Saturday, June 25, 2005

"Betty and the Big War" -- one more time ...

Two days ago I found myself wallowing around in the past -- here at my computer -- actually reluctant to leave it (it was all so over-the-top emotionally) when the phone rang; not once, but several times. Much of the time these days -- it's relatively silent except for the frequent exchanges with Dorian. Each of the calls beckoned strongly to pull me away from the awful nostalgia but I was resistant. It seemed important that I stay with the writing until all of the pain had been used up -- with little held over for another time. That reservoir is over-flowing now that I'm allowing everything to rise to the surface that wants release. I finally answered the phone and as briefly as I could -- each time I dispatched the caller without much thought.

One was a reminder from Lighthouse Charter School about my promise to attend their workshop on Tuesday. I'll trot out the artifacts and photos of WWII vintage and read over notes from previous informal lectures from before. But, as is usually the case, I'll probably just wing it and count on the Q&A to put the meat on the bones of the talk. That's always the most interesting for me; learning about just how much information of the period has been held in the minds of those several generations removed. It's so easy to forget that these young teachers have no way of knowing the world before Jimmy Carter held the presidency, and for many Kennedy is only a mythical tragic figure of history. The first president I remember is Herbert Hoover (dimly) and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I might as well be speaking of John Adams or Thomas Jefferson to this group!

The other call was the more important. It was from a man who identified himself as Miles Saunders of PBS-Channel KTEH of San Jose, California. He is head of a production company that is in the planning stages of a 4-part documentary series on San Francisco Bay. A major part of the Bay's story is the tremendous role it played in the staging and supplying of the arms and ships for World War II. And in that, the five Henry J. Kaiser shipyards were the big story.
"I just talked with the people at the Rosie the Riveter National Park and they referred me to you as someone who needs to be interviewed on camera for that segment," says he. My immediate response (as always) was to refer him to a real Rosie, telling him that I'd not actually worked in the shipyards at all, but was employed by the Jim Crow Boilermaker's auxiliary way over on Barrett Avenue in the center of town, and never actually saw a ship. "You'll want to talk with one of the actual Rosies. "I was actually more of a Rosie May." With that I laughed realizing that the sting of the indignation is actually beginning to quiet and it's now pretty funny. If ever there was a stereotype buster, I'm it; and I'm surely aware of it.

Instead of backing away, the caller suddenly perked up with the words, "...oh yeah. I heard about that. They didn't have racial integration then, did they?" Here was that time gap again -- where the caller's life experience was a total mismatch to my own. "I so want to talk with you, Ms. Soskin!"

I tried again, "...the Bancroft Library has done a 2-day, 4-hour videotaped oral history that may hold everything you'll need. You may want to check that out before we commit to repeating much that's already accessible in the park's archives."

Wouldn't do. "Could we arrange for me to bring my cameras and team to meet with you in late July to do a segment?"

The series will be aired nationally sometime this fall, I believe, and whatever the hell it is that they're seeking will be a part of it.

Maybe I've found a new career as the dissonant voice of WWII. The park is well aware of my stories and the untold stories of so many others -- and are obviously not loathe to sharing them. If they were, I'm certain that they'd not want any part of opening up what is another of the shameful chapters in the life of the nation's ongoing struggles with the evils of racism. I can only assume that they are complicit in the telling of the story and that -- as I'm hoping -- we all may have matured enough to have those much needed conversations, at last.

A half hour later the phone rang again, "...Hello, I'm writing a story for the Globe and was told that you might be willing to be interviewed for the Richmond Centennial series we're running in July." She sounded African American and very young -- an intern from one of the high schools? I really didn't want to refuse but also didn't feel particularly interested. "You might want to talk with Mary Head, an African American woman who actually did work on the ships here in the yards." Then a new thought, "...would you like to come on Tuesday to an informal Q&A that I'm doing for the Lighthouse School workshop? Bring your notebook and you may get your story in a much better way."

How's that for being inventive?

Friday, June 24, 2005

Screaming across the chasm ...!

