Saturday, September 11, 2004

New fears ...

While absently watching the television shows that followed Washington Week in Review last night, I was again struck by the mediocrity that has replaced so much of what once felt enlightening and worth viewing. Not only the obvious dumbing down of what we once referred to as "the arts," but these reality shows that have replaced the entire field of the performing arts is deadening. There are obviously few script writers and editors and actors now, only producers and casting agents and ad men and women -- and -- a seemingly endless stream of attractive young people willing to do almost anything before the cameras for instant fame. The degradation of young women that has been a growing phenomenon for several years now has become totally embarrassing. There has to be something between the burkha and the bikini, really! I'm so appalled by body-piercings and tattoos -- and am so sure that there will be regrets for most as the years pile on and lifestyles change.

How on earth did we come to this? Am I finally exhibiting those long-delayed symtoms of simply getting old and out of touch? Is this what I once thought of as "crochety"? Am I one of only a few who cringe with embarrassment and revulsion at the sight of Donald Trump with his cantilevered hairdo on his "You're fired!" show. And I've never actually seen it, only long enough to grab the remote and zap him into the ether. And I'd zap model Tyra Banks right along with him into celebrity oblivion!

Those screamingly rude pundits who are everywhere on the screen, on almost every channel, it seems, are equally appalling. At one time it was only Jerry Springer and Howard Whathisname that I felt such revulsion for, but now they pale by what passes as entertainment almost everywhere I look. Then there's Paris Hilton and Britney Spears (a dead-on imitation of Janet Jackson in white-face, of course, without giving credit). Are these the harbingers of lifestyle for my 6- and 8-year old granddaughters? Did my grandmother feel this way about my passions for my youth idols -- examples, Katherine Hepburn (who wore trousers, after all), ballerina Moira Shearer, and Lena Horne? (That was well before I discovered Eleanor Roosevelt and Fannylou Hamer, of course.) I don't think so. This pattern is something quite different, I believe.

Seems related to the numerous "if you don't like the face and body you were born with -- see your nearest plastic surgeon!" shows. Are you as concerned about this as I am? Have we really reached the time when -- not only do we expect to medicate ourselves into instant mood-changes, but now there's instant cosmetic surgery to change our outer shell into something more fitting -- and to whom? And we sit in our living rooms and look into the most awful surgical procedures night after night in this latest form of the living Cinderella myth; and it's considered entertainment. I'm appalled! Would I feel differently were I younger?

My late husband, Dr. William F. Soskin (formally), would be horrified to see that psychology is being practiced on television -- with the most intimate disclosures before the world by troubled parents, spouses, and children. And Dr. Phil's brash treatment protocols probably have created some answers for many over these past years, but will we ever really know at what cost? I truly don't know, but find myself picking up the remote when I find myself squirming uncomfortably during some of the more revealing sessions.

We've MacDonalized the entire urban landscape through those cookie-cutter commercial developments that now cover the earth and destroy the entire concept of individual entrepreneurship so that small family-owned shops have all but disappeared, now replaced by mega-marts that sell us our everyday needs on flatbed hand trucks! Everyday items are now packaged in such huge sizes that we're challenged for places to store the surplus, so must rent storage spaces often miles away. It's crazy! While the environmenalists encourage us to give up our cars in favor of bicycles -- the thought of bringing home that case of 24 rolls of toilet paper dictates otherwise. But it was such a good buy! At least until we add in the cost to our wallets and to the air quality when we drive to Costco to pick it up!

I'm beginning to hate franchises! The nearest small bakery shop is rarely to be found, except by driving to Berkeley. What I wouldn't give to have one close enough to pick up the aroma of hot bread through the screen door as I pass by on a cool Bay Area morning; one of life's small but nearly forgotten pleasures ... .

But now I'm off to a campaign fundraiser for an incumbent candidate I'd like to see returned to office. Maybe I can convince her to open a small bakery, or get the redevelopment agency to demand that every new housing developer add front porches to their designs, or, say "no" to WalMart's latest proposal to build a super center; or, insist that small businesses find the protections needed to co-exist with the giants -- at least until those giants pick up their flatbed hand trucks and move on to greener parking lots!

This is one of my crustier mornings... .

On second thought, given the state of the union as described above, it may not be so unthinkable -- after all -- that we'd find sitting at the helm of this grand old ship of state, a C-student anti-hero who might be far better suited to play Eddie Haskell in some new retro-styled reality show!

Maybe cream doesn't always rise to the top ... .

Monday, September 06, 2004

Received this note yesterday from a sister-friend --

from another old California family who took the time to confirm some of these uneasy feelings I've been writing about. It isn't a figment of my imagination. There were others who noticed the same emotionally disfiguring events in those war years that I did. History has so romanticized that period ("The Good War" as reported by Studs Terkel and "The Greatest Generation" as told by Tom Brokaw) that my own history appears to have been erased completely. Not so. Gerri describes her own memories of Richmond and a tragic variation on the home front stories that coincides with my own.

September 4, 2004

Hi, Betty,
I've been having a debate with myself about filling out another form. I haven't sent for a packet for that reason. I would be happy to contribute some anecdotal information for your project, but I just cannot do it that way. I throw away forms or surveys I receive. :-( I guess I have a phobia. I'm sorry about it. I am really torn, because I would like to help you. I hope you will understand.

