Saturday, July 22, 2006

These guided bus tours are teaching me as much as the "tourists" whom we're engaging in the process ... .

Most of my work for the parks is involved in choreographing and "casting" a series of bus tours designed to inform the community of the fact that they are -- quite literally -- living in the middle of a congressionally-designated national park. "The Rosie the Riveter/Home Front Historical National Park" does not lie on the shoreline as one might be led to believe by the close connection to the Kaiser shipyards and environs, but is made up of over 20 war-related structures that are still standing throughout the city. My mission, as a community outreach specialist, is to raise public awareness of that fact -- toward both the need to preserve those structures -- and to help to move the city toward a greater sense of its role in the telling of the story of the Second World War for the nation. That's a tall order, but achievable.

Yesterday the group made up of the mayor; members of several boards and commissions, the designer of the beautiful Rosie Memorial monument; a major developer who is razing and re-creating a two square block four-story mix-use project on Macdonald Avenue; the district director for state Senator Don Perata; a program evaluator from the National Parks Foundation and his aide (here from Texas); the Gen. Manager of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce; members of several Neighborhood Councils (there are 39 in this city) and several members of park staff gathered at city hall for our fifth such tour. It was amazing!

We use a small 28-passenger bus in order to preserve the feeling of intimacy -- and it works like magic. Everyone is close enough to converse in two's but the group is small enough so that -- when we need to -- we can instantly become part of a single conversation; a deliberate strategy.

When one realizes that these are people who are the civic leaders, and that they've been passing these structures in the course of their lives for many years, it seems a minor miracle to me that they could find this activity of even passing interest.

We gather at 8:30 in the morning for coffee and introductions, view the "Lost Conversations and Untold Stories" DVD (available to view under CBreaux Annex), visit the collections of artifacts and view the growing archives of studies and oral histories, then board the bus for the first stop at the Memorial. Many have surely already seen this stuff, right, so what's the big deal? But from the moment that Naomi picks up the bullhorn to begin the guided tour up 23rd Street, past the Newell Market, the Galileo Club, the Greyhound bus station, the Park Florist and the Winter's Building, etc., the conversations begin to grow louder and more insistent and memories are triggered and chaos reigns! It's the most delightful chaos imaginable.

Everybody has stories to tell. The World War II memories are triggered and lessons either never learned or now forgotten begin to surface.

Many who have been silenced by either the racial or cultural divide are freed to have those conversations that were stilled long ago. The questions that have gone unanswered ├žan be expressed. Candor is the rule of the day.

On the tour, an African American leader -- upon the discovery of the tiny Mexican-American Baptist church on the border of the Santa Fe-Baltimore railyards was heard to say, "...and I was wondering why they were all comin' here. They've been here all the time!" It was only in the moment before that she'd learned that the historically-designated Atchison Village (whites-only) WWII housing development had been erected upon what had been an historic Mexican-American settlement; upon the agricultural lands that had sustained them before the war came in 1941. What a revelation!

After visits to many more sites (including the Ford Assembly Plant, the SS Red Oak Victory and the Whirley Crane that built her, the Kaiser Permanente field hospital and fire station) we return to city hall for a quick lunch and de-briefing.

Out of many contructive comments (all dutifully noted by a recorder), one stands out for me:

A strikingly attractive older woman (white) who heads the Planning Commission rose from her seat to ask (yea, demand!) that "... you must add an hour to the tour (8:30 'til 12:30 now) in order to enable folks to visit the African-American historic area of North Richmond -- where blacks had built a community from scraps discarded in the dismantling of the HUD-built temporary war housing. "That history must not be lost. We need to visit North Richmond and/or Parchester Village (also black) if we're going to tell this story." I felt my heart beat in my ears. This was the precise direction I'd hoped we'd find ourselves embarking on, but we're here so much sooner than I would have ever hoped or dreamed. The history is crossing the racial lines it couldn't have dared cross while those times were being lived -- and by many of those on today's tour.

And later, "... the NPS must be present at the table as we continue to create the city's General Plan." This was an important oversight that (I suspect) will soon be corrected.

Our sixth and seventh tours slated for September (dates to be decided) have already developed a wait-list of eleven who couldn't be accommodated on this one.