I rarely awaken so tired -- as if I've been wrestling with demons throughout the night ... and in a way, I suppose, I have.

For the first time in a very long time Papa George visited me in dreams -- probably summoned by the Killen verdict in Philadelphia, Mississippi, plus the angst around the typing of that list of senators who refused to sign on to the anti-lynching resolution. Enough to stir up lots of anguish. Found myself staring at each of those I could identify as they appeared before the microphones from the floor today on CSPAN. My awareness changed the nature of the experience of viewing the debate -- and how differently their arguments began to sound to me. Here were Alexander and Lott and Grassley et al from the list, arguing the merits of amendments to a bill -- but all I could hear was their silence on lynching.

I remember Papa's stories about how -- when he was a boy in rural Louisiana -- he'd heard whispers about those luckless African Americans who'd been caught by the infamous Ku Klux Klan. That the usual result of the chase would be that the victim would be hog-tied (ankles to wrists from behind) tossed into the back of a wagon or pickup truck then set on his knees facing down -- at the edge of the levee. Then the murderers would jump on his back until the spine shattered. Only then would they toss him into the river to drown. It was chilling to the 7 year-old, Betty, standing beside him as we weeded the vegetable garden together. His younger brother, (and my great-uncle) Albert, had fled to Kansas never to return to St. James Parish. It was rumored that he'd shot and killed a Klansman in self defense and was being hunted by the Night Riders. I don't believe that Papa ever saw him again. I'm not sure that he spoke much about Albert to anyone but me. I can still see that vacant place in his eyes -- as though he were really alone-- the way grownups do when they don't expect answers. Then he'd laugh and sing another of his crazy little song snatches to dismiss the agony of memory and bring us both back to the moment and the endless pulling of the weeds... .

Those images came up again for me last night -- all mixed in with the kids killing kids on Richmond's streets -- and the three civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi 41 years ago. I remembered that, during the long search for those bodies, a number of black bodies were discovered -- bodies no one ever bothered to identify. It had never been against the law to kill blacks. The only reason that the one black member of the trio was being sought was because he'd met his death with two whites. It was only they who were killed illegally; lynched. I thought of that infamous list of 20 posted yesterday who refused to even apologize for that heinous act and by now forgotten by most of us... .

It was those deaths and Papa George's stories of the "black logs" found in the Mississippi from time to time, that created this song:

Black Log

black log driftin' down da bayou in de mawnin'
limbs a-draggin' 'gainst da willow
black log floatin' down da bayou in da mawnin'
now it's sun-up, Owl must leave you
time to fine his mossy pillow
bullfrog croakin' out his grievin' from dis strange lily pad
three-finga, twisted lily pad
noontime -- comes da rivah 'roun' de levee
Boy heah fish' fo his suppa-time
caught one! ... no, tain't nuthin' ... but a black log
black log rushin' down da rivah in de evenin'
log cain't see da evenin'
caught! -- now free... , log 'n me .. in da rivah -- no retrievin'

comes da sea now -- here's da open sea now!


Too late... .

(Betty Reid © 1965)
Malvina Reynolds Shroder Music Publishing Co.

Listened this morning to commentary on the Killen verdict and recalled my own reaction a day or so ago. Thought of that mean old white man hooked up to his IV and lashing out at reporters who lined up alongside the pathway he was being taken up in his wheelchair. It was a hollow victory, but my feeling was that at least there was some accountability at last for that community. Then I remembered that the system that had created and permitted such atrocities is still in place and rubber-stamped by at least 20 members of the Senate. How frightening is that?

It was but a short step to connecting the everyday American families who packed picnics baskets to sit in the town square to witness the castrating and burning alive of a black man hung from a tree -- to secretly photographed picture postcards sent home by our soldiers of prisoners being tortured and humiliated at Abu Graib. In some cases the intentions may have been honorable, intended to expose the awful interrogations being conducted there. In most, I truly fear that this is a repeat of the sadistic voyeurism so reminiscent of those earlier shameful picnics in the town square on Mainstreets, USA.

