Saturday, June 03, 2006

Angela who... ?

In a moment of boredom this morning I turned on television and clicked the remote into CSPAN (untypical for this hour of the day, especially on a Saturday) to see Dr. Angela Davis of the University of California at Santa Cruz at the mike speaking before the Twelfth Annual Conference on Black Student Government at the University of Iowa. Having nothing better to do at the moment except for matching socks -- and I could do that while watching -- and besides they seem to match better when they're still warm from the clothes dryer, I'd just sit, match and watch.

This is someone I've always been quietly fascinated by, but also somewhat intimidated by as well. She is a brilliant revolutionary thinker far out of my league, I thought. I couldn't ever imagine being in conversation with this remarkable woman though we'd surely traveled on the same path for brief moments in time. But there it ends.

My activism was never deep enough to have taken me to jail for my principles. Nor was it strong enough to have demanded the kinds of risky stands that she'd taken for an entire lifetime. In all honesty, I've rarely felt capable of -- or brave enough to go the distance -- not in the face of the loss of the esteem of friend or fear of foe. I think that she's always made me feel a bit less than... .

Today there would be just Betty and Angela and there was nothing to defend or deny -- from my seat on the sofa I could just lie back and wiggle my bare Saturday morning toes on the hassock and take the time to figure it all out -- try to locate the root of my fascination and admiration -- and (yes) awe of this remarkably brave woman.

Early in her talk she made the vital connection and those "doors of perception" opened wide for me. In her very clear and understated way I heard her say, "... history is not a synonym for the past. History is alive and in this moment. It is dynamic. We are history. We carry the promise of history and it is we who must bear the pain of the past." All else was heard against those words. I sat at rapt sock-dropping attention for the next hour -- as much a part of her audience as were the young students in that auditorium.

It was soon apparent that the basis for my sense of inadequacy in the presence of her brilliance lay in the fact that I'd lived my entire life within about 30 miles in one of the most liberal areas in the world, and despite its shortcomings in real terms. She started life in the racist south born of activist parents; with a mother who'd been as dynamic as she. Her mother fought the fight to defend the Scottsboro boys, been active in the NAACP at a time in history when doing so was the equivalent to being a Communist during the Fifties. Angela was clearly an Internationalist. She surely didn't share my ambivalence about the illegal alien issue. For her there were no national boundaries. I've never grown beyond a kind of informed provincialism due to a lack of exposure to the wider world.

My sincere abhorence of capital punishment grew in isolation from that single exposure to Stanley Tookie Williams and Barbara Cottman Becnel, his activist friend of many years -- and the visit to Death Row a few years ago. Out of that instance, I was able to grasp the need for abolition of the death penalty for all our sakes, but it was from that very small window of experience. This was the microcosm that encapsulates my life, limits my vision, and keeps me properly humble.

Angela has enough education plus experience and the advantages of world travel to have come to the same place at a far more sophisticated level; from the macrocosm.

Says she, "Capital punishment is rooted in racism, and it cannot be abolished until we recognize that fact and move through. During the time of the Civil War there was only one crime for which a white man could be executed; murder. On the other hand, there were 77 crimes for which blacks could be put to death. We cannot get rid of it until we recognize that history and purge ourselves of this shameful legacy through contrition."

Of course. These are facts that I'd never known and, this day I found myself wondering anew at the huge gaps in my (our) education. That I am almost completely intuitive with a deep sense of the awesome cruelty and unfairness of the act -- and that I'd found myself some years ago arriving at the same position -- was the cause of wonder. I could not claim to have arrived at my position intellectually. It was/is therefore harder for me to defend. Angela's gift of clarification was one I'll not soon forget. I'll now dig deeper and not expect those I love to follow my lead blindly just because I have the courage to stand my ground at those San Quentin gates in the shadow of the gas chamber. I will learn more for the sake of furthering this cause.

