Saturday, November 12, 2005

The New deYoung Museum is stunning!

We drove to San Francisco yesterday afternoon to get a first glimpse of this spectacular new fine arts museum in Golden Gate Park. The reviews are in and consensus is that this is an architectural triumph and worthy of its place among the world's finest. The crowds are still large, but it's so spacious that it's not a problem.

The main exhibit (until February 15, 2006) is the collection of "Hatshepsut; From Queen to Pharaoh" and is wonderful. The gold objects, travertine (Egyptian alabaster) bowls and cosmetic containers, breast plates, necklaces (one made of 1400 tiny gold beads!), lifesized sandstone figures recovered from tombs where they were stowed centuries ago for the millenium and all magically brought together from many parts of the arts world for us to see.

Now this is context. When one can get this timeless ageless glimpse of humanity across a timeline of literally thousands of years, perspective is unalterably changed. Even the wars of our times are diminished. And it's quite obvious that much of human nature has remained unchanged. We were seeking the path to eternity lo those many eons ago -- and settling on answers strikingly similar to those found today in many parts of the nation and the world. The belief that one could "take it all with them into the next world" dominated how life was lived. It occurred to me that we've codified the practice into statutes that enable us to -- if not take it all along -- at least to pass it along to our heirs. Instead of the alabaster jars, jeweled collars, golden sandles and finger guards and toe covers, we do it with real property and family heirlooms, and best of all -- estates that guarantee status for those we leave behind while we tune our harps and test our wings before the throne of The Almighty.

An awful lot of us still believe firmly in our ability to transcend this life and guarantee ourselves spaces in some faraway Heaven overseen by a God created in our own image and who respects our biases enough to see to it that we're not troubled with having to deal in the hereafter with those unlike ourselves. Or so it would seem from that life-changing visit to Corpus Christi Catholic Church in New Orleans as an impressionable teen. I've never really forgiven the fact that seating was segregated in a church built by my grandfather. This was one of the earliest memories of the feeling of being the only grownup in the room; a feeling I would recognize many years later as I sat in that school auditorium in the front row while the principal and faculty performed a minstrel show in blackface on the stage before me. I was the mother of the only black child in the school -- and he was only eight.

I was particularly interested in the Nubian scribes who were prominent in the Hatshepsut exhibit. There were a number of these learned and highly respected men shown in paintings and at least one huge sandstone sculpture of such a scribe. My friend again tried to explain to me that -- despite the ebony skincolor -- Nubians were not black; an ongoing dispute. I remember having such arguments with Bill years ago when I would insist that those in North Africa -- including the Egyptians were more closely related to me, racially, than they were to the caucasian world. How on earth could they not be? Anwar Sadat might have been my Uncle Henry if I had an Uncle Henry! (White folks foolishness!) This was the continent of Africa, after all. And here it was again, Tom is a gentle man who would rather not enter into such a debate with me -- but who looks resolute and unconvinced -- smiling tolerantly and benevolently but clearly adamant in holding to his own learned opinion. Because it was such a beautiful exhibit in such a beautiful place -- I continued to hold my ground but did so wordlessly. We were at an impasse. We'll hash this one out one day in front of his fireplace with the rain sounding lightly on the copper roof at his home in Mendocino. I've not given up -- only temporarily silenced.

Meanwhile, the fine arts are many faceted and my favorite artist these days is one Dorian Leon Reid of the National Institute for Artists with Disabilities (NIAD). Dorrie will love this Exhibit. We'll visit soon, and I may learn something from the way she incorporates the experience into her own work. She's fixed on cats and there is little more arresting than the Egyptian graceful and mystical depiction of the cat. These are her Speedy on steroids!

But today I'll attend the memorial service for dearly departed lovingly remembered Lucretia Edwards, a woman adored by all who knew her; another reminder of the passage of time and of lives.

Photo: "Apples" by Dorian, painted last year. It hangs on the wall of my kitchen and brightens both the room and my life each time I catch a glimpse of it when I flick the light switch on.

Friday, November 11, 2005

A collective honor... ?