Occasionally I have such strong feelings that we live in totally different realities. and that what I'm saying here only resonates with other African Americans. Perhaps. But it needs saying, if only to point up the dissonance.

That the list of the
Senate Twenty strikes fear into my heart -- enough to bring Papa George back into consciousness is a strong statement of the power of those images, still.

When I wrote
"Black Log" in 1965 I truly believed that those lives had not been sacrificed in vain, and that the nation would rise to its founding principles and promises. It hasn't; at least not yet. And to think that we're spending billions of dollars and countless lives in the attempt to export this unfinished and imperfect democracy out into an unknowing world through corrupted policies and imperial ambition.

... and ...
it was almost close enough to touch ... .


Photo: Maternal grandfather George Allen, Jr.,eldest son of Leontine Breaux Allen and George Allen, Sr, who served in Civil War. Leontine was enslaved until the age of 19 (1865). She was born in 1846 and died in 1948, when I was 27.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Senators who refused to sign anti-lynching resolution ...
by KOS
Tuesday Jun 14th, 2005

Here are the 20 Senators who 1) refused to co-sponsor the anti-lynching resolution passed yesterday, and 2) refused a roll-call vote so they'd have to put their names on the resolution:

Lamar Alexander (R-TN)
Robert Bennett (R-UT)
Christopher Bond (R-MO)
Jim Bunning (R-KY)
Conrad Burns (R-MT)
Saxby Chambliss (R-GA)
Thad Cochran (R-MS)
Kent Conrad (D-ND)
John Cornyn (R-TX)
Michael Crapo (R-ID)
Michael Enzi (R-WY)
Chuck Grassley (R-IA)
Judd Gregg (R-NH)
Orrin Hatch (R-UT)
Trent Lott (R-MS)
Linda Murkowski (R-AK)
Richard Shelby (R-AL)
John Sununu (R-NH)
Craig Thomas (R-WY)
George Voinovich (R-OH)

19 Republicans and 1 Democrat, a real wall of shame.

The universality of fear ...

Came to terms with this just before becoming fully awake this morning. I'll no longer concern myself with re-locating. It was in that split second of clarity that I knew that the fear that I'm feeling has by now become my constant state of being. It attaches itself momentarily to the sound of sirens as the refineries set off their monthly test blasts promptly at eleven o'clock on the first Wednesday; it surfaces again when the traffic helicopters fly low overhead. It's now become my "normal." It has little to do with this beleaguered city. It may have more to do with Washington, D.C., and with the machinations of K Street, or, New York and the board rooms of Wall Street. I don't know. What I do know is that it has less to do with where I am than with what I'm feeling.

Those feelings were strong earlier this week as I watched CSPAN's coverage of the Rep. John Conyers forum on the Downing Memo -- with 32 Democrats squeezing in and out of that tiny room in a Washington basement -- looking impotent and defiant in the face of the most frightening display of power by the administration yet seen. For the first time I found myself able to understand the frailty of the Progressive side of the political equation. I felt it again the next day when Durbin apologized for his remarks instead of holding to his truths under the barrage of Republican criticism. My fears have more to do with lack of empowerment than of finding myself in the crossfire of a gang-related gun fight. Such a fear is far less likely to be realized.

Last night the Richmond city council chamber was crowded with 600 community people in a room meant to hold 200, maybe, in response to the news that they might be proclaiming a State of Emergency in light of the string of violent deaths experienced over the past two weeks. To my surprise and pleasure -- the vote was to not do so, but to look for other ways to respond to what has become a truly frightening climate of terror for many families.

What we have forgotten is the fact that this was surely predictable in light of the budget cuts that removed all services to young people in this town, leaving them with few supervised activities and little hope except for escape into military service and the killing fields of the Middle East. Controlling gun possession has proven to be impossible given the persistent idiocy of the NRA. With the proliferation of illegal drugs rampant and most funds for programs now buried in police budgets instead of recreation departments, what did we expect? We left young black youth with no alternatives other than the armed services or prison. We'd forgotten how dangerous it is to leave the young with high energy and intiative but no hope for a viable future. Left to their own devices, they've created a world of their own; one that mimicked ours, but with fewer safeguards or sense of morality; since ours have become invisible of late -- with the signposts buried behind caveats and false diplomacy; lies, murder, and mayhem without cause. What on earth did we expect?