An interesting idea is beginning to germinate in the back of my mind -- that may be of interest in days to come. How great would it be to combine -- on future tours -- 4 or 5 outsider tourists visiting the area -- with insiders from the city -- so that visitors from elsewhere might be able to witness this growing phenomenon of this community re-living its history, together, on a small bus -- and reclaiming those years informed by all the years of social change that ensued?

Over the next month or so I plan to make a greater effort to engage the growing communities of Sikhs and Laotians et al so that they, too, can begin to better understand the cultural living environment they've chosen to share with those who came before. How wonderful it could be were they able to eavesdrop on the rest of the community reliving its past in this way -- providing in the process a model they might find helpful to their own journey toward assimilation? The Laotians have only 30 years to build on in this strange and contradictory land of mixed messages.

I think that I'm only just beginning to get a hint of the powers inherent in this new process of civic engagement. Maybe just as important as the park's engagement with the "civic" is the "civic's" engagement with itself. And -- in the end -- is this not the same thing? And, if not, what is it that I'm missing?

Thursday, July 20, 2006

What can I tell you about the Marcus Shelby concert ... ?

I had such mixed feelings -- sitting in the audience. I felt petty -- nitpicking petty. Why was that?

The auditorium was huge -- probably held at least 3500 people (I'm not very good at judging such things). There could hardly have been more than 50 people in the audience. The band on stage would have added about 15. What had happened?

But when I thought back over the day it was clear that the relatively small town of Pittsburg had a number of groups vying for center stage in advance of this day. After all, Port Chicago (no longer a viable town -- closed by the government after the explosion) lay in the shadow of Pittsburg, the site of Camp Stoneman, a major army base during World War II. The Concord Weapons Station is still an operating army site and it borders the town of Pittsburg, a working-class city with a racially diverse population. Bay Point is an adjunct area that is where the low low-income folks live, and resembles North Richmond in many ways. Both towns are leftovers from the great war and neither has ever recovered or been able to carve out any other identity. The great explosion on July 17, 1944 stands as their great historic event and a number of organizations had planned observances that ran throughout the day and evening.

No one was expected to attend all of the programs offered (starting at 9 in the morning and running through until the concert ended at around nine o'clock in the evening. Except for Superintendent Martha Lee, Dr. Stanton, other NPS park staff, and me. It was a long day. I take the time to describe that marathon of a day as one way of explaining to myself my less than enthusiastic reaction to the jazz concert. The music was -- by anyone's standards -- just fine.

The Jazz Suite for Port Chicago opened with a melodic line that borrowed heavily from Duke Ellington. A good thing, surely. But before the first notes were sounded, I was struck by the fact that only two of the musicians in this jazz orchestra were African American. Is this, then, the result of the virtual elimination of music and the arts from innercity schools across the country? Only the composer/bassist, Shelby, himself, and a saxophonist were "brothas," and the sax player didn't take a single solo. He scarcely smiled nor did he have any reaction to the music throughout the long composition.

Here it was. The thing I've feared and have written about quite a bit over time. All of the composed parts were exciting and well-constructed, but it didn't take long to see that the weak places were those places where individual musicians improvised against the organized background. Here it tended to fall into that kind of "...lots of notes but very little music."

There's that thing that Miles Davis used to talk about, "the Zone." Most of the jazz greats learned early on to respect the silences -- the places between the notes -- the place where the listener can anticipate the next notes or phrases along with the player -- and get that sense of participation when the notes anticipated actually creep out through the horn, or the piano keys, or the ...

I remembered now -- in the first movement -- that was so strongly Ellingtonesque -- that I felt visceral disappointment when Juan Tizol or Harry Carney should have come in and didn't ... . It was strange.

I felt a real sadness when the young brotha failed to ever stand and take a solo. I was obviously placing an awful lot of weight on just what that ought to sound like -- but he never did. Only in one of the blues movements did I see the music turn the corners of his mouth up in the shadow of a smile and -- if I looked closely enough -- just the hint of a swaying of his body. Other than that -- this was clearly just a job.

I missed the call and response of the audience, especially when that blues movement got to really swinging -- and I wished for an audience that was at least 75% black, because they wouldn't be sitting on their hands but would be shouting out and clapping along and swingin'!

