Saturday, September 24, 2005

Time for crowing ...

I've been wandering around in the past for the last few weeks -- started with Katrina and with my concern about the possible loss of kinfolk and a culture that I should have forgotten long ago but haven't. Those ties of family and culture are obviously unbreakable as long as one's memories withstand the ravages of time.

But that's all in the background of my life. It's the foreground that is so commanding these days. The 60-day emergency hire under which the National Park Service brought me in will expire on September 30. But in the interim, a new park superintendent has been brought in, a new phase of the work of park development has commenced, and the work of liaison between the park and the community has moved into sharper focus. They've found funding to keep me into some indefinite future. It's open-ended, but then so am I, right? I'll be hired as a full-fledged national park staffer when my contract ends. Maybe my classification will be "Living Artifact." Maybe folks will be required to wear those little museum white gloves in order to shake my hand. Don't know. But it feels good.

The prior 7-8 years of my work life involved facets that are at this point of great value to a developing park. Having been a field representative for two members of the State Assembly -- I've become a valuable asset (albeit of some vintage), with experience that is not only relevant but not easy to duplicate in younger careerists.

Age brought with it a new confidence that continues to amaze even me. It's only since I reached 80 that I'm able to say with assurance, "I know!" No longer do I wait around for some Avatar to deliver me or those who trust me for answers that I no longer expect to find, or that don't exist, or are unattainable over the course of any single lifetime. I not only know, but I'm willing to act on the knowing. This doesn't imply, however, that I'm necessarily correct in what I know -- just that I've become quite comfortable with conflicting truths and can live nicely with ambiguity.

The past 4 years have been more exciting than any that came before -- except maybe for the exultation of becoming a parent. Delivering my firstborn, Robert Thomas Reid, still stands out as tops -- absolutely the best. That sense of participating in the creation of life is equalled by no other experience. The thrill of David's birth followed by Dorian's is as keen today as on the days they came into the world.

What's so exciting? Well, this week I worked on several projects that should lead to greater involvement with the host community of Greater Richmond. I have a co-worker whom I adore -- who is enthusastic and appreciative of my efforts -- and who knows all that technical stuff that remains mysterious and thrilling to me -- like Googling into space and back at the flick of the finger. I just leave all that stuff up to the genie.

Yesterday I narrated into a magical little machine -- the size of a matchbox -- a 450-word piece on Black History of World War II that will underlay a slide show of photos of untold stories of the period. Spent the earlier part of the week producing that -- and am satisfied with what developed. It will carry a soundtrack of music appropriate for the time (probably instrumental jazz/blues kind of stuff), and will be used to stir the disclosure of other untold stories by those homefront workers who might be still around.

On October 7th and 8th I'll be representing the park by participating on a panel about Women of World War II in a Women's History Conference at Mills College in Oakland. For November and again in January we're working on two Leadership Guided Tours of the Rosie the Riveter World War II Homefront Historic National Park (henceforth abbreviated to HNP). Will then begin to develop a script for tour guides that can be translated into several of the many languages represented in Greater Richmond -- so that Laotian, Latino, etc., groups can provide their own tours from their own centers.

As an indication of some of the lost conversations and untold stories:

Did you know that there were ships names for 17 African Americans? Three of those were built in the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond, California; the SS Robert S. Abbott; the SS George Washington Carver, and the SS Harriet Tubman. In addition there were several ships named for historically black colleges; Fisk, Talledega, Xavier, and Lane. But by far the most interesting to me was the launching of the SS Ethiopia and the SS Toussaint L'Overteur -- both in the year 1944. This, at a time when racial segregation was at its height and the Klan still riding high not only in the South, but was now transplanted to the streets of Richmond by those who came west to work in the war plants. How I'd love to gain access to the papers of the deliberations that led to the decision to so honor the "Black Napoleon," the former slave who defeated Napoleon in the Battle for Haiti at the end of the 18th Century.