The fears that have taken up permanent space in my psyche attached to the local body count, but even when I woke this morning with a sense that we'd reached the other side in the Richmond crisis -- the disembodied fear was and is still present.

Find myself wondering if we're all not feeling it -- as if we've hit some tipping point with triggers now touching off panic at the slightest provocation? It has to do with the sense that the nation (the world?) is out of control and that we're all players in the coming self-inflicted nuclear destruction -- be it worldwide catastrophes from global warming, weapons of mass destruction, avian flu, or, being slain on the streets of Richmond. Maybe we'll simply die of over- consumption of breaking news headlines! Dead is dead.

Maybe all I need by way of coping mechanisms is to not give the media access to my panic buttons. No easy task, but my sanity may be dependent upon doing just that.

There is no safe place on the planet to run to. Moving back to Berkeley will accomplish nothing. I'm precisely where I need to be -- and where I want to be at this point in my life. There's work to be done -- more things are possible here -- ways to make a difference in my own life and in the lives of those around me.

I'll drive in to look over the bulletin boards around town to see if there's some place where I can volunteer to work with kids in some way that's meaningful. I know that it's not children that I'm fearful of. Maybe they're fearful, too. It might be important to learn if that's true... .

Nowhere to hide ... .

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

It surely isn't all sack cloth and ashes ... there are new challenges ahead.

While I was sneezin' and snufflin' over the past few days -- trying to throw off a cold -- there were two interesting new developments on the career front.

  • It's now official. I'll enter a new contract with the National Park Service on July 26th in the Rosie the Riveter National Homefront Historical Park in Richmond. They've apparently found the funding to bring me on to staff. It's only a short contract, but then so am I! It will be good to be back at work again. Never did get the hang of this retirement business ... .
  • Also received a telephone call from a very interesting charter school in Oakland called The Lighthouse. Last year when I was working for the NPS, I was a lecturer for a workshop staged for a national group of young teachers who visited the park to study the untold stories of World War II. It was an really fascinating day.
  • They are coming back with another group on Tuesday of next week for an encore performance. We will meet in The Hold of the SS Red Oak Victory where I will do a hour's presentation on the role of African Americans in the Good War ( or at least this one). I'm much better prepared this time, and am looking forward to meeting with these young teachers and their new crop of educators.
They announced that a group of 150 teachers from across the nation will come to the park in March of next year and -- having had wind of my unique presentations have signed on for a session of "Betty and the Big War." Never knew it would come to this (smile) but I'm more than ready and by that time will have had an additional period of exposure to the artifacts and oral histories of others now available in the archives of the Rosie Park to add to my own experiences.

Now to try to envision ways to combine my NPS work with my dissonant black history into something that just might ignite some interest in this important new national park here in this community where so much of it was lived. There is some really proud African American history here -- there just may be some way to bring that to life for some of the troubled kids now wandering these streets ... maybe. Lots of food for thought ... and much to try to recapture for young minds so bereft of meaningful connections with the greater community. It must be dreadful to feel homesick -- when you're at home. There may be something here to draw from across the generations and the wars of their times.

What may be important about this -- or where the connection are -- remain unclear as I write, but time will take care of that. And, ironically, time is what I have the least of right now. But of what there remains must be shared with a new generation struggling with their destiny in a time when our institutions are in a shambles and new outrages must be lived through... .

But then most of the young have known little else.

Maybe we lived out all of the good years.


I've spent the entire morning in tears. This is the worst kind of depression. I hadn't the foggiest notion of why I've been so down over the past week. Couldn't write. Could hardly make it through the days without the most awesome panic attacks. Not that there wasn't good reason, of course. The headlines are enough to bury the best of us in hopelessness. My inability to get myself out of bed each morning -- except for the most urgent of reasons -- should have been the tip off. It wasn't.