I can give you one example:
When I was in the Supply Officer's office, the man who was responsible for scheduling the trains to bring workers from the South used to come in and vent his frustrations to me. I think he felt I was the only person he could talk to honestly. He said the recruiters for the shipyards would promise anything -- pie in the sky -- a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow -- to get them to leave home and come to California. They were given no preparation for the life they would have here, and they were disillusioned at what they found on their arrival. He said they were crammed into cattle cars, under sub-human conditions, for the trip. He was very upset that no one would listen to him. He could do nothing.

That may not be the heroic story you are looking for, but it happened.

All my best, Gerri

Met this morning with the editor of a local weekly newspaper (Black). Have decided that this unwritten history is desparately in need of being included in the record of the times. She and I are going to combine efforts, add another interested cohort or two, and begin to plan what will be a series on the homefront stories of the African Americans who lived it. It will be published shortly after the elections -- when we won't be distracted by current events. Have discovered some remarkable photos of African American members of the armed forces, launchings of the SS Harriet Tubman and the SS Booker T. Washington online that are available through the Library of Congress, and downloaded some of the most interesting.

When I let myself dwell on the fact that the present black population of this city are the descendants of those heroic sharecropper "come-westers," I'm so touched. The word "toleration" comes to mind and brings up the bile to the back of my throat. These struggling under-educated and hard-working people didn't have a chance. Due to the prevailing racism, they were abandoned without the ability to climb out of the poverty as had their equally poorly-educated and hard-working white counterparts. It is ironic that -- in future years they would be blamed for their inability to move into the mainstream with little consideration of the root causes. Despite unequal status in all avenues of life; segregation in the unions and in housing and lack of education in most cases -- they nonetheless picked up the tools to help to build the ships and went to war on the back of the damned bus! Most would be consigned to be the chambermaids and cooks and valets with no opportunity to rise above their stations in life in or out of the Armed Forces. Black men fought the war in racially segregated units headed by white commanding officers. Black women stepped in to earn 35-50 cents an hour as housekeepers and babysitters so that white women could become the Rosies of the day. They would not be allowed into the war plants until 1944. None of the Aircraft plants were ever racially-integrated, though the shipyards did so with some important caveats, like working out of Jim Crow powerless union auxiliaries.

Since existing history is dominated by the white experience, I'm seeing the need to contact members of the Japanese community, the Italian-Americans whose lives were impacted uniquely, and the German immigrant community that was forced to move 100 miles from the coastline. These, too, are important homefront stories. These are American stories. It was in those years that the seeds of discontent were planted that would burst forth 15-20 years hence in the greatest social revolution of the century -- the days of Dr. King and Malcolm X, the Kennedys and Fanny Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Party.

I have to keep reminding myself of just how recent in time all that was. And -- that the first African American school teacher hired in the state of California, U.C. Berkeley-educated Mrs. Ida Jackson, wasn't hired until 1944!

The Rosie story is being well covered after years of neglect, and that's just fine, I think. These stories well worth the re-telling. But the truth is that that heroic generation of African Americans should not be tolerated but celebrated! These were extraordinary human beings, and their children and grandchildren should be made aware of their dedication to the cause of freedoms they would not, themselves, enjoy for 15-20 more years, and in many cases are still dreams unfulfilled.

Maybe through this new national park we can begin to confront our history in ways that are transformative and life-sustaining. I've sat in with my friend, Donna, a historian who has worked for many years with the Rosie Memorial and the oral history project of the Bancroft Library of the university. It was Donna who headed up the project that did my oral history and those of members of each of the Japanese, Italian, German and Italian communities. I've attended presentations by the Japanese seniors who many years ago created the many plant nurseries that still stand in some areas of North Richmond. Japanese-Americans who were interned in relocation camps during those years. I heard their stories at a recent presentation, and wondered at how much I'd missed in my concern over my own perceived inequities. One had the feeling in listening that day, that most had suffered in silence, and that maybe -- through this new opportunity -- that conversation, too, can be opened to outsiders.

The catharsis might be wonderful for us all. Perhaps it could not have happened until now. Maybe we're ready to revisit those times, bolstered by the experience of the Sixties, Seventies, the Vietnam War, and current tragic misadventures in far off lands.

This is a tall order. I'm with the National Park Service for a very limited time -- an emergency hire -- that will end mid-month. But that's no reason to not start the process, right? Someone else can pick it up and move it across the board later on. In a way, that may describe all of life. Taking care of your leg of the journey as well as you can, trusting that another will pick up the strings when you drop them ... .

In reading back for corrections, I noticed that I've rarely said "we" in referring to the African American population of the time. Wondered about that until I realized that -- I'm sure that I've been waiting all these years for ALL those strangers who invaded MY state to go home. My WE is that population that existed before World War II, up to December 7th. Gerri (white) would have been a part of my world, though we'd hardly have known it then. She was a Junior Leaguer, living for the most part in the most affluent part of the East Bay (in Piedmont), while I lived in the flatlands in a blue collar community (integrated) of other rag-tag "Amurricans." But I suspect that we'd have found a way to bridge the gaps between -- given another generation of uninterrupted progress in human relations. My "we" was made up of those sturdy black pioneers who preceded the two world wars by many years -- more closely related to the Civil War, actually. That's changed since the Civil Rights struggles of the Sixties, and my "we" has become broadened to include a host of cultures and peoples, and for that I'm grateful. Having re-invented myself decade by decade, my "we" now seems to encompass the entire planet!

I've come full circle, I think. My Black pride fuels my efforts these days, and for that I'm grateful. Living off my black edge is where the richness is for me. Wish I could explain that better. Maybe someday the words will come.