It was also clear from her remarks that societal violence -- as expressed in so many ways both individually and collectively -- is all of a piece. The ultimate expression of that cancer is surely illustrated not only by capital punishment but by Abu Graib; Guantanamo; the irony of our marines taking "ethics of war lessons" on the battlefield and within earshot of an undeclared and cruel war as a result of murdering 22 innocents in Iraq; the McCarthy-izing of communications by sweeping wiretaps; hidden torture prisons in Europe and the Mideast; over two million of our citizens imprisoned; disenfranchisement via felony convictions; etc.

She ended her remarks with an interesting answer to a question from one of the students in the audience about just what can be done to bring constructive change : " ... it is the job now of youth to be figuring out the answer to that question. It's your responsibility. We've done our work and our role now is to to support yours."

Made me wish I had about 20 more active years. I'm just beginning to get the hang is of this incredible journey called life, I think, and time will surely run out before I get The World into any kind of order ... .

Attended the annual Point Richmond Summer Music Festival last night -- balmy, warm, great music -- and new questions to ponder ... .

My work with the National Park Service is casting me back in time in interesting ways. Many hours of my day are spent in mulling over World War II history in the attempt to discover ways to address those years in relation to the present. The ability to bring these eras together in some semblance of order may be what determines our success or failure in breathing life into this park. I didn't grow up here but nearby in Oakland, and must therefore borrow heavily from the memories of others in order to try to understand all that has happened.

In yesterday's early evening I sat for hours in one of those molded white plastic chairs among many other molded white plastic chairs holding big and little bottoms of the population of this fascinating city. This particular corner of it is the place where the history of Chevron Petroleum Corporation (nee Standard Oil) and the Santa Fe railroad are almost palpable. In this picturesque little town square in the shadow of the old Hotel Mac, lives a number of descendants of those whose roots were firmly embedded in those two pioneering companies. This city was established in the year 1905, and probably from the very spot that tonight hosted the annual music festival. It's now inhabited by numbers of descendants of those pioneer settlers; a fair-sized arts community; and a disproportionate number of those who currently run the city -- either formally or informally by "consent of the governed" (sometimes reluctantly granted).

After decades of languishing as a purely industrial community with minimal ties to the Greater Bay Area, Richmond had its rebirth in 1941 when the needs of the war machine and Henry J Kaiser's response to it boomed it into history in unprecedented ways. With that dramatic chapter came racial segregation -- sudden and almost complete.

What struck me last night was the fact that something unrecorded; unheralded, perhaps even unnoticed has occurred over the past sixty years that has changed forever the way Richmond sees itself. Almost more than any other place I've ever known, there was more unselfconscious race and gender mixing in the street dancing to the sound of reggae and zydeco last night -- from those from the age of four to perhaps 80. One might not find this innocent coming together in quite this way anywhere else on the planet. There was no feeling of "working at it." Equality is/was something taken for granted. Assumed. No longer labored. There surely must be vestiges of it remaining, but to hold such biases openly is no longer tolerated. Few would dare any outward expression of racism.

Found myself wondering as I watched the screen that pops up behind my eyes in those early moments before dropping off to sleep, whether the Bay Area in general and Richmond in particular has simply become a magnet for the enlightened over those years? Could this be what's happened? Maybe we've simply reached critical mass and the voices of the opposition can no longer be heard clearly. Though there are continuing signs of those who simply got trapped here and never were able to move on.

What I do suspect is that this small city with the unenviable reputation of being "the most dangerous city in the state of California" may be seen from the outside as less than desirable for the very reasons that are proof of our having become the most successfully racially integrated city in the Bay Area and the State. I used to be struck by the fact that the same racial demographic to be found at the Office of Human Resources; Kaiser Permanente's waiting room; the Social Security Agency, and the lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles, is the same demographic one will find at the Richmond Country Club during any of the numerous golf tournaments and fancy banquets that occur there from time to time.

We've done something right. Discovering just what that is may hold the secret to rebuilding hope and trust in a generation of youngsters who seem to have been left behind in a growing environment of violence. Maybe that's the mission of the park -- to help to retrace the steps that brought us to where we are and to try to reclaim with youngsters and for the young some of the spirit that got left behind during our struggles to survive and overcome. But then that's the mission of us all; those of us who lived long enough to have learned the lessons of our times, across all the lines of separation.

