Saturday, October 01, 2005

I'm developing such a backlog of unwritten events and thoughts ... with little time to "download" ...

But I need to spend a part of this weekend thinking about what I'll say next weekend at the Mills College Women's History Conference -- this will be a good place to begin, I think.

On Thursday evening there will be a Holly Near concert and casual gathering where there will be a chance to schmooze, I suppose. Never was very good at that. When people approach me to chit chat -- and ask silly questions for the sake of the ritual -- I tend to give real answers and then feel embarrassed that this was not a part of the game. Hate schmoozin'!

On Friday there will be a ceremony in the morning where Justice Sandra Day O'Connor will be honored followed by a great variety of workshops that will go on throughout that day and the next.

On Saturday I'm scheduled to represent the Rosie the Riveter/Home Front Historical National Park on a panel that will be dealing with monuments and tributes to the nation's women. Not really sure what that means and will take the time here to work through some of that. It may save some embarrassment next Saturday by keeping my remarks relevant.

What I've been thinking about (and what's confusing the issue for me in many ways) is the fact that different people have lived such differing realities. My experience doesn't reflect that of the Rosie's who are the heroines of the Home Front war effort at all. We lived those years in a racially segregated society. Yet, one of the reasons that I'm of any value at all to the NPS is precisely because I represent the untold stories of the period. Those lost or never-held conversations are critical to the establishing of a baseline against which to measure social progress made over the years that followed. Only by looking closely and honestly at those times that radically altered basic social patterns -- can we begin to understand the turbulence of the last 60 years and continue on a corrective course. The federal response to those who suffered such shameful abuse and neglect from Katrina in the heavily black Gulf states suggests that we still have miles to go before we sleep.

To have lived long enough to be acutely aware of the continuum of change and to still be connected enough to express it may justify my participation on that panel. I need to hold to my truth and not get caught up in what is often a glorified version of women's role in the war effort. I must stay with my own reality; and that of women like me.

Recently read a book on African American Women in the West (not exact title but will look it up later) and noticed something that had escaped my notice until recently. It's important, I think:

Though there are 21 pages in a chapter entitled "World War II," not once did the words "Japanese," "Nazis," "The Axis," "Bataan or Midway," receive mention. It suddenly struck me as I completed the chapter that the war had never been a major factor in my life, either. I'd never known why that was, or that anyone else experienced it similarly.

Obviously, for African Americans, the epic was not the War, but escape from a hostile South. The War simply served as background to this greater drama. This chapter in a fine book on the experiences of the African American woman spoke of customs, practices, relationships, philanthropy, work ethics, racial prejudice as transported to the west by white southerners, church and civic involvement, recreation, job opportunities or the lack thereof; everything but "The Great War." Interesting?

That chapter would have been written very differently had the author been a white female participant on the home front war effort. It would have talked about climbing in and out of the noses of warplanes or learning to rivet or weld against the resistance of male workers, etc. It would be a story of great pride in overcoming gender biases and prevailing against the odds. And it is those stories that are being collected and treasured as Rosie's long-neglected history is being honored by the establishment of a national park in her name. The story of Rosie is a white woman's story, and a worthy one at that. But it isn't my story, nor the story of the many women like me who were shamefully wasted human potential in sea of inequity.

The time of retrieving those lost conversations has finally arrived. The National Park Service is not only listening, but is facilitating the untold stories under a new program called "Civic Engagement." There is a growing audience of willing listeners -- those who are eager to hear. The Lion's share of the work may be in getting African Americans to relive the pain of those years by putting it into words -- those who are still alive and willing. Their children and grandchildren continue to suffer from the effects of the hopelessness and sense of rejection that's worked their way into the DNA of a people without any longer remembering the why of it ... .

A tremendous opportunity is before us through the work of the National Park Service. By setting aside and restoring places and structures of our shared history, we can be the catalyst for our own transformation into what our founding documents tried to provide for us -- that framework for freedom for all people. Even in their ambivalence around just who "the people" were, they provided the template for what a democracy can be, if each generation in turn accepts the responsibility for re-creation and dedication to the principles therein.

I suppose these are the underlying reasons that I've lived much of my life as a political being, ever hopeful of positive change.

Wonder, sometimes, how different it might have been had Mr. McGovern won the nomination and the presidency?

Photo: Served as a McGovern delegate with the California delegation (in 1972) led by then Speaker of the House, the Honorable Willie Brown. The irony is that I was chosen by the same congressional district that fiercely challenged my right to live among them some 20 years before.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Charbonnet cousins found!

The following article in The Advocate was forwarded from a new friend who lives in Miami. One of the miracles of communication born of these magical times. What a gift!