Richmond is oddly enough, a city with little sense of or appreciation for its history. Easy to understand when one realizes that it was a sleepy little company town (Standard Oil) of around 20,000 until it ballooned overnight in 1942 when 110,000 made their way west to help to build the ships in the 5 Kaiser shipyards that lined the shoreline. Almost everyone was new. Most were from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. Those folks (black and white) weren't yet sharing drinking fountains or cemetaries or hospital wards. They wouldn't for another 20 years. They brought "the South" with them.

The archives and the library just outside my cubicle hold theses, photographs, artifacts, slides, posters of the period, oral histories, recently-written books by historians who are only now discovering the period. After all, 60 years isn't a great enough timespan to invite much scholarly investigation as history. Those 60 years, however, represent the Lion's share of my life -- but apparently not the most productive years.

These may be the most productive yet.

Ain't that a hoot?

Photo: A very young Lena Horne singing at the launching of the SS George Washington Carver at Kaiser Shipyard #3 in 1944.

"Busier than a one-armed paper-hanger" is more than just a saying ...

Work continues to be fascinating and engrossing. The idea of being a part of a developing national park is pretty awesome; and that's what's going on right now.

Been thinking about the last post (Sept. 19th) and of the photo that led the story -- thinking that there may be other Creoles reading this who could benefit if I added some names to those faces, just in case you're a researcher.

It's frustrating to have women's names changed by marriage -- and am grateful that younger women of my granddaughter's generation have changed that pattern after far too long. Given the instability of the institution of marriage, it gets awfully complicated to try to trace one's lineage.

In the photo above you'll find many of the daughters and daughters-in-law of the women's in yesterday's post. The shot above was taken in the mid-forties when we were just about the same age as our mothers were at the time of their summer picnic.

front row: Margaret Wright, (can't recall), Elaine Allen Wilson, Juanita Ribbs Reid. Second row, Angelina Lopez, Evalina Donnelly, Annette Starr(?), Gloria Towns Wilson, Ruth Warnie Romine Strange, Blanche Smith (Mrs. Rudy), Moi. Back row: Muriel Reid Kranston, Juanita Smith, (can't recall), Maybelle Reid Allen, Mary Towns Bagby, and Dorothy Watkins.

As you may have discovered already, these are thumbnails and can be blown up by clicking. If there's someone here you're interested in, or, if you recognize someone I've not identified, email me.

Now that I've learned to add photos, I'll return to the archives and add any that seem appropriate to the entries. Will try to identify each as my memory coughs them up!

Having celebrated my 84th birthday on Thursday, and with this deep sense of the need to "download" everything that's pent up in the old brain while I can, I plan to spend more time going through old albums and correspondence so that all that good stuff won't disappear from the earth when I do. Though -- unless I get struck by a comet or some errant hurricane bent up hunting down Creoles ...

There's still work to do.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Thinking today about just what it means to be "poor."

Funny, that might be the least relevant term to use when referring to Creole people or culture. That's simply not an accurate measure of worth for us. I'm certain that -- were I using the values of the European acquisitive and materialistic society that now forms the adopted values of my life -- that word might be fitting. But in the context of New Orleans and all that flowed therefrom, economic worth is fairly irrelevant.

I surely remember being young and crowded into a bedroom that housed all three of us (my sisters and me) in the small 2 bedroom cottage in East Oakland where we grew up. I remember my mother and her bridge clubmembers traveling across town on the bus carrying folding chairs and maybe even a card table to the home of the hostess for the week. I know about Mom getting up early on Thursday mornings to be among the first to "Sally Ann's" (Salvation Army store) for the best pickin's because that was the day that the truck delivered new old stuff to the local store. I know about "red beans and rice on Mondays" and sleeping under blankets monogrammed with SP in the corners (Southern Pacific Railroad). I spent many a day at the free clinic getting shots and some pretty rugged dental care. I remember watching my mother and her friends gathering together to chop, mince, and stir the fixin's for the hoghead cheese with its garlicky aroma and gelatinous texture that we got to taste with salted crackers the next day after it had all been divied up and slipped into cheesecloth packages for sharing. I know how grateful my mother and aunts were when the husbands who traveled the rails as porters came home with brown bags of file (pronounced fee-lay) for gumbo that couldn't be found anywhere in this new West Coast territory we Creoles now called home. I know about collecting bottles to return for a few cents each in order to see the Saturday matinee. I'm aware of all that -- but I scarcely have any memory at all of being "poor."