I've been blaming my dark moods on the fact that Dorian will be leaving around August 1st and that this will bring many changes into my life -- not all of which are good. There will be economic implications since I bought this condo only two years ago and have little equity to claim should I sell it. And, sell it I must because it I could only afford it based upon our plan for shared living expenses. The thought of moving again opens up the possibility of relocating out of the area and into a place where I feel more secure; safer. We both receive SSA and I have some very modest investment dividends and retirement checks to bolster that. Now that must change. Reason enough, maybe. But not enough.

The death count in Richmond has climbed so rapidly that there have been 6 bodies to add to the count over the past weekend. One killing happened within a few blocks of our apartment. We heard the gunshots. Reason enough, again, only maybe. We've been here before. These are the drug wars that have now taken over our lives.

It couldn't have been the headlines that have caused this dive into panic since I cut off newspaper delivery over a year ago in favor of getting all of my news through the Internet. My video viewing is pretty well covered by West Wing reruns and CSPAN with occasional PBS programs from time to time. And -- wouldn't miss Jon Stewart and the Daily Show crazies or the outrageous Reno 911 that is funny enough to blast me out of any blue funk that I may fall into from the sounds of our crumbling institutions. I've given up on trying to make sense of our foreign or even domestic policy decisions. I've also given up on the notion that there is anything I can do about any of it; except to just ride out my remaining years and hope for the best for my children and theirs.

But ...

Something is beginning to surface that both gives me hope and brings further despair. It has to do with the killing spree that has turned this city upon itself in pockets of hopelessness and fear. It has given rise to defiance in some and terror in others. No one is untouched. And there is a familiarity to it. It is the 3000 block of Sacramento Street in Berkeley in the year 1978; the year that I returned to take over our failing small business in the heart of the drug trade. The fear that I'm feeling is no longer just below the surface but is now washing over me in waves. The enormous victory over the environmental changes that I experienced some 7 years later now seems unreal. It's as if only the images of a young man with his face shot off -- lying within 100 ft. of my building is the only one left in my head. I didn't know him. I was told at the time that he was 22 and was the fourth I'd witnessed as the result of drive-bys over less than ten days.

In the early days I was still far too fearful to even look up into the faces of those youngsters each day as I walked from my car into my store. They were invading my space and destroying my ability to survive economically. I saw them as the enemy and wanted them gone!
  • That was long before I'd learned to speak to the streets through my use of "talking windows" that carried bulletins and information about things that mattered to me and should have to them.
  • That was before I'd used those windows to talk about who I would vote for in the upcoming elections, and where I posted a huge facsimile of my ballot with explanations for what I would do and who I would endorse for office.
  • That was before Fred Stripp (veteran of Pearl Harbor and a wino) began to arrive each morning with his worn down broom to voluntarily sweep the sidewalks in front of my doorway on each day of sobriety.
  • And, before Touche began to stop by to add plants from his little garden to the little sidewalk flower boxes that bracketed the entry to the store.
  • That was before I'd learned to stash a gallon paint mixed to match my exterior walls to immediately cover the tiniest sign of grafitti, and before the drug dealers took over the responsibility of seeing to it that the building was not touched by anyone.
  • That was before I'd claimed "turf."
  • That was before I learned that -- on the street -- I had a name and that with it came the protection of those who haunted the corners. And that those kids stationed themselves at the bus stop immediately across the street to watch over me at night.
  • That was before "Red Pants" started popping in at closing time each night to walk me to my car in the dark -- so that I'd be safe.
  • That was before I realized that the little store had become -- over many years -- a neighborhood institution and that I ran it with the consent and blessing of the community.
  • That it was safe to bring in papers that looked important to be read and interpreted.
  • and where kids stopped by on their way home from the elementary school two blocks away on the day when report cards were passed out -- to share their marks and pick up a token prize for those with the greatest signs of improvement.
  • This was the place to announce a job has been secured or acceptance into a program of some sort.
  • It had become a place where grief was shared over the loss of someone dear.
  • And, I learned it on the day that I stood in front of my store alone and laughed aloud at the sight of drug dealers making sales right in front of a huge billboard that advertised (of all things) cigarette papers!
A little more than a week ago I stood up at the Richmond Summit on Street Crime and spoke passionately about the need to give up battling the negative and begin to dream new dreams of a new reality for this city and its people. I spoke of how I'd had to do that many years ago in an area that had seen 25% of the city's homicides in the year that I'd taken over our business. I'd taken credit for the success of that effort and crowed about how - in the year 1995 I'd been honored before the California State Legislature for having accomplished the redevelopment of that area and brought peace to that community. I was wrong.

