Saturday, November 19, 2005

Contrasts can be dizzying if one thinks about it too much ...

Woke this morning to the sound of Scott Simon's voice on NPR introducing a piece on New Orleans by one of the staff whose home was/is there. It was a fine piece with appropriate sounds in the background and the proper mix of humor, irony, and pathos for what exists no more. The images from my architect friend, Tom Butt's (not my special friend, Tom) report on his recent professional visit to Louisiana and the many photos of desolation that he included blew open memories that I thought had dimmed out long ago. Hadn't realized how touched I was by those images.

The replay of the hurricane of my childhood -- the one that uprooted my family and deposited us in Oakland, California, in 1927 has come into sharp focus again. I was six -- old enough to have the trauma renewed but more in feelings than in fact. Each time I read of the plight of those dispersed out into strange environments (like Creoles in Utah) something stirs deep inside that I can't quite get at ... .

Comments by this morning's reporter continue to resonate -- "... in a city that was only recently 80% black, that percentage has been reversed. Everywhere I look there are white people." And, "...the hotels and inns that remain are no longer filled with the visitors who used to come to share our culture, but with FEMA personnel and workers and agents." Though the voice was that of a white woman, there was obviously pain in it for what once was -- and hope that somehow it will all be restored. She sounded both nostalgic and resigned to the unknown future of her/our city.

My family never returned except for occasional visits to see Mammá, yet much of the culture is still embedded in my psyche -- at least through my own generation. Sadly, little if any of that was transmitted to our children. My parents mourned the loss, and it was in the mourning that their love of New Orleans and the music and the food and the superstitions and zest for life was given to us. It was fragile. I didn't know. Should have taken better care of it.

When looking through old fading family photos since Katrina, I'm discovering a freshening of memories. Something beyond nostalgia ... a kinship with today's scattered souls who may never return -- but who may not find today's world any more kindly than it was when my parents left. In many cases (especially since we witnessed the lack of caring over those endless days when corpses rotted away in gutters) there's strong evidence that our fate -- even in a time of brutal segregation -- we were luckier than those now dispersed into unknown futures. It is yet to be acknowledged that at least 5000 people are still unaccounted for. There has been no final count announced. I suspect that there will never be.

I also think of all those little Bettys caught in the aftermath of Katrina -- warehoused in strange cities -- lost to the vagaries of ghetto life, uprooted from poor schools in the south and tossed into poorer ones in the north -- with resources withheld or skimmed off by corruption in a system not yet free of the blindness of racism -- damned by low expectations and consigned to the least of all there is. Such thoughts demand that I participate in the saving of the children -- all children -- and in the saving -- save myself.

But as it was with my own life -- change will come. That it will be as profound a change as I've lived cannot be seen at this point. Change is irresistable; controlling the shape of it is unfortunately a collective thing -- demanding implementation by us all. Individuals have little power over the form it takes or the speed by which it moves. Yet, that little girl who arrived with hurricane-devastated parents in 1927 survived. There are remnants of a culture still influencing my life. The Catholicism and the French patois were casualities, but the jazz and the deep pride of being and the gumbo and jambalaya and the joie de vivre lives on, and for that I'm grateful. Perhaps that's why I cling to the uniqueness of my Creole (black) ancestry -- it's always given more than it took away. And I'm still adding to it -- though often despite a strong resistance to the constant threat of expropriation by the dominant culture.

Tonight we'll have dinner at Tadich's in San Francisco's financial district -- then on to the San Francisco Opera. The performance will be Ludwig van Beethoven's "Fidelio." Though not hard-wired for either symphony or opera, I find myself more and more open to listening keenly in the hope of making connections to the store of music of a kind that I feel rather than hear. I'm discovering that -- from time to time -- some universal is tapped into -- and that spiritual knowing kicks in ... and the music and the fine arts and the dance strikes some universal something and I'm on the inside -- with the composer or the artist or the dancer -- and there's the feeling of home. The feeling is rare -- but having felt it at all and at times emulating it -- the possibility keeps me ever searching in galleries and on concert stages and dance pavillions ... but mostly in the music of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, and Shirley Horn, still. But at times now, also in the strains of Sibelius, Borodin, or Mozart or a Quaker choir singing "Tis a gift to be simple ...". Maybe the connection has to be made with something already within me, and after so many years -- what's in me grows richer and more complex with each day.

What's in me -- the starting place -- was/is my black Creole history and culture.

Photo: Papa George (Allen) standing beside his little shotgun bungalow that housed us in 1927. In the row just below him are Aunt Vivian Allen (Jernigan), Cousin Annabelle LeBeouf (Therence), my mother, Lottie Allen Charbonnet; Papa's sister, Great Aunt IsoBel Allen LeBeouf Warnie, Cousin Vernon Therence, Jr., Cousin Ruth Warnie (Strange), my sister Marjorie Charbonnet (Brooms) holding my younger sister, Lottie Charbonnet (Fields), Cousin Dick Therence, Cousin Josie Warnie (Duncan), and in the front row with scratches all over face, me.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Thinking of how stubbornly I cling to my black identity in a changing world ...

Read back through that last entry and could easily see how irrational it must read to others. And, it probably is. I've over-simplified wildly, but it felt good leaving my fingers ... and maybe that's all I needed -- to feed the words off the ends of my fingers just for the hell of it!

Thought earlier this evening about yesterday's Youth Symphony concert at Allen Temple Baptist Church. It was an afternoon performance of young classical musicians combined with the 100 voice Oakland Symphony Chorus. Loved every minute of it, most of all the Borodin.

At first I felt resistance to the music -- as though I needed to hold out against this European art form - but I couldn't. Beauty is not confined by such boundaries; and it was beautiful!