Of course. This amazing honor is being awarded on my watch, but was earned by all of the family women -- my enslaved greatgreatgrandmother Celestine of No Last Name, her enslaved daughter, Leontine Breaux Allen (our beloved Mammá); my own mother, Lottie Allen Charbonnet; Aunt Alice Allen Hymel, St. James Parish educator; the trickster, Aunt Vivian Allen Jernigan, of all of the women of the preceding generations ... good thought. I can say proudly, "look how far we've come!" And just maybe it will provide some guidance for the younger family women I'll leave behind when my time is spent. The years of researching family history and rebuilding the lines of connection bring with them a heightened sense of context. Thought of in that way, any false pride drops away and in its place comes a rare feeling of entitlement. Now I can write that bio. The "favorite photo" I've chosen is one taken when I was in the process of beginning the second half -- somewhat past fifty. That Betty was still in possession of a full head of hair and with eyebrows not yet descending over eyelids! The molting process was still years away.

When making the choice from an array of old photographs, I found myself wondering if this indicated that I saw fifty as the point at which life crested? Nope. It was only a fleeting thought. I'm keenly aware that the trajectory is still being defined, and that I've never felt quite completed -- still in the process of becoming. But my physical self as viewed objectively was probably at its peak at that point in time. This picture was taken on the day that Bill and l were married in the early 70's. I felt loved and whole and real and feisty and the camera caught every bit of it.

And speaking of such, word came this morning from a friend; a member of Richmond's city council and a noted architect who is in New Orleans as a part of a team of experts investigating the mold and structural problems left by Katrina. When Tom announced his assignment, I asked if he'd look into the fate of a couple of the buildings my father and grandfather erected many years ago. This morning it came -- the Phoenix is rising (see photo)! Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home has survived 4 feet of floodwater and is again operating. One day before too long, those jazz funerals will be wending their way to and from burials at St. Louis Cemetery as they have for the past century.

I've still not made meaningful contact with scattered family members, but at least I know that life is continuing, and that the legacy of Charbonnet is still a strong part of the identity of that city and its culture. Am hopeful that as things begin to slowly return to whatever form normal will take in the coming months and years, there will be a coming together of now dispersed family members.

That reminds me -- I must try again to reach cousin Louis Charbonnet and his family through the Mid-City Carriage Company. Have kept up (online) with continuing coverage on the fate of his heroic workers who saved the horses and mules -- and know that those animals that survived are stabled out of state awaiting restoration of their New Orleans home. The French Quarter will surely see those horsedrawn carriages again along Bourbon Street before too long -- a symbol of life as it once was lived in one of the most interesting and oldest cities in the nation.

I know that because the culture is in my DNA. Time and the distance have done little to diminish it.

Photo: Sent by Tom Butt as evidence of the survival of Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home.
Photo on the right is explained in body of this entry.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Work grows more intense with each day ...

...but maybe that's not what's happening at all. Maybe it's the sense of urgency about running out of the power to actualize all that's collecting in my mind -- that never-ending "to do" list may collapse into itself at some point like some black hole ...

Something else is beginning to color my days; it's the sense of some new quality of 'listening' to my words by others that wasn't there before -- and that I'm beginning to place demands on myself that words not be squandered into nonsense but that they be worthy of the attention given. Crazy? Does that mean that I'm in danger of becoming stilted? Pompous? Perhaps, but it goes along with the fact that I'm beginning to amass honors of a kind that make me want to peek behind myself to see if some more worthy soul is standing there waiting ... and that I'm blocking the view ... .

Perhaps my world is trying to say to me that it's time to leave the stage and make room for some unannounced successor. On the other hand, the excitement of feeling relevant still, and with the ability to join with others to bring the forces of change together in meetings and receptions and on picket lines and at demonstrations and civic meetings is heady and makes retirement still some faint goal for some distant future.

I'm still feeling effective and stirred by contemporary issues as if time has ceased to exist and that I'm caught in some undetermined age group -- somewhere between 35 and 70, surely not 80 or beyond. All of the Bettys are operative still, each rising to the forefront as the occasion demands. Now and then I catch sight of myself in a mirror or a reflection in a storefront window and my mother looks back. It can be jarring. This is surely the reason that some women opt for cosmetic surgery; to bring the inner and the outer selves into some reasonable alignment. I'm beginning to understand that.