This morning it dawned on me that what had really happened was that those young men (and a few desparate young women) who had no dreams of their own had bought into mine. It was with their gradual buy-in that I was able to succeed. Those kids moved in and out of jails and prisons over that seven year period of struggle but they gradually became my cohorts over time. A few of them helped to register voters toward the end -- though there were few in the community who had not lost the franchise due to felonies on their records. I recall two young men who walked into the store one day day to pick up their clipboards dressed in suits and ties (I'd put out a call from my talking windows) -- neither could add their names to the forms that were attached. I recall how ironic it was to me at the time, and of how proud I was of them both for spending an entire day walking the streets trying to get others to come up to my store to read my window sample ballots and mark to their own.

I woke this morning feeling fearful -- and frustrated to be so certain that there are answers and that I'd innocently happened upon some of them during those years. I knew better than to ever ask their names but gave them names of my own (as they had for me) and would look around as I climbed out of my car each morning -- asking, "...where is Red Pants this morning?" And would feel real concern when told that he had been picked up the night before by the police. I learned to walk out of my store and join other bystanders when the police were performing a raid -- I'd be silent but the kids would know that I was watching so that nothing cruel would happen to them. They knew that I was respected by the police and that my presence might prevent unnecessary roughness.

I believed in my own dream of bringing positive change to that little community. I believed that it could be done. Over time those kids bought into those dreams and -- together -- we made it happen. A couple of them still drop in from time to time. My son and the current Reid proprietor, David, passes along their greetings. I've since learned some real names -- and when I recognize a face or two in the newspapers under the title "Drug King Pin" I say, "...oh, that's Mrs. So-and-So's nephew!" One would think that after many years of community policing, the police would evolve an attitude in the same way and that justice would then become more humane and compassionate. But then most members of the police department do not live in the communities that they police but are seen by the kids as an occupying force from outside. This must change.

Somehow we have to provide dreams big and strong enough for kids to buy into. We have to believe so strongly in the possibility of change that our visions overpower their despair and hopelessness. No small thing, of course, but surely possible. I've lived it and survived.

If only I could convince this city that is in such fear at the moment to put all of their resources -- not into new high tech surveillance cameras or to place new police officers on the streets -- but instead to open the now-closed sports facilities, afterschool programs, and locked community centers. It might not change the kids we've lost to violence, but such moves will go a long way toward changing the reality for those youngsters coming up behind them.

We need to set resources aside with which to build new dreams for ourselves that our kids can buy into until they can gain enough education, knowledge, experience, and compassion, to create their own. That's a tall order and depends upon the ability and willingness of the greater society to contribute, but it's still possible. This, is the place for the dropping in of reparations for past history.

This is the living prophecy of Lorraine Hansberry. This is the Raisin in the Sun in the process of festering.

This, I know is true.

I've lived it.

Change is inevitable. The shape of that change is the only thing in question.

Photo #1: Gospel singer, Vanessa Bell Armstrong with her manager on a visit to Reid's, our store on Sacramento Street. I'm the booted one on her left.

Photo #2: Berkeley Mayor Loni Hancock and City Councilmember Ann Chandler - the press, and me -- as we performed the groundbreaking for 43 units of new housing in a development that replaced the city's small slum area, across the street from Reid's -- the little family store that we established in June of 1945. It was then that I learned that beauty was as contagious as blight and the community has continued to bloom.