brown and moi
Who would have ever guessed the likelihood of such a happening ... .

The Rosie Trust informed us that Governor Jerry Brown -- with about two days notice -- would be signing the Fair Pay Act on our park site on Tuesday.  The setting was the magnificent cathedral-like Craneway of the historic Ford Assembly Plant.  What a scramble!  This meant that the governor and his staff would be touring our Visitor Education Center for the first time, and that the women of the California State Legislature -- both Assembly and Senate -- would be descending upon us for the ceremonial signing of the strongest equal pay statute in the nation.

It was a glorious day in every way.  Weather could hardly have been more pleasant -- and if we don't get some unpleasant weather soon to end the drought -- the State will be in serious trouble.

It was a day of reunions with those with whom I shared a political life as a field representative over past years prior to my joining the National Park Service; former Assemblywoman Dion Aroner who was my employer at the time that the legislation forming the park was introduced by now-retired Rep. George Miller and enacted with the support of our Senators Boxer and Feinstein.  And, of course, in the audience was another dear friend and our current City of Richmond mayor, Tom Butt.
with Mayor Tom But and Dion Aroner

The bill was authored by Senator Hannah Beth Jackson of Santa Barbara and was a great victory for feminists everywhere.   Her bill is the strongest bill of any put forth in the nation, and will be hailed as a huge step toward full equality for women as other states move to adopt similar measures.  How appropriate it was that the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical park would be chosen as the place where this bill should be signed!

What a time to be alive and a part of the women's movement!  I was a late-comer to the cause of feminism, but maybe that's not as important as the fact that -- over time -- I've been able to rise above my race to the gender issues that I share with the rest of those who help to hold up our half of the sky.

... and what a great way to enter the beginning of my 94th year. 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

And Betty's ... .

About the time that my distant cousin, Paul, was searching out his family history on Ancestry. com I was engaged in the same process on the West Coast where I'd grown up in an extended family of Creoles of Color, re-settlers from the early days in the Tremé of old New Orleans.  My own family had been uprooted by the great floods of 1927.  Unlike Paul, who had access to records left by his grandfather, Joseph Numa Charbonnet, my search had abruptly ended upon reaching the bewildering and forbidding slave curtain somewhere in the mid-1800s.

Though there were surely ancestors before those years, I'd hit a psychological roadblock caused by self-imposed prohibitions -- something nearly every African American has experienced in attempting to trace their beginnings.  The thought of trying to connect my family with their white ancestors simply didn't occur to me.  My history ended with my great-grandfather, Dorson, for whom my father had been named.  It was as if his had been a virgin birth.  I didn't even allow myself to wonder past his birth or who his parents might have been.  It seems curious now in retrospect, that I wouldn't have been curious to delve into his mysterious beginnings.  The word illegitimacy would hardly have come up except in those early conversations spoken only in that patois of French the grownups resorted to when necessary to protect family pride.  So one just didn't go there, even as I grew to adulthood.

Eduoard's signature and Celestine's "X"
It was at this point that I closed the books and returned to exploring my maternal line which offered little more.   The earliest record unearthed from the Diocese of Baton Rouge was the marriage certificate of my enslaved great-great grandmother, Celestine "of no last name"; the paper  that radically changed the nature of her relationship to her owner, Eduoard Breaux, in 1863 (a story for another day).  Both my maternal and paternal lines ended somewhere just after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.  Notice that their marriage papers were written in French, an official language both of the State of Louisiana, and the Catholic Diocese at that time.

I was satisfied that both ancestors of color would have to serve as the beginnings of my story, that is, until I received a message from this stranger, cousin Paul, reaching out with warmth and acceptance from the white side of our family.  He was seeking to identify a list which held the names of my father's siblings.  This would become the onset of the possible coming together of the great American Charbonnet family narrative that would unite black and white relatives after centuries of separation.  Our story is America's story -- a story lived by most of us as the result of a still unprocessed history indelibly marked by slavery and the cruel national tragedy of the Civil War.

Our standing together at the burial place of our ancestor-in-common, (white) Amable, closed the circle with us both inside.  That moment still stands as one of monumental importance in a lifetime of incompleteness, a feeling that I didn't recognize until it was gone.  I'm still adjusting to the exalted feeling of being whole that was born that incredible day as we stood together beside Amable's beautiful marble tomb in St. Louis cemetery.
Paul's story:

This is Betty Charbonnet Reid Soskin, my 4th cousin 3x removed. We met over the internet as I reached out to distant cousins to begin building my Ancestry Family tree.  Betty is enchanting.  We both grew up in New Orleans but we have been separated by an age difference of 26 years, 3,000 miles, and racial boundaries.

Yet, Betty and I were sealed by our common stories of Out of France and St. Dominique.

We descend from my 7th great grandfather who lived in Southern France. His two sons left for  Louisiana about 1760.  Antoine became a successful sugar cane planter in Louisiana, but Jean raised his family in the French Caribbean island of St. Domingue, now Haiti.  The slave rebellion of 1802 and Jean's death in 1803 motivated family evacuation to Louisiana.  I descend from Antoine.  Betty descends from Jean.  Our conversations uncovered generations of relationships and warmth that neither of us had understood as children, but that now we are able to connect.

Antoine stayed in New Orleans as have many of his white descendants.  Jean’s son, Amable, evacuated to Louisiana about age 10, joining his uncle and cousins in New Orleans. There he met a lovely young slave.  Through Ancestry, we believe we have her bill of sale to Pierre Beaulieu  in St. James Parish (another full set of stories).  She took her owner's last name as her own.

Amable had a son, Dorson. By law, Dorson was a free man. White father’s of those days rarely acknowledged their mulatto sons, but assumed the obligation to school them in the military or
apprentice them in a skilled trade. Amable married a wealthy French woman and he died a relatively
young man. His white son, also named Amable, left Louisiana and returned to France with his mother . . .we have not yet connected with our French cousins.

my grandfather, Louis Charbonnet's, business card
Betty grew up in a strong, professional, mulatto community, Her father and my grandfather were builders of homes, churches, schools, mills, and offices.  The highly-skilled mulatto craftsmen were well paid in Uptown homes under supervision of my father and grandfather.  In exchange, my family worked with Betty's to obtain land, permits, city improvements, legal matters,and financing for less expensive homes built in the 8th and infamous 9th wards along Charbonnet Street ... but that's another story.

In 2012 at age 90, Betty spoke at the WWII museum in New Orleans and stayed with us in our home.
We had a goal of locating the tomb of Amable. We learned from Ancestry that he was interred in the St.Louis #1 Cemetery in the French Quarter. After a hot day of searching, the cooler evening descended in the cemetery. On our last turn, along the wall, we found Amable resting with his young daughter, a victim of yellow fever.

Leaving the cemetery, Betty introduced me to her cousins, Louis and Armand Charbonnet, operators of the Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home a few blocks away. The two Charbonnet brothers are well-known for staging the Jazz funerals. Despite having spent their lives professionally in the business, both were unaware of the link to Uptown Charbonnets, Amable, who rested nearby in a beautiful, well marked, Parisian tomb.

Through Ancestry, Betty and I have linked the two branches of our great Southern family. Times have
changed. Ancestry calls us to build family ties even when we have to reach beyond the boundaries of the past.