My personal appearance has been relatively youthful for such a long time that the temptation to tamper with it has never been an issue. But now I'm beginning to notice that everything is beginning to fall, that my eyebrows have dropped closer to my eyelids and the feathering over my top lip .... What used to be freckles are now fullblown age spots that defy all attempts at coverage -- (don't believe the hype). And the hair! I will not succumb to wig-wearing -- but the hair-count is miserably scant -- and each time I draw the comb through my brush and toss away those collected in the bristles I know that there will be no replacements. Hair follicles are finite -- one of life's fundamental truths!

I worry now that my wardrobe is no longer reflecting my age. Am I dressing too young? Having no detectable changes in body shape over a lifetime, there has been little reason to buy clothing. I'm now past the age of acquisition so my wardrobe is perhaps 20-30 years old now -- except for the purchase of a new sweater or Levis now and again. Maybe I'll look around for the modern day version of that little black dress that was always the mainstay of my wardrobe with my long-dormant string of pearls ... that should reflect agelessness, right?

If this all reads like trivia, know that it has to do with my inability to put into words here how humble I'm feeling at having been announced as one of the honorees for the year 2006 by the National Women's History Project (NWHP). Having participated in the Mills College Conference on "Women of the West" a month or so ago, I have some sense of just how prestigious an honor this is. When I visited their website a moment ago and read through the list of women previously honored I could scarcely breathe!

The announcement of the year 2006 honorees is scheduled for November so I'm late. I need to return this form as a followup to the letter of acceptance I sent two weeks ago when notification came. Instead I'm sitting here stunned into silence and so awed by the honor that all I can think of are all of the stupid ways that I'm unworthy, like sagging eyebrows and terminal molting!

I came to my computer this morning to begin to put together the bio they've requested and to select a "favorite photograph" to accompany that -- and instead find myself sitting here feeling tearful, filled with humility, and totally unprepared for what this means. I'm so intimated by all of it that I'm having an extremely hard time following through. Does one ever feel worthy of such honors?

Maybe a trip to Nordstrom's for a new hat will take care of the qualms ... .

Or not.

(Stephen Sondheim -- Elaine Stritch, where are you?)

Photo: Another unbelievable day. This one in 1995, being presented with "Woman of the Year" plaque by Ms. Gail Wilson, wife of Governor Pete Wilson, before the California State Legislature. I didn't tell my family but drove the 78 miles to and from the Capitol alone and unheralded by those I love. Spent the day in that strange world being feted with no witnesses to share the experience with. Why? Maybe this year I'll change that. Maybe I've already overcome the reticence by posting it here.

Monday, November 07, 2005

To: Betty Reid Soskin
From: Steve Hurst
Subject: Quote from you for Richmond Chamber of Commerce Magazine/Directory
Date: Sat, 5 Nov 2005 11:17:58 -0800

Hi Betty

Looking around my cluttered office today, I had one of those "Ah ha!" moments. I found your card.

I am designing and producing the next magazine/directory for the chamber. I suggested that we include quotations from individuals along with their portrait to show the diversity of the community.

I would like for you to tell me in a couple of paragraphs (I know you have volumes to speak) what it is you like about Richmond.

The purpose of the magazine, aside from raising revenue for the chamber, is to cast a positive image of Richmond to the business and residential community, as well as promote the image of the city to businesses and individuals considering a move here.

I'll search through my archives for a nice shot I've taken of you, but I may request taking a few newer shots for the image I want to project.


Check out my websites

STEVE HURST – Graphics, Photography, Paintings, Websites

Will this do? Gave it lots of thought, and it feels right.

"Having lived a long lifetime in several areas of the East Bay I've experienced the distinctively differing cultures that these adjoining communities represent. After living for extended periods in Oakland, Berkeley, Walnut Creek, El Cerrito, then Berkeley again, I've found Richmond the most challenging, the most interesting, with more opportunities to help to effect change than in any place that I've ever lived. As a political and social activist with a restless need to join with others in giving shape to the future, this matters greatly to me.