Louis Charbonnet knelt during Mass six days after Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc in New Orleans and prayed, "Lord, I really need to get my animals out. Please help me."

Charbonnet, who owns Mid-City Carriages -- the largest mule- and horse-drawn carriage business in New Orleans -- prayed for a way to rescue an employee and 23 horses and mules still trapped near their flooded barn at North Robertson and Lafitte streets in New Orleans.

"As soon as my prayer was over, I felt my cell phone ring," said Charbonnet. "It was the state veterinarian telling me to get my trucks and trailers ready; they were going to let me go in and get them.

"I couldn't believe it," Charbonnet said.

For 15 years, Charbonnet, his wife, Simone, and daughter, Kim, have owned the carriage business -- providing tourists mule-drawn carriage tours of the French Quarter, transporting brides in horse-drawn carriages to weddings or caskets bearing bodies to their final resting places.

The horses and mules are a staple, a part of New Orleans lore. Before Katrina they were seen with colorful flowers attached to their manes or straw hats cocked over their long loopy ears trotting down Bourbon Street pulling a carriage of tourists absorbing the sights, sounds, and smells of the Big Easy. Sometime the mules and horses were lined up in front of St. Peter's Square, a back hoof cocked while drinking out of the equine community water trough waiting for their next group of tourists.

But on the Saturday before Katrina pummelled New Orleans, parades and tourists were far from Charbonnet's mind. Instead, he was thinking of his 48 mules and horses.

"Since there's no place for me to take the animals, we usually ride the storms out," Charbonnet said. "But I went home Saturday night and about midnight I saw the weather report and realized this storm was going to be worse than usual and decided to get them out."

By early the next morning, Charbonnet brought his trucks, trailers and borrowed a few more, but still there was room for only 25 mules.

"We were headed towards Hattisburg, (Miss.) but after we started I found out there was no room for them there, so I headed towards Baton Rouge," Charbonnet said. "My brother has some property on Pecue Lane and he told me I could put them there."

Because so many people fled the storm on the last day, it took 12 hours for Charbonnet's caravan to reach Baton Rouge.

Riding out the storm with Mid-City's remaining 23 mules and horses at the barn on the outskirts of the French Quarter were long-time employees Lucien Mitchell Jr., Darnell Stewart and Fabian Redmon.

"We made it pretty well through the hurricane," Mitchell said. "But on Tuesday, when the levees broke,the water started coming up fast in the barn and I knew we had a problem."

There was Miss Pierre, a brown mule; Gorilla, a large sorrel Belgian horse that behaves best when he's with Bear, a Percheron. There were Baby and Sugar, two other Belgians that work as a pair. Mr. Big, Howard, and Winston, were among the horses and mules left with Mitchell.

"There's a little park with playground equipment called Leimann's Park near the barn," Mitchell said. "It's on high ground, but we had to swim with the horses and mules to get there because the water came up so fast.."

By twos and threes, Mitchell, Redmon and Stewart swam with the horses and mules to high ground. They all made it.

By the second day, Redmon was evacuated. On the third day Stewart hurt his foot and was flown to Texas for treatment. That left Mitchell with 23 horses and mules.

"Our cell phones didn't work, so I knew the boss would come to get us. I just didn't know when," Mitchell said.

Each day, Charbonnet tried to get clearance to get back to the city.

"But each day I was told it was too dangerous, too many shootings and I was told I couldn't go in,," Charbonnet said.

For Mitchell, it was difficult handling all those horses and mules by himself.

"I love these animals and I wasn't going to leave them. But sometimes they would try to drink that filthy water, or they'd get loose and run off," he said. "I was dragged through the water by one of them, but I finally got him calmed down and brought back."

Each day, Mitchell rode Fidel, an Arabian horse, to get feed stored in the barn's loft, and clean water for the herd.

"I carried the water on my shoulders," he said. "By the third day, I ran out of food and water for me."

Mitchell met eight other people stranded by the storm living under a makeshift tent. They helped him with the animals and offered him food.

"It was sad," he said. "But still I had to keep the others alive."

Meanwhile, after six anxious days, Charbonnet finally received the clearance to go in, only to be stopped once more.

"They told me I needed an escort and there wasn't anyone available," said Charbonnet, a former state representative. "This was my neighborhood. I knew where I was going and they finally let me leave."

Charbonnet, with trucks and trailers, arrived at the Orleans Avenue exit on Interstate 10 on September 4.

"I spotted them and I thought, 'Hallelujah," Mitchell said. "I was so happy."

Charbonnet began backing down the ramp.

"I used one of the larger trucks to drive through the water to the park that was like an island now and there they were. After eight trips, I got all of them out and loaded onto trailers," Charbonnet said.