It was all there in the evening sounds last night -- in the Point Richmond Annual Music Festival. It was there in the easy laughter and in the swaying bodies of all sizes, shapes, and colors, to a beautiful Cajun waltz that I'm sure that I only imagined remembering ... and never knew.

Much like world peace ... .

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Interesting day, today. Was the luncheon speaker for the monthly meeting of the retirees of Local #790 of SEIU - AFL-CIO.

I am really beginning to enjoy these events -- and am more comfortable these days and less threatened by the limelight. In fact, I jokingly mentioned to Martha (park superintendent) when I got back that I might just take this show on the road and become one of them motivational speakers! Though there's little hope of that, given the enjoyment I'm getting every day just doing the work of the very creative process of park-building. These little special events come as quite incidental -- a phone call from someone with an invitation -- and a little mark on my calendar -- and ... .

Little preparation is required since I'm really only dealing with known history (known by me) and that's so subjective that there's really little reason to do much in advance except relax into it and enjoy.

Today I was struck by how interesting it is that history of 60 years ago has moved into the foreground all around the Bay Area. Among those who attended today was a union official (African American) who is working toward the restoration of the old 16th Street Southern Pacific railway station near Oakland's waterfront. His group is at the early beginnings of the project and their excitement is building. I could see the delight in his face and those of others when I began to cover the historical parts of my little talk -- and I could see that we were connecting.

There were people in that audience who were longtime East Bay residents -- some of whom had arrived during World War II as homefront workers. There were some who had been customers at our little store in South Berkeley and remembered me standing behind the counter learning the business while battling the streets. There was the feeling of homecoming today, and it felt right and good.

I'd brought a small supply of business cards, just in case anyone ... and regretted not having brought more. They were so quickly seized that I had to promise to send a supply for distribution as soon as I returned to my office. And I did just that. Mailed off a copy of "Lost Conversations and Untold Stories" DVD, a few brochures about the park site, with a handful of business cards to be distributed later.

I sensed the hunger for grounding, roots from the past, in that room today. I vowed to add to any future presentation the suggestion that we remove those real boundaries between these nine Bay Area counties that ring the bay and return to those days when the African American community was regional. With that greater pool from which to draw leadership in the old days, we were all enriched. Our community reached from Monterey in the south to Sacramento and Marysville in the north. Our social and cultural events drew from San Jose and San Mateo, San Francisco and Oakland and Richmond. We lost something when those articifial boundaries were imposed for reasons I've never quite understood.

Maybe we can begin to look at that as we rebuild our history and share our stories again. Maybe today was an important beginning of a broadened view of our park building. Maybe black history cannot be told without reuniting all of its elements.

Maybe I'd like to drive into Oakland soon and visit the old 16th Street Southern Pacific railroad station and re-imagine Uncle Herman Allen, Uncle Frederick Allen, Uncle Lloyd Allen (three sons of Papa George), and their other friends and co-workers as they worked that luggage as men of service; proud Red Caps! I remember from childhood how much taller those uncles stood when in uniform ... there's still something about a uniform, isn't there? Any uniform.

So many stories ... and so little time.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

New thoughts on (as Steven Colbert might say) "Youthiness!"

Ever since our series of meetings last week referred to in the last post, I've been thinking about this next phase in the development of the historic downtown and its relationship to the Park. It's clearly etched in my mind, but the execution of the concept is still illusive, but I'm onto something critical, I think:

While listening quietly to the presentation of the "Memories of Macdonald" concept to the Arts Commission on Thursday evening -- it came to me. At one point I blurted it out in short bursts, and though the group surely were caught by my words -- they left me unsatisfied, incomplete, but I knew where I wanted to be going ... .

It has to do with the fact that I see the primary issue as change -- and as the common denominator between youth of our time and those of today. I recalled that on December 7th, at the beginning of World War II, I was barely out of my teens. That my generation of homefront workers and fighting forces were also barely out of their teens. That the important thing this park can do is to connect today's youth with those of yesterday. We need to relate from that perspective -- not as children and elders but as the youth of widely separated generations.