Despite the contradictions -- at times Richmond is totally provincial and "set in her ways"; treating newcomers much like Cape Cod treats its summer people -- and at other times she feels so open -- malleable -- yielding to the forces of change in ways that threaten her ability to form and maintain a civic identity. She feels like a city ever in the process of becoming -- never quite there -- so there's still time to help in the shaping. That's a completely different environment than one might find in San Francisco, Berkeley, or Oakland; all cities fully formed. Here, I see opportunity everywhere I look. The hope to join with others in re-creating the world we want to see seems more likely to be realized here than in any other place that I've known."


Photo: Taken last Friday at the ceremonial relocating of the old World War II Whirley Crane that served in the building of the victory ships at the Kaiser Shipyards. It was an event of historic significance that moved one more piece of history onto the site of the Rosie The Riveter/Home Front National Park. 11/4/2005

Sunday, November 06, 2005


Was startled out of sleep this morning. It was another of those moments of knowing; and it was suddenly all-of-a-piece; the last several seemingly unrelated entries plus some bits and pieces lived off-screen and away from this keyboard -- pieces that fell into place in a mosaic of clarity:
  • Life in South Berkeley as a full-fledged struggling black merchant,
  • The years of being radicalized by the contrasts inposed by my double life as female merchant while simultaneously living as an empowered faculty wife at the university.
  • Being privileged by having my life in the cauldron of the innercity balanced by the ability to return every evening to a lovely home at the topmost ridge of Berkeley, above the university and on the edge of the pastoral wilderness of Tilden Park ...
  • while those I faced from behind the counter remained each night to be impacted by the sounds of gunshots, fear, police sirens, poverty and crime, in daily lives lived against impossible odds.
  • New talk of a curfew for youth in Richmond, and
  • The pending execution of Stanley "Tookie" Williams.
Crazy melange? You're right. I'm not even sure I can get it unsnarled in a few words ... .

Yesterday I was about to drive out to meet Tom in Walnut Creek when I discovered that my wallet was missing. Recalled that it was probably left on my desk at work on Friday and detoured from the Hilltop area through downtown to pick it up. The drive took me down Macdonald Avenue past Fourth Street park with its usual number of mostly scruffy-looking men "chinnin'" as Papa George would say. Grinned to myself in realizing that -- were I driving past Pete's Coffee or Starbucks in a white neighborhood I'd have seen men socializing. Here, I saw men loitering. I drew to the stop sign at the corner of Fourth and Nevin and noted that the men on two of the corners leaning against the store windows were clearly younger and far more animated; playful. But my CNN-conditioned mind easily translated the scene into one of drug-dealing. An easy trap. Was reminded of South Berkeley in the Seventies, and of how differently my mind read such scenes then -- when looking from inside the belly of the beast and not as an outside observer. Here, I was not a member of the community of the Iron Triangle. These were not youngsters whom I knew or cared about except in the abstract. What else was different? The element of fear. I'd grown past that in those life-changing years in South Berkeley. As that thought surfaced my hand automatically reached toward the door lock.

On the drive to Walnut Creek -- out San Pablo Dam Road past the reservoir -- through the brilliant red, gold, deep greens riot of colors of autumn, my mind locked on the contrasts almost as automatically as my fingers had on the lock button only moments before. Wasn't I only minutes away from upscale Orinda where my friend, Felix Polk's, life had been smothered out by Susan (also a child of privilege), and where that wealthy 16-year-old Goth had savagely murdered the attorney's wife in a fit of fury? Why had the fear not followed me here? Was it because here those awful crimes were seen as an anomaly; against logic. Why was that? Was it because as a society we've set up the conditions in both places that predicted outcomes. If so, the solutions to the problems should be as predictable, shouldn't they? Why were they not?

