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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Surprises abound!

Opened my federal IPad yesterday -- when the world was looking impossibly dark and unpredictable -- and there it was; a message from President Elizabeth Hillman of Mills College announcing that I'd been selected to receive an honorary doctorate at their May 13th commencement!  Can you imagine?  But of course you cannot.  No one could possibly understand how much this means.

I grew up at a time when college was only for the privileged.  Young women whose parents could afford to, sent them to higher education in order to enable them to marry well, though some were sincerely seeking higher learning in prescribed fields, getting an "Mrs." was worth far more than earning a Ph.D.,.

As a child of the depression era -- college was unthinkable, but being a part of the crowd heading into life-changing careers was important.  My parents saw to it that the young men I was dating were those who were on the ladder to great things.  That I would aspire to be a student was not encouraged in the least, and was generally thought to be a waste of time for girls.  Graduating from high school was, at that time, quite enough.  I'd fulfilled my parent's hopes by the age of 18.  That I would be married and a mother (in that order, hopefully), by the time I was 21 would surely not fulfill my own ambitions, but being educated beyond high school was simply not a part of the equation.

Yes, that's me -- top row.
I grew up in East Oakland at a time when there was little opportunity to even ride past Mills College unless the bus on which I was riding was within range of that campus.  At such times I would ride by and wistfully wonder what magical things went on behind those lush ivied walls.  I could barely see beyond those magnificent fortress-like gates just off MacArthur boulevard  that led into who knows what Secret Gardens ... .  Maybe the likes of Abigail Adams and Dolly Madison, the Bronte sisters, Amelia Earhart, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Georgia O'Keefe, Jane Addams, Clara Barton,  Alice Paul, Susan B. Anthony and Cady Stanton, Rachel Carson, Helen Keller, Madame Marie Curie, Louisa Mae Alcott, Harriet Beecher Stowe et al, were waiting behind those walls.

There was that turn in the road that would bring the scruffy flatlands into view as we descended from the foothills to our home on lower 83rd Avenue -- where such names might be rarely heard, but who were already familiar names to this inquiring young mind.  But, of course, I grew up as a second generation Californian studying from an exclusive curriculum designed for a white and homogeneous America.

It would be decades still before the wisdom, voices, and likes of Phyllis Wheatley, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Zola Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Nikki Giovanni, Teri McMillan, Isabel Wilkerson, Sonya Sanchez, Gwendolyn Brooks, Bell Hooks, Audre Lorde, Olivia Butler, Bessie Coleman, Dr. Mae Jemison, Ida B. Wells, Fanny Lou Hamer and our own Rep. Barbara Lee, could be imagined behind those walls of a by now more inclusive institution of higher learning. I only learned of Dr. Katherine Johnson, the brilliant physicist/mathematician of NASA fame, on Netflix a few nights ago!  Or that I would be a middle-aged 46 year-old woman when, in 1967, the Lovings would be imprisoned for loving one another enough to marry in the state of Virginia, a State where such unions were then prohibited by law.

No longer am I invisible or unrepresented.

I am worthy.

Education was generic then, and did not yet reflect the changing racial and cultural demographic of the City of Oakland that we've since grown into, though at that time (pre-Proposition 13) our state system of public instruction was the envy of the country and the world.  That I've experienced a long lifetime of an ever-evolving curiosity and always an avid reader probably harkens back to that early training under the guidance of a succession of strong white teachers who cared enough to nurture the spark evident in my questions despite the flawed social system imposed by the times.  Fortunately, to their credit, I was never forced to perform under the heavy burden of low expectations, though there are the lingering effects of cultural deprivation and expropriation still to be overcome.

I would be a young adult before Ruth Acty would become the first African American woman to be hired to teach in the public schools of California.

It was much later in life when -- in the early months as a new and untested member of staff of our park -- Martha Lee, our superintendent, received an invitation for someone to participate on a panel sponsored by the National Women's History Project's annual national conference to be held on the Mills campus, and no one else was available to send.

The assignment would present my very first opportunity to be behind those beautiful ivy-covered walls and storied historic buildings -- and I could hardly wait.  That was in spring of 2006, and as the result of my participation on that panel, I was named as one of ten of the Women, Builders of Communities and Dreams, honored nationally in ceremonies both at Griffiths Park in Los Angeles, and in Washington, D.C. at the historic John Hay Hotel -- just across from the expansive grounds of the White House.  This would be my introduction to the nation's capitol, and life was never the same thereafter.

Mills College and I now have a shared history, and that this beautiful campus should now become the site of this ultimate honor caps the dream that was so far beyond imagination of that little girl of color riding so wistfully by on the MacArthur Avenue bus line so long ago, dreaming the impossible dream ... .

Those little girls of color are still riding past ... past those seemingly forbidding gates that, symbolically, stand for the unseen forces against which so much energy must still be expended.  To some those gates may still be perceived as protecting those within from those without.  There is still little awareness of the depths of unexplored potential, or, that the barriers of old have lost much of their power to exclude the curious, or limit the reach of those who aspire to greatness.  Over time, Mills College has contributed much to the lessening of the obstacles to fulfillment for so many.  In all of our names, I thank you.

... and, it is true that all things are possible, even if one has to wait a very long lifetime for the fantasy to become breathingly, livingly, and lovingly real!


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