When they finally arrived at the Lamar-Dixon fairgrounds in Gonzales and opened the trailers, Charbonnet found that one of the horses, Mr. Big, had died. And shortly after unloading them, Winston, another horse, died.

"Howard and Mr. Big were a team,' Mitchell said. "Howard just keeps his head down and stays facing the corner of a stall. I know he misses Mr. Big."

But even with the deaths of his animals, Charbonnet considers himself lucky.

In the next few days, he plans to finish sending the mules and horses to a farm in Tennessee.

"And don't worry," Charbonnet said. "We'll be back. You'll see the carriages again. I just know it.

Note: I've since tried to place call to Mid City Carriage in New Orleans -- have left messages but have not yet made contact. But this story -- plus my still vibrant memories of the New Orleans that was -- surely must justify bringing back all those who can begin the process of reconstructing what once was. There's a precious legacy here. I pray we don't sacrifice that to some Stepford-type generic future.

(Thanks, Marvin.)

Sunday, September 25, 2005

It's another beautiful Sunday morning -- and how guilty I feel for being able to say that at all ...

at a time when so many are returning home to chaos through streets strewn with fallen trees to homes that may not even exist anymore. So sad ... .

The devastation of the Gulf States seems biblical in scope and surely is calling up cries of inescapable doom for all of mankind. Don't dare turn on the church channels. Despite a deep humanism, I can still be shaken by the ranters that scream of hell and damnation.

For reasons that are unclear at this point, woke this morning thinking of Aunt Vivian (Allen-Jernigan), mother's younger sister. Both are now gone. How different they were. Mother with her quiet envy of Vivian's hedonism. Vivian the pied piper. The prankster. One who could deflate any prig who had the audacity to try to derail her natural zest for life. She was so like her devilish father, Papa George, whom mother never quite forgave for being a neglectful parent. And, of course, he was that. I often think that I enjoyed the friendship and parental love with him that she was denied as a child.

Her own mother was only 14 when she was born. Julia LaRose was her name, though she was referred to by Mom as "Minette." Julia's father was Jack LaRose. She was dead by the time mother reached her 7th month. Mom was raised by Mammá while George tootled off and married Vivian's mother, Desireé Hernandez, soon thereafter and fathered four more kids. He never returned for Mom until some years later when Desireé also died. It was only then that Vivian and Mom lived in the same house -- but it was Vivian who was "... allowed to stay up a little longer than the others to secretly bring Mammá's little pipe and tobacco to her from behind the loose brick by the fireplace at the end of a long day in the fields...", at least according to Vivian's oft told story. Their rivalry must have been keen since childhood.

All of them shared that little cabin in a place called "Welcome Post Office" beside the levee in St. James. There was the widow, Leontine Breaux Allen, her own many children; her son, Louie and wife, Mariá, plus their large brood -- now plus Papa George's five offspring. Poor Mom surely got lost in the pack. Together the family farmed the land and raised the crops for market and fed themselves somehow. Mammá's pension as a widow of a veteran of the Louisiana Colored Troops who fought in the Civil War amounted to $49/month, according to the papers retrieved from the government.

I so loved hearing the stories of St. James and childhood in that little cabin where so many of the next generation achieved so much in such a short time. Great Aunt Alice who became a teacher by means I never have managed to figure out, created the first school for black children in St. James -- and later became its principal. Uncle George Allen became president of Southern University over time -- and a close friend of Thurgood Marshall. Cousin Gertrude (daughter of Great Uncle Sam) was a teacher in New Orleans as was her sister, another Vivian. Great Aunt Emily married Great Uncle Raleigh Coker, a physician and lived in New Orleans where she "fostered" many of the younger members of the family through their college years and beyond as they moved away from St. James out into the city, to attend Xavier.

All shared the humble beginnings of planting and bringing in the sugar cane, the vegetables and fruit that sustained them all, and the love of a very special Mammá, the matriarch former slave Leontine Breaux Allen, who was not the least bit daunted by her times but outdistanced them by far.

Photo: Transplanted Creoles; my mother's eldest brother Herman Allen; then Jones, the handsome beau of Aunt Vivian's at the time and whose last name I never knew, then someone I can't place, followed by Billie Gaudet, sister to Herman's wife, Marie Gaudet Allen, don't know Elsie's last name, but that's my wonderful sassy Aunt Vivian on Elsie's left followed by Frank Churchill. Aunt Vivian's practice of writing all over her photographs used to drive me wild -- but I've learned to appreciate the hint of her "presence" when I look at the scrawls. Picture taken in 1926 in Oakland, California.