That handsome 16 year-old enjoyed a disproportionate share of resources, an SUV, the best schools, a room of his own, every gadget technology can offer, books, travel, summer camps, parents with the strong educational backgrounds, professional achievement. They had the time, the energy, and the financial resources to satisfy not only their children's needs but wants as well. Where on earth could that reservoir of disembodied rage have found a place from which to grow? How could this be? We have every right to wonder. Even though he was clearly a juvenile, his name was released to the press but there was no mention of his family connections. Protective attorneys? On the very first report of his arrest the newcaster mentioned that "his sister had been tragically killed not too long ago," as if to explain his actions and give him an excuse for unspeakably tragic outburst of rage. Only later was his mother identified and implicated but only because she'd been arrested for aiding and abetting in her effort to protect her child. This is clearly a child of privilege. There were the usual explanations from neighbors and friends of "...this is such a peaceful community. How could this possibly have happened here?" And in a way they're right. It's a complete mystery.

On the other hand, we have an African American youngster from whom health care, parental guidance; recreational resources, school counseling; from streets that crackle with potential violence; with halfway houses and methodone clinics to pass on the way to and from school; with drug dealers to sidle past; and, often without enough food, or money, or attention; and too much responsibility for younger siblings; and often without anyone at home who understands the demands placed on you by teachers who haven't a clue about what your life is like on the outside or how relevant are the teachings you're expected to absorb ... and besides, he or she looks nothing like you and speaks another language. And one day you graduate from highschool against all odds and enter college. How could this be? Conventional wisdom would surely have predicted prison, right? The fact that many of your friends didn't make it to adulthood but as often as not died in a hail of bullets within a few feet on these same streets is a factor in how you see the future. To climb past the low expectations of those who dominate your life colors your own expectations of yourself and cripples ambition and smothers dreams ... .

How much are kids born to their fate? White privilege would surely have cast the lot of our young Goth differently. What was the missing ingredient that produced the monster? What inner strengths brought this innercity youngster past the chaos of life around him or her and into the mainstream?

In a way, Stanley "Tookie" Williams is living out the norm for black males. The supreme court, the attorney general and the governor are expected to fulfill societal expectations by denying clemency. This would be another norm. The expected outcome for troublesome black youth.

His execution will solve nothing because there is no understanding of or solution for the problems that sent him to prison as a young man. How much wiser to hold him in a life sentence without the possibility of parole where we might plumb his mind for answers to the cul de sac we've created for ourselves in our inability to understand or address the problems of youngsters from his world. He has proven his ability to grow beyond the confines of prison into greater understanding of the problems that sent him there. We have not.

Little has changed in South Central, except that Williams has quieted much of the gang violence through his quiet work from Death Row. The work that brought him to the attention of the Nobel Prize committee will surely die by lethal injection with him and we'll be the poorer for it.

The expectations for our children -- depending upon whether they reside in the Iron Triangle, South Central, Orinda or Columbine -- or any of the white communities where school shootings have taken lives -- are profoundly different. We're capable of producing monsters anywhere -- as anomalies. Have we yet learned the lessons of Columbine?

Can we allow ourselves to continue to use our innercities as a catchment areas for the breeding of violence? Must poor youngsters be forced to continue to swim against the tide of fortune when -- by shifting the lens ever so slightly -- we might see new solutions and begin to build hope for a new future? Will we one day learn that cultural and emotional deprivation are the hidden causes of much of the violence in the world of our young of whatever racial background or economic class? Will our children eventually spring out of the adult-imposed pathology, as they did in the Flower Child era of the Haight-Ashbury days -- seize the world and make it their own again?

After having picked at this through for much of this day, I find myself wondering -- not about how many violent gangs have been produced in the Iron Triangle to boost the kill rate for this year -- but at the miracle of the many who have managed to overcome the environment of destruction to which we as a society continue to confine their young lives.

Our children may have to wrest their world from us in order to save it.

At the moment, we're leaving little upon which they can build.

Maybe they've seen the future and are in dispair of what they see ... .

Photo: The work of CAA/ICU student, George Scott Braley © 1998. Co-Directors Mat Schwarzman and Juana Alicia at Urban Arts in Oakland, California.