The important thing to focus on, in this case, is how our youth reacted to the traumatic changes we were forced to live through -- given the perilous state of the world and that of our own nation at that time. Perhaps today's kids -- while learning about that remarkable period in our country's life -- can try to identify the traumatic changes that their world is undergoing and then to try to identify the ways in which it is or is not coping with those changes.

After all, they're having to face unprecedented changes in the decreasing quality of education; 108 different languages in their schools; greater density in city life; uncontrolled possession of handguns with increasing street crime; the proliferation of illegal drugs in their neighborhoods; breakdowns in family structure with either non-working or both parents employed; gang warfare; fewer schools and more prisons; diminishing access to higher education; impending global disasters due to climate change; a national debt that will threaten their ability to ever rise to our former economic greatness; all making for a world that is frightening to those youngsters who are living in a world we elders never knew.

But the seeds of their world were sown to a large extent by how we responded to our times, the laws we passed that assured more equality to more of us; the fears we expressed as we contracted and distorted other freedoms after the assassinations of our national and spiritual leaders; the limitations we've allowed as we drew back from the international community after 9/11; our disgraceful declining involvement in the electoral process; -- and most of all -- the leaders we've chosen over time; all leading to the wars of their generation.

Heavy thoughts ... .

At the same time they enjoy greater mobility and far more independence that might also be seen as abandonment by the parental generation. We have no idea how much the creation of gangs is merely a way of coping with the disconnection from the parental generation for any number of reasons. Perhaps those gangs represent surrogate family groupings created to compensate for the losses they've experienced in this new kind of societal isolation.

A part of our planning involves the creation of Walking Tours using audiotapes and I-PODs that will take people through the historic districts. Having kids describe their world in the troubled Iron Triangle to those interested enough to do the walks could be an exciting way to share their more current history as juxtaposed with the history of our times. We will develop groups of youth guides out of existing programs for young people -- in much the way that our community "docents" are beginning to come into being as a feature of our bus tours they, too, will emerge over time.

When viewed through the lens of the element of change, we might find ourselves able to detoxify the generational differences in much the same way that our bus tours are allowing the sharing factually of a period of painful segregation across those sensitive lines of separation. Perhaps we can reduce the distance between Richmond's youth of yesterday and today, and erase those lines of separation to the extent possible.

Under the auspices of the Park, Joanna Haigood (Zaccho Dance Theatre) will be serving as an artist in residence at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts later this year or in the early spring. Her project will evolve as a dance swap -- a series that will have the generations trading the dances of their period. They'll learn to Lindy and the Jitterbug, to do the Chicken, the Mashed Potatoes, and we'll get to learn the Electric Slide and Hip Hop and whatever else comes next! It will all be videotaped by EBCPA students and projected in huge images on the side of the old Storage Structure in Shipyard #3 or on the hull of the SS Red Oak Victory at the grand opening of the park sometime late next year.

As I said before, we've got ourselves a National Park to build, and it's going famously!

Should you have any ideas, please pass them along. Anybody can play in our park. After all, it's national.

Photo: Not particularly relevant except that it gives me a chance to show 8 year-old granddaughter, Tamaya Reid, in a performance of her West African dance class in a recent East Bay Center for the Performing Arts afternoon event. That's Tamaya -- third dancer from the left -- right in the middle. She's a bit "youth-ier" than the teens I'm referring to in the above piece.
Shall I tell you about our exciting park tours? My weekend in Mendocino? "Too muchness" is becoming a problem ... .

Those tours are most successful. Choreographing the 4-hour sessions of community people from a list of volunteers has been a real joy. In the first place, these are people who are being asked quite subtly to participate in the beginnings of the building of a national park. We don't use those words, but in effect, that's precisely what we're doing.

