Thursday, April 13, 2006

Visit to the home of Frederick Douglas - 1817-1895 ...

The short time spent viewing a brief film on the life and times of this former slave and great American historic figure filled in more of the history that I share with other African Americans. Douglas's life span mirrors that of Celestine Breaux, my great-great-grandmother and Mammá's mother. We don't have a birthdate for her, but I know that she lived at least into the early 1900s since I have a dated copy of a deposition she gave when Leontine applied for widow's benefits as a surviving spouse of a Civil War veteran.

I continue to be amazed at the accomplishments of that generation of ancestors who rose from 300 years of enslavement to positions of national leadership within a decade of emancipation. It's astounding! We are a heroic people whose history has been so blurred that we have no way to profit by that fact, nor to build on the unbelievably rich achievements of our collective past.

Maybe it was the experience of the visit to the Lincoln Memorial together with my everyday experience of working with the Rosie the Riveter/Home Front National Historical Park that produced new insights. I'm increasingly aware of patterns in the political life of the nation that span time and are reproduced, intermittently, over time. Maybe one has to attain enough years to begin to see those patterns.

Thought of Frederick Douglas's role in the story of Lincoln. Thought of Henry J. Kaiser and his relationship to a particularly controversial quote uttered by the great emancipator in 1862 -- at the height of the War Between the States. These words were written in a letter to Oliver Wendell Holmes:

"My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause."

On the flight home I thought of Henry J. Kaiser, the great industrialist, who might have chosen to paraphrase Lincoln's statement to read:

"My paramount object in this war is to save the nation and the world, and is not either to save or destroy social mores that I may find egregious. If I could save the Nation without forcing black and white Americans to share drinking fountains, public accommodations, housing, childcare, or union memberships, I would do it; and if I could save the nation and win the war by softening some barriers and leaving others in place, I would do that. My job is to build ships faster than the enemy can sink them. That I will do. We'll sort out the rest when the work is done."

And he did; seven hundred and forty-seven ships in four years. Some were completed in four days. These words mimicking Lincoln's statement are a fantasy, of course, but may be descriptive of Mr. Kaiser's intent. The record of Kaiser Permanente in subsequent years since World War II would attest to the honorable intentions of that corporation as surely as Mr. Lincoln's future course revealed his compassion for those living troubled lives as dehumanized "property" of others.

Mr. Lincoln's freeing of the slaves lit the fires under the cauldron of social change in an explosion of revolutionary political activism that preceded the tumultuous and cruel period now known as "The Reconstruction." Mr. Kaiser's domination of industrial innovation during World War II provided the next great phase in social development, if only as an unintended consequense. In the Richmond shipyards during those years -- despite the importing of racial segregation from those southern states from which homefront workers were recruited -- the baseline was laid for monumental new social patterns. Until that time the old racist practices -- long legislated into the laws of the land -- had defeated all efforts at solving the crippling problems of racial segregation. As a direct result of his "lighting of the fires under the cauldron of social change" in his time, he accelerated the nation's confrontation with it's shameful past. That history is recalled as The Civil Rights Revolution of the Sixties.

I was recently a guest at the 60th anniversary celebration of the Kaiser Permanente Corporation in Richmond. I was greatly impressed to hear the president of that organization comment during his brief remarks that Kaiser can boast that their workforce -- both administrative and professional -- is now 52% non-white, a clearly representative example of the nation's ever-changing demographics.

President Abraham Lincoln, Mr. Henry J. Kaiser, and Mr. Frederick Douglas would have been proud of how far we've come, though Dr. Martin Luther King and Ms. Fanny Lou Hamer might admonish us for not having come quite far enough, but I'm certain that we're working on it with diligence.

Our developing park will serve to remind us from whence we've come while giving some measure of just how far we still must travel before we sleep ... .

I'm so proud to be a part of that work.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Leave the world for others to tend while I'm off treading the red carpet and look what happens ... .