Makes me wonder what was different about that? Wondering if "poor" is a relative term that has little meaning if everyone in your world is at the same status? How on earth would we have known what "rich" meant, except in a kind of mythic sense of those we saw on the silver screen -- and everybody knew that was make believe, right? After all, I grew up during the depression years.

Maybe poor is a word that is always imposed externally. rarely recognized from inside. But then maybe -- since television was not a part of our world -- we had little need to deal with comparisons. I suppose I must have had some sense of where we were on the economic scale by the time we were adolescents, but I'm not sure it was true even then. By that time we'd created our own criteria and it included the uniqueness that comes with a Creole heritage. We were a proud people with standards that were considerably higher than many that we lived among. We were just one more second generation ethnic group, transplanted complete with the patois (at least among our elders) superstitions, folklore, songs, music, a cuisine, and dimming memories of "home."

I figure that those who now describe those "poor" folk from the Ninth Ward have only a part of the story. So much of the culture has been retained in the DNA of even the "poorest." I felt it watching the "Live From Lincoln Center" presentation for the benefit of New Orleans musicians effected by the floods. When those men marched in with their rhythmic beat -- "humph!," -- the off-count toss of the head in unison -- and the staccato hand clap that I'm certain few white folks that I know could have mastered no matter how hip they believed themselves to be. I felt the presence of my father over my shoulder -- with his hand-painted baby blue leaky cornet and uncle Louis' raggedy bent up drums -- and Dick Dewson's tinny piano -- on any Saturday night of crawfish caught in the creeks in Niles Canyon boiled scarlet and served on spread out newspaper with home brew (if it hadn't exploded in the process of becoming!) at 1322 83rd Avenue in Oakland, California. How they would have resonated to Wynton Marsalis' music!

We'd all have become second liners with kazoos, pots and pans with wooden spoons, combs and tissue paper!


Hell no! And envied by many for the gifts of jazz and good times that Creole's have brought to the world.

Rich beyond measure.

Photo #1: Mother's Creole social club on a picnic at Leona Heights near East Oakland. (front row) Alberta Cashin (wife of George), can't recall second face but the third is Ethel Aubert (married to Gene), Mabel Allen (husband Ellis), Marie Gaudet Allen (wife of Herman), Ruth Smith, unknown, little girls Arlene Cashin and Josephine Aubert with my younger sister, baby Lottie Charbonnet (now Fields) with back to camera in the far right corner. Back row -- the first 3 women on the left I can't identify but Lucille Towns (wife of Roy) and Marjorie Ledford (wife of Claude) with my uncle Lloyd Allen horning in on the party at the far right.

Photo #2: Papa George's Model T adorned by his family. Lower row my sister, Marjorie (Charbonnet-Brooms), me (Betty), Aunt Audrey Kingsbury Allen (wife of Fred), Second row, youngest sister, Lottie (Charbonnet Balugo Fields) in the arms of Teen-dah (friend of my grandmother's) with Papa's sister, Isabel Allen LeBeouf Warnie. Seated on the running-board is my mother, Lottie (Allen Charbonnet), who looks traumatized - having just arrived in California from the hurricane-flooded New Orleans with Sarah LeBeouf (wife of Melville) and Papa's third wife, Louise Breaux Allen. Uncle Herman Allen (husband of Marie Gaudet Allen) towering over all.