We gather at city hall in one of the conference rooms, share coffee and fruit and watch our little "Lost conversations and untold stories ..." DVD and give them a chance to explore our collection of World War II artifacts collected from Rosies across the country through a grant from the Ford Motor Company. We board the little 28-passenger rented bus at around nine o'clock for a visit to the woman-designed Rosie Memorial on the site of what once was Kaiser Permanente Shipyard #2 and that is now the site of a development of upscale condos and a beautiful park. We spend the next 4 hours taking our "tourists" over areas they've been traversing for their entire lifetimes; past structures they stopped "seeing" long ago; past ground long-familiar and that has played background to the totality of their life experiences over the past 60-odd years. Watching the reawakening as our guests excitedly pop up from their seats to interrupt Naomi (our NPS guide and my co-worker) to add to the bare bones of her story. She's designed her presentation to provide context -- to purposely evoke this response. The history is so close to the surface and proves to be so irrepressible -- immediate -- alive!

The cast of characters of this -- our fourth tour over the past few months -- consisted in part of a Latino member of the county grand jury, a man raised in war housing of WWII; a member of the city's redevelopment agency staff and a newcomer to Richmond; the City Clerk; a contentious and courageous community activist (African American) for whom a new health clinic is about to be named; the owner of an historic deteriorating building -- the International Hotel -- that once housed the black Pullman porters while they waited out the servicing of the Pullman railroad cars at the nearby plant (still standing but converted to new uses) before returning to the upperclass travelers for whom they were designed.

That little building that consists of 20 sleeping rooms and a large reception hall has served as her home for all the years while she's fought for historic landmarking and the funding to restore it. It figures hugely in black history since African American workers could not stay in the (white) Pullman hotel at that time. This place was known across the country and would surely figure in the story of the fight for racial justice waged by C.L. Dellums in the 50's; a story that begs the attention of future black historians. Today was the day that we added Ethel Dotson's International Hotel to the tour and raised it to the level of "landmarking," officially, in the minds of our "tourists."

Antonio Medrano, upon our stop at the Mexican Baptist Church on the far western edge of the city, took over to tell us about the early days of Richmond's spanish-speaking community; that this area was once agricultural, where they tilled the soil and raised their food -- along the rail lines of the Santa Fe.

There is an openness in these recollections. Racial differences are briefly touched on, not so much as complaints, but rather as a clear recognition of the reality of those times -- the painful years that preceded the Civil Rights struggles of the Sixties. When seen against the progress that has followed in its wake, that history seems to have been at least partially detoxified -- ready now for sharing across the lines of separation.

We also had on board Steve Gilford, a Kaiser Permanente historian, whose work in researching of African American participation in the shipyards served as the basis for some of my own. When the tour reached Kaiser Shipyard #3, the site of the SS Red Oak Victory and the Whirley Crane that helped to build her, Steve took over and provided the more technical information that would have been otherwise missing. It was at this point in the tour that I started to see the need to involve more young people in these adventures. How wonderful it would have been had they been a part of the group. I thought of Glen Price, member of the West Contra Costa School District board who'd had to cancel at the last minute but who has signed on for the July tour.

Also on board was a reporter for the Berkeley Daily Planet, Jesse Douglas Allen-Taylor, who wrote a great story for last week's Friday edition -- a piece that has been widely circulated and appreciated by members of the National Park Service staff and management. It can be read at the paper's website.

Just before leaving for a restful weekend on the north coast I briefly visited another growing edge of our work, this time at the request of a team that's engaged in the planning of a streetscape project that will bring the park to the heart of the city, Macdonald Avenue, the main artery now undergoing revitalization. With that team we're participating in the planning of a series of programs called "Memories of Macdonald" that will engage the community in the gathering of more oral histories, digital video and digital-audio projects in which the kids of the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts will be involved this summer. Our meeting was with the artistic director and staff of the EBCPA with whom the park and the redevelopment agency are partnering. We later met with the city's Arts Commission to introduce them to the concept of civic engagement and of their part in it.

We're busily building a national park, guys, and it's an amazing process.

Photo: Taken under the old wooden bridge just south of the picturesque tiny town of Mendocino. Great place for picking up drift wood and lovely pastel-colored sea glass.