Found myself wondering today while watching the huge demonstrations all over the country--why on earth those hordes of people--with a great cause to champion--aren't doing their marching and demonstrating in Mexico city under President Vicente Fox's windows, or in El Salvador, or Guatamala -- whatever their country of origin? Perhaps we could help them to pressure their countries to address their needs for gainful employment at home. Then families would be spared the need to be uprooted and risk life and limb digging tunnels and climbing wired fences, braving arid desert crossings and armed vigilantes -- in order to provide cheap labor for exploitative US corporations.

I cannot imagine that it hasn't occurred to anyone that we may be following the wrong path while trying to save so many deserving people from uncertain futures in a fast-changing world economy. "Twelve to twenty million," and counting. What happens when the number is forty million?

Failing that, do you suppose that when the number reaches critical mass -- they could simply vote the new lands back into Mexico by proclamation? It worked in Hawaii where we eventually had enough haule settlers exported into the islands to vote themselves and everybody else -- including the native islanders -- into the Union to become another state. It worked in Alaska where white settlers eventually outnumbered the Aleuts and the Eskimos and the Indians then voted to become another state of the great Union. Couldn't it work the other way? The Alsace-Lorraine voted itself out of France and into Germany at the beginning World War II, did it not? Could not recent arrivals from Mexico simply vote Southern California, Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico back into Mexico -- when their numbers become impossible to manage and immigration reforms fail? After all, those lands were theirs to begin with, right? Are those states not an extension of the Great Sonoran Desert? Why not? Who's working on this one? Hopefully not any of those mindless dudes responsible for recent critical decisions that now threaten world peace as well as the well-being of the planet!

(What global warming?)

I'm told that, unlike the northern border, Mexico's southern border is practically a fortress; almost impossible to penetrate. President Fox has done a fine job protecting his country from illegal immigration from Central and South American refugees seeking to move through Mexico toward the US border. Interesting.

(From this post it's clear that I'm half-in and half-out of the past and half-in and half-out of any reasonable position on the issue. But I'm getting back into gear again, albeit slow-ly... .)

Crazy times!

Photo: This beautiful slab of Italian alabaster (looks much like coral, doesn't it?) is embedded alongside smooth slabs in one of the exterior walls of the Getty Center in the mountains of Los Angeles. The material is comparatively "young" and "raw" with none of the sleekness a few more eons would give it. The colors are muted earth tones. It is a stunning use of natural materials as art.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Early Midwives ...


(text taken from brochure)

Beginning in the late 1600s and continuing today, the African American midwives played an important role not only in the birthing care of millions of mothers and babies, but also as keepers of tradition in the provision of general health care, the communication of vital information, and the maintenance of community.

Despite on-going assaults and condemnations from the medical establishment, African African midwives sustained a long uninterrupted history of crucial care giving. Thousands of African American women show up on early 20th century midwife rolls. As recently as 1950, these midwives cared for as many as 50 percent of all black babies born in some southern states. As midwives, these women were much more than birth attendants; they gave extended care as herbalists, helped with domestic chores, took care of children, and provided sick care. Patients and the general public valued a midwife's counsel and advice and respected her as a wise woman and leader in her community.

Over time, however, cultural shifts, medical innovation, regulations, and deliberate efforts to eliminate midwives from the practice of their unique system of birthing care took its toll. Theirs is a lost tradition. What remains is only a fragment of a traditional midwifery system that once was practiced and controlled by black women.

Early Midwives

Even in the midst of drudgery and oppression, African American midwives occupied unique and important positions. Because plantation owners often assigned black midwives to care for white women as well as black women, some midwives exercised a degree of mobility, freedom, and independence usually prohibited under the harsh laws of chattel slavery. Midwives, often known as "doctor," "doctoress," or "nurse," traveled from plantation to plantation and became important channels for communication about personal family matters and for transmitting information to others who were legally restricted from travel. Some enslaved midwives eventually used payment for the midwifery services to buy their freedom.

Following the Civil War, efforts to organize a system to provide health care for blacks fell short. Harsh segregation laws and practices shut blacks out of mainstream medical and nursing schools for more than a century, leaving black communities medically underserved. Yet, in both rural and more urban settings, "granny" or "lay" midwives provided birthing and nursing care for their communities for many years and were regarded as a health care "safety net" by their fellow citizens. Because they viewed their practices as a spiritual calling, they were flexible about receiving payment and often received no money for their services. What mattered to them was doing God's work.

