Saturday, December 31, 2005

New connections ... newly discovered writers, poets, singers, and activists among those who will follow ...

Young Zena and Yaminah have recently entered from stage left to take their places on that continuum of Reid, Allen, Charbonnet, Parker, Galt, and Moody, "woman lives". The succession goes on as the matriarchs yield the life force to a new generation. Find myself wondering if Mammá or great aunt Alice or great great grandmother Celestine thought about such things in their final years? Did their Catholicism continue to answer all of their questions or were they, too, left with "dead is dead" as it has been for both writer Joan Didion ... and for me? Is this, then, the kind of awareness that develops as time begins to wind down? Am I alone in this?

Maybe Zena Allen's singing and composing ability and Yaminah's budding political activism feel just a bit like extensions of my own life -- and therefore provide a sense of ... what? I knew neither of them until the past few weeks -- so there surely could not have been any influences imposed on their social development -- at least not from me. But I will try harder now to find old tapes of my songs and will offer them to Zena to add to her repertoire. Perhaps that is the "why" of my music, after all. The songs were written for some purpose, though that seemed only serendipitous until now.

We met at her grandmother, Maybelle's, memorial service. She grew up on the east coast, the daughter of Prof. Ernest Allen of Amherst and a mother whom I've never met. Another of the Allen-Reid connections of which there were four such for these large families. Wonder how these bloodlines will play out over the next generations?

Last night brought a phone call from UU minister, Paul Sawyer, who has returned from his meetings at Cambridge -- that jarred me out of the lethargy of holidays and back into the awareness of the pending execution of the oldest prisoner on death row. It's scheduled to take place very soon now. The clock is moving steadily toward another confrontation with the governor's office with another deathwatch to live through. Maybe clemency will be granted this time, and maybe the re-examination of the efficacy of the death penalty as a prelude to the hearing of Assemblymember Mark Leno's bill will gain support. This man's age, poor physical condition, blindness, and the fact that he will be brought to the death chamber in his wheelchair should make a statement about the ritual of death that we'll again have to live through. There could hardly be a more bizarre case upon which to hang this awesome penalty.

This man has become a published poet while serving time. Some of his work will be on hand to be read by those of us who will gather for this new vigil. I'll meet Paul and Country Joe MacDonald and others at the prison gates on Tuesday at noon where there will be yet another press conference and the beginning of a new action in the hope of stopping state executions until we've had a hearing on the Leno bill in the new legislative session sometime in January.

Last Friday, December 29th, would have been the 52nd birthday of Stanley Tookie Williams, had he lived. Barbara Becnel and those who continue to work to clear his name met that day on the steps of the capitol in Sacramento to declare this date evermore as "Redemption Day" and have vowed to meet to memorialize his life annually as they work to bring an end to capital punishment to this state and, hopefully, to the nation. This, done in Stan's name, will have given meaning to his troubled life and senseless death.

It has been a troubling year in many ways, has it not?

...with any luck, the rains may cease ... .

Photo: Newly discovered young cousin, Zena Allen, singer songwriter born on the east coast but currently seeking a career in music in Los Angeles. Her father is Prof. Ernest Allen of Amherst in Massachusetts.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Displaced New Orleans Creoles -- newly "placed" ...

Finding myself wondering -- each time I see a newscast that includes an update on those made homeless by Katrina -- whether they know that life will go on. That, in time, the world will stabilize and some sense of order will be restored. It was so with those of us made homeless in the great hurricane in New Orleans in 1927.

Though only a child of six with little sense of the trauma being experienced by my parents, I am dimly aware still of throbbing, palpable, change that occurred as our new lives began in a strange place called Oakland with little to remind us of "home."

However, New Orleans was gradually replaced by a place where lagniappe and soft-shelled crabs and oyster loaves and coffee with the distinctive aroma of chicory, and french bread as light as air, and lost bread, and cream cheese floating in rich sweet cream in little cartons, and early morning improvised songs of street vendors hawking watermelons, persimmons, and blackberries from pushcarts ... all too soon forgotten by the children. The gumbo and jambalaya and head cheese came with us with little brown-paper packages of filé following in suitcases of travelers who made it back home over time; mostly porters who "ran on the road". There was little else for African Americans (Creole or no) to do in the West. We provided the service workers -- or no jobs at all. It was, after all, the preliminary to the Great Depression years. It was the mid-to-late Twenties.

It was a big night when Papa George came home from the Oakland Athletic Club where he waited tables for (white) VIPs at big parties. We little ones would be allowed to get out of bed -- late though it might be -- to share in the paper party hats, tiny sandwiches, balloons, and sweets that would arrive with him wrapped carefully in dishtowels and hidden under his overcoat. It doesn't take much to make a celebrant of a child. New Orleans had none of this.

Our parents met at novenas at parish churches, or, in mother's social club, "The 500," Mom's social club named for the whist-like card game they played frequently in a round-robin of hostessing.

I look at those years now in retrospect as if I, too, had experienced them as an adult. What rises for me are the kaleidoscopic events that brought such profound social change to my own life, and to the lives of those around me in subsequent years.

My parents died years ago, taking with them all of the pain of the resettlement. I cannot speak to that. But it feels ironic to me that I'm now working with the National Park Service in the process of enshrining a period in history (World War II) that was also marked by racial segregation and that, despite all of the intervening years, Katrina's shocking exposure of the wounds; the scars, the degradation of racism that has revived the fears and the shame of sins long thought forgiven and atoned for.