The concert was held in the 5000-member Baptist church in East Oakland in a cluster of buildings that takes up an entire city block. I remember Allen Temple from my childhood -- it was born in a small converted private home a block away from this site and pastored by Reverend Marion Wilde for many years. The grammar school that I attended is right across the street from this church. The home where I grew up is three blocks away. These are the streets of my childhood. It is now a crime-ridden very low income primarily African American ghetto. When I was a student at Highland elementary -- the community was largely second generation Portuguese and immigrant Irish. At that time there were probably only 20 or so black families living east of Lake Merritt -- and we were scattered throughout the greater area.

The Del Monte cannery hired most of the women in our community, and later National Biscuit Company. The men were employed by the huge Chevrolet Plant on 73rd Avenue and Foothill Boulevard. The biggest day of the year was Holy Ghost Day celebrated at the Portuguese hall on 71st Avenue with its colorful parades and banquets that involved us all, regardless of race or color. We were big on St. Patrick's Day, as well. We knew nothing of Kwaanza. This was long before Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks. It would be years before I'd know of Harriet Tubman, James Weldon Johnson, or Sojourner Truth. I was introduced to Langston Hughes in the school auditorium of Elmhurst Junior High on 98th Avenue when he read his poetry in an assembly. All of this ran through my mind as I listened to the Borodin symphony -- a strange juxtaposition of cultures and memories. How the world has changed.

On this day in Oakland, this auditorium held an audience made up of 75% non-blacks. The huge symphony chorus was all white with a single exception. The youth orchestra was led by conductor Michael Morgan (African American) of the East Bay Symphony. The young people were European-American and Asian with one or two African American kids n the mix. I wondered about that, and why more of our children were not into this music?

Oakland is reputed to be the most racially-integrated city in the nation. That this many white people (there was standing room, only) would attend such a concert in the heart of the black community to listen to symphonic music for an afternoon might be a rarity in middle America, but in Oakland it all works. We truly do celebrate racial diversity -- and we've been at it enough years so that it's now effortless and unself-conscious.

So why then am I still so defiant and insistent upon defining myself racially?

Photo: "Jesus Loves Me" painting by Varnette Honeywood (1983). A gift received long ago from my son, Rick, 1945-1997.
Been thinking about those Nubians ...

It seems highly unlikely that the truth would be so simplistic, but could it be? Is the reason that there is such reluctance to credit black people with having created written language, mathematics, water systems, etc., simply coming from the earliest examples of racial bias? Is it so hard to imagine the greatness of the earliest of scholars coming out of one of civilization's earliest universities at Timbuktu and spreading throughout the known world from the great continent of Africa? Admittedly, the greatest advances came from the African continent from people of color -- but in a scholarly way were discounted because "...those people were not black."

I can hear him now. Bill. Insisting that it was the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, who brought us the beginnings of civilization as we know it (all assumed to be other than black). But what about the contemporaneous social and technological development taking place across the world in the Americas? What about the Inca, the Olmec, and the Maya? And what about Asia; what was going on in China eons ago? Isn't it quite possible that human beings were achieving similar advances in farflung parts of the world simultaneously?

Just because Europeans were the eventual victors in the great human struggles -- and created systems and processes for measuring human progress -- does that necessarily mean that they were right in all instances? The simple naming and creating of categories as a means of understanding human evolution -- isn't it possible -- that those systems and processes simply don't hold up against rapidly advancing humanity?

Having grown up in the "One Drop Rule" world, it is almost impossible for me to not know that everyone who is swarthy of complexion is partly African. It seems so easy for me to understand that those who settled farthest north (Denmark, Sweden, Finland, etc.) are blondest, fairest of skin, with downy covering over their bodies for warmth in the extreme cold of the polar regions. Or that people who settled in the Mediterranean coastal areas and around the Indian Ocean -- were darker-skinned than those farther north in European areas (Germany, England, Slavic regions). All one needs is a color wheel to watch the shadings as they naturally occur from the deep southern hemisphere to the northern polar regions.

How can one accept the reality of Lucy being the "Eve," the first known ancestor of humanity -- excavated from deep in the earth of Kenya -- and not be able to see that civilization sprang from that region as well, and that all human progress evolved through populations of black peoples over the millenia?

The radical changes wrought by populations on the move from the slave trades have done much to change the natural order but it's all there to see. Present-day mobility is completing the cycle of change. People like me and mine may be the beginning of the end of racial designations, I suppose. Race is becoming little more than a political choice. I have no idea what that will mean in terms of how we'll reorganize the world.

By the simple naming of racial groups Europeans have believed it possible to define us -- but always in relation to themselves. The black Sadu of India, the black-skinned Aborigine of Australia, Fiji Islanders, many Middle Easterners, Egyptians, Nubians (yes!), are all described as other than black African in circles we moved in during the university years. That left us with the Ubangis, the Bushmen, the Zulu, etc., who were inevitably depicted in loin cloths carrying spears -- as uncivilized (according to new world standards) and cannibalistic, primitive, taught to say "Bwama" in the presence of the white colonial powers. Having removed all others from the pantheon of the enlightened -- it was assumed that nothing but ill came from those of darker skin.

Great pharaohs of Egypt -- the thousand year dynasties -- great mathematicians and scholars and, yes, scribes were people of blackness but now reclassified under new rules written by the victors, as history has always been documented. (One day I'll have this conversation with Howard Zinn -- "A People's History of the World".)

Not sure this sheds much light on a very complicated age-old problem, but at least it's helped to organize my thoughts for another bout with Tom over the issue. I suppose that his doctorate will cut through my arguments like a machete through warm butter -- but I'll feel better when I've taken a shot at it -- again... .

Photo: oil on canvas painting by an artist (whose name I can't decipher) from Zimbabwe in southern Africa. It hangs on my livingroom wall near the fireplace.