New Rules

Beginning in the 1920s, states heightened their efforts to train, control, and regulate midwives; the long-term goal was to eliminate them. Across the South, new public health programs permanently altered the responsibilities of the traditional midwife. To carry out the new maternal and child health programs, southern states required that midwives be subservient to the local public health system and trained nurses. As federal dollars increased to assist states in reducing maternal and infant mortality rates, Congress channeled support to improve the quaity of medical education. Yet providing opportunities for black women to become professional midwives did not receive similar public support.

The flurry of new rules in the 1920s required midwives to register annually with local health departments, to be subject to inspection of their homes for cleanliness, and to have their moral character assessed by nurses. Midwives could lose their permits if they failed to report to the public health nurse the names of mothers for upcoming births. To attend the birth, the midwife needed to obtain an "o.k." approval slip from a doctor. The midwife bags once under the midwife's control now had to be inspected and approved. Often well-intentioned rules lacked sensitivity to culture and environment.

To survive the new rules, lay midwives acted with creativity and cunning. Never completely abandoning the core of traditional practices, midwives found ways to honor their long held sensibilities and hold on to community traditions under the guise of cooperation. Others simply quit.

All My Babies

A midwife training film produced for the Medical Audio-Visual Institute of the Association of American Medical Colleges and the Georgia Health Department in 1952 is an unparalleled exception to the trend to downgrade midwives. All My Babies: A Midwife's Own Story transmits skills to lay midwives in a respectful way. Named in 2002 to the National Film Registry List (Library of Congress),the film features Albany, Georgia, Midwife Mary Francis Hill Coley (1900-1966) and has traveled as far as India to train midwives. In the film Coley is more than a standard bearer for public health officials; she personifies the care and sensitivity of so many great-grandmothers, grandmothers, aunts, and cousins--midwives who folk say "got us here." She transmits confidence and steadfastness to the mothers she helps.

Trained through apprenticeship in the mid-1930s, Coley helped thousands of birthing mothers in the counties of Doughterty, Lee, Mitchell and Worth, Georgia. Never driving, Coley often walked miles to a birth. "Miss Mary," as the community knew her, also made daily walks back to a mother's home, sometimes for weeks, to assist mothers wtih a myriad of chores including helping with the children, bathing the mother, and changing linen. Whether paid her standard fee of $5.00 (later $10) or not, Coley gave continuously of her services; she was also a Sunday School teacher and served as the President of the Women's Auxiliary in the Church of the Kingdom of God. Prior to the civil rights movement rocking Albany at the end of the 1950s, Coley was a powerful bridge between the white-controlled public health system and the black community. Even amid deeply entrenched segregation, Coley asserted her humanity.


By the 1970s, few African American midwives influenced by the traditional system of care remained in practice. In the 1960s and 1970s, black women in the South began turning to obstetrics (the medical field concerned with childbirth), and perhaps inadvertently contributed to the demise of the black traditional midwife. Midwives old enough to recall grandmothers as slaves were few. Yet, they continued telling their stories to daughters and apprentices and in books, exhibits, and new documentary films.

Fortunately for the traditional midwives who survived, a new generation of midwives launched campaigns to celebrate their accomplishments. Organizations such as the International Center for Traditional Childbearing, the Midwives Alliance of North America (MANA), the American College of Nurse Midwives (ACNM), and various schools of midwifery increasingly recognized the importance of traditional African American midwives as keepers of community and practical lore. The challenge remains to translate historical recognition of past midwives into a widespread renewal of African American midwifery--a renewal that sustains traditions and supports family and community care.

Photo: This is our much-loved greatgrandmother, Mammá, whose story is now more complete. Since the visit to the African American Museum in Anacostia (Washington), and seeing the women within whose tradition she so magnificently served, I feel even more closely-bound to her. Seeing her as a "class of women" of her time serves to fleshen out the images I've held for so long. Seeing myself as following her path in my own time and under vastly different circumstances is helpful to understanding myself and my relationship to all that has gone before me. Everyday now I'm acquiring context for the living of my life. This at a time when one would think there would be little left to learn.