It's the scabbing over then re-infecting of the awful period of the Civil War and Reconstruction -- never quite resolved ... only dormant for periods ... ever to be revived then matastacize; to go into temporary remission in an endless progression toward ever-freshening rejection until we stop still and take the time to speak the terrible words of hate aloud; do the incantations; burn the incense, bay at the full moon; meditate on our sins; make appropriate apologies; pray to whatever God deemed powerful enough to save us; deal with reparations; then to do whatever it takes to fully acknowledge the awfulness we've lived through in our always tragic and tainted shared unaddressed national history of shame!

It is quite impossible to not see a re-living of the separation of families now spread far and wide as creating yet another diaspora for black peoples. It takes very little imagination to not see a replay of my own ancestors being sold off the slave blocks -- husbands, wives, and children sold to landowners widely separated -- never to be reunited. Katrina aided by an uncaring bureaucracy has mirrored the nightmare, and each day of uncertainty for those still scattered throughout the states makes a mockery of our nation's quest for replicating this "Democracy" through the known world.

Maybe that's why a discovery this morning of mother's "500 Club" snapshot meant so much. It is a testimony to the determination of women to rebuild broken lives; to survive in the face of what appears to be irreplaceable losses.

Despite all, we have survived, and against great odds at times. My own life attests to that truth. Today's families will find ways to do likewise. I truly believe that. But one would have hoped that more progress would have been made after so many years of struggle. There is comfort in the possibility that the percentage of "the Enlightened" has grown exponentially, and that one day soon we'll hit a tipping point and be saved from ourselves. There was surely evidence in the numbers of people who responded with shock and horror at the callousness of the administration's first responders in the wake of the great tragedy of Katrina. We could see it in the faces of those who entered the inundated city as jaded journalists but who've since returned to deliver the updates as concerned citizens demanding change.

Maybe this time ... .

Photo: Back row; Albertine ?, Marie Gaudette Allen, Ruth Smith, Mabel Lashbrook Allen, Annabelle LeBeouf Therence; in front, Lucille Towns. Some of the members of the "500" social club.
Yet another Christmas ...

Dorian and I de-decorated the tree this morning; the earliest deconstruction on record. Its needles were already shedding badly when we brought it home on Christmas Eve. Probably left the forest about three months ago, and -- despite the fading green still visible in its needles -- it surely died soon after the cutting. It seemed fitting to remove the time-collected holiday fancies from its branches and lay it to rest.

Everyone was gathered around the hearth (except for Rick), but the pain of his early death has lessened now and feels more like a resolution to a life of torment than the tearing away of one I still miss, though the missing is less active than before. In place of the pain and guilt that invariably accompanies the loss of a son, I'm now experiencing a deeper appreciation for those still with me.

I worry about my 18-year-old grandson -- but know that he'll eventually survive a troubled adolescence into young adulthood because he is so loved by us all. "Ms. Hermione Ginglehopper" looks reasonably well-launched with a steady love and a brand new Yorky-Maltese puppy, Sophia. The two little ones, Alyana and Tamaya, are vibrant and consuming life in beautiful ways right now -- they're learning and growing and adoring ... I have such pride in them all.

Bob is quiet -- there was little time to catch up with his life, but I'm reading his thoughts and finding a new appreciation for his life on the horse ranch in San Juan Baptista now that he, too, is blogging. He brought me a very contemporary gift only possible through technology. It's an introduction to a philosopher he's discovered -- he'd taken the time to download several hours of a very special documentary produced by the BBC. It reminded me of the day long ago when he gave me a book he'd discovered saying, "...this book changed my life, Mom." It was something about "...a small planet" (can't recall the exact name but it had to do with his introduction to organic foods somewhere along the way in his travels, I believe." At any rate, I then introduced him to the "Adele Davis Cookbook," with the comment. "This is the book that changed my life." Now we'll exchange philosophers, and it feels good -- appropriate.

David and I will work together on getting Reid's (our store) online early in the new year, and that feels good. It's been something I've wanted to do with him for years but the pressure of running the family business while a single parent fathering four children always proved too consuming for new ventures. We may have finally reached the place where we can do that now.

Christmas seemed bittersweet this year. It surely is related to so many deaths over the past 3 months; some near, some distant -- but all traumatic and reminders of the fragility of life.

Enough of that:

Received the preliminary draft (ready for release) of the March 2006 recipients of those women being honored by the National Women's History Project, "Community Builders". I'm listed as "Betty Reid Soskin, Cultural Anthropologist" for want of a title, I suppose. Made me feel more important than I did yesterday -- and maybe that's okay. Not sure what I would have called myself had I been asked.

Also had a call from the "Labor Something Something of San Francisco" asking if I would agree to being interviewed for a radio (KPFA) show on racial discrimination in the labor movement, and -- while we were at it -- would I be willing to serve on a panel on the same subject next July? Next July??? Laughed and told him that I don't buy green bananas these days ... despite the fact that my bank has granted me another 30 years on the last refinance of my condo!

Didn't realize until that exchange that I really am beginning to have some doubt about longevity.

Maybe it is all those deaths ... .

Photo: David's daughters, Alyana and Tamaya.