Not so, ... surely.

Then came the visit to the Frederick Douglas House. It's hard to realize that he must have been Mammá's contemporary.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Coming down -- gradually ...

It's been over a week since I've written anything ... but when I found myself unable to sit at my computer without bursting into tears -- I figured it was time to start the decompression process. There were moments after I completed the last entry when the thoughts -- the memories -- the emotions were so overwhelming that my breathing had become truncated and my tongue began to stick to my teeth and the sides of my mouth -- and no amount of liquid could satisfy the thirst. Had it not been for the fact that there were enough reasonable explanations for such a state, I would have become a victim of my own vivid imagination and thoughts of diabetes and/or potential stroke surely would have occurred to me. Realization that -- had it not been for the fact that I'd (wisely) decided to take along a "witness" (Kokee), this was the point where I would have begun to erase the experiences from memory and to reject the wonder of the past several days. By this time I'd have settled into what goes as normalcy for me and climbed back into my pumpkin yet another time. But it was not to be. I've lived every minute of the magic -- and it would not be denied back into the "ordinary."

We woke on Wednesday, the day of the award ceremony, with the promise from Martha of another tour of the nation's treasures. Kokee was anxious to see where African Americans lived in the Anacostia area of the District, as was I. Martha arrived ready for another day of sharing our odyssey and off we went. Today we would visit the Frederick Douglas home and the African American Museum, a National Park Service site that was not on the great mall, but had been placed in the core of Anacostia. I'd heard about this area for years but had no idea what to expect. It is a visibly depressed, antiquated and oddly unpopulated area made up of many multi-storied brick housing structures mixed in with ageless bungalows wearing the usual iron bars on windows found so inescapable in black neighborhoods throughout very low income districts; barren trees nude for the winter season. The absence of people on the streets in midday added to the desolation. That felt strange, but might have been explained by the time of the year and the just above freezing temperatures.

We'd already been deeply impressed by the handsome and well-dressed and very professional young African American men and women who serviced the desks and counters at our exclusive Hyatt Grand Washington hotel, and the welcoming and well-informed young African American national park rangers at Arlington House and elsewhere, but we had not yet experienced the black community, as such.

Nothing had prepared me for what the next few minutes would hold. We walked into the African American Museum to find a remarkable exhibit featuring "Reclaiming Midwives; Pillars of Community Support." And with no warning I found myself standing under a photograph of a black slave midwife -- with an astoundingly familiar text that described -- in a formal way -- precisely the story told me to as a child so many years ago -- by Papa George and later by Aunt Vivian -- the description of the life of Mammá in all of the dramatic details that filled in the spaces that my child's mind had missed and my adult mind may have found too painful to absorb.

I found myself speechless; sobbing uncontrollably -- feeling as if this was the reason for all that had happened to me over these past miraculous days -- the rationale for the honors being bestowed, and the trip to the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. Here before me, indeed, were the women who had lived the lives of the unsung, the neglected, and shamefully exploited "Builders of Communities and Dreams."

I finally understood a system that I'd bought into unknowingly from childhood; a destiny I'd been living out without a script. For the first time in my long life I had a feeling of total fulfillment of my destiny. The tears would not stop. I made no attempt to control them. I'm sure that my sobs were audible. At some point a woman (white) tourist quietly approached to gently press a small packet of tissues into my palm. I accepted it without comment. No words were needed. She seemed to know. In that moment there were no spaces between. She then stepped back into her stranger-ness and I into that weird combination of joy and grief and a kind of communing over time and space with a past I'd really never known but in some strange way found familiar. I seemed to be remembering things I'd never experienced.

Taking photos of this show was prohibited for some reason, so I cannot reproduce those texts here, but I will take some of the pictures from the brochure in the hope that I can communicate some of what I found there. It will not surprise me if that turns out to be impossible to reproduce, but over the next days I may find a way to use words well enough to describe the experience. Whatever it was that so moved me has stood in the way of my writing since March 30th. Today is the first attempt at beginning to sort it all out.

Photo: Brochure from the show, and a key component of the great adventure in the shadow of the Great Emancipator.