It's what I miss most in white audiences -- that call and response that feeds the players and urges them out of mediocrity and into greatness if only for a few notes at the end of a transcending improvised solo. Without it you may just as well be listening to Haydn or Mozart. I'm reminded of my 8 year-old granddaughter, Tamaya, at her first chamber music concert last spring. Tom and I had taken the two kids to hear an evening dedicated to Mozart. The girls and I were the only African Americans in the elite suburban audience. It was an important concert -- Mozart's birthday celebration. The two kids had squirmed for about as long as they could stand it and at one point Tamaya leaned over to whisper in my ear, "...Grandma, why aren't they dancing?" Tamaya like her grandmother, is hard-wired for jazz and Mozart just didn't speak to her -- at least not without the chance to express the music in some way.

It was another of those times when it felt to me as though the heart has been removed from our own classical music, and that those who "source" it are fast disappearing -- leaving behind only the derivatives who are setting the new standard for jazz and without realizing that much of it is simply melodically painting by numbers now.

Oh how I wished for young Mr. Marcus Shelby an entire band of brothas as in the old days. Even the Duke -- though taking on a number of sideman who were not black -- was careful to keep the majority strong enough to command the direction and execution of the music. That's the way it should be. We need to define what jazz is. Otherwise it simply isn't!

I'm not even sure that anyone who is now young enough to not recognize the loss can be trusted with this cultural treasure. I'm not sure that -- in this day of cultural integration of the arts -- there will ever be a time like that again.

What will happen to our music when there's no one left who remembers?

Sunday, July 16, 2006

And then there were few ...

If you've ever read Dr. Robert L. Allen's disturbing account of the July 17, 1944 Mutiny at Port Chicago, then you'll have some appreciation for the events of yesterday. It is a must read for anyone wanting to pinpoint the place where the great Civil Rights struggles of the Sixties began.

At the invitation of our park superintendent, Martha Lee, I joined her for the drive to Walnut Creek to pick up our honored guest for the day, Dr. Robert Stanton, former Director of the National Park Service (appointed by President Bill Clinton). He and others had flown out from Washington, D.C., to honor this day with us. We would spend a long day observing and memorializing the most horrific loss of life suffered on home soil during World War II. The celebration was scheduled to end with a performance of the African American composer and musician, Marcus Shelby, of a jazz suite written in honor of this tragic event at Port Chicago. It was the annual day of remembrance of the 320 men lost in the great explosion; 220 of whom were young black navy men.

I'd spent much of the day before re-reading Mutiny in preparation for the event -- and was struck by a kind of dissonance -- a place where my recollections of the Port Chicago tragedy and the account as written by Allen were just slightly out of sync. The tiny difference was to surface fullblown as I sat in the memorial service yesterday quietly listening to the service.

It was this:

When we entered the room where the service was to be held, the entire first two rows -- across the width of the hall -- had neatly-printed signs on each chair stating, "reserved for survivors and families." I walked to the far side of the room and found a seat some rows back and settled in for the somber ceremonies.

It wouldn't become evident until late in the service; after speeches by a local historian, then Dr. Stanton, the base chaplin et al -- then Martha reappeared at the lectern to invite anyone present who had to story to share ...

I kept looking at those two front rows and finally turned to Cynthia Morris, another of the visitors from Washington, -- seated to my right and whispered, "...why are there so few African Americans seated with the survivors and their families?" She acknowledged my question with a glance toward the front of the room and with a quizzical look answered, "I don't know. Wondered about that myself."

I listened for a while longer and ... suddenly ... I felt my throat tighten as the truth began to shorten my breathing and crowd out all else. It was that thing that had not quite fit in the account in the book. Dr. Allen had interviewed survivors -- the men who had lived through the tragedy and then been tried for mutiny by the military, some of whom were jailed, convicted, and later served time for refusing to return to the docks to load explosives as before. That was the operative word here, "men."

On that fateful Saturday afternoon on July 17, 1944, my young husband, Mel, and I held one of the many house parties that took place on weekends throughout the Bay Area for colored servicemen. At that time there were literally no recreational activities provided for them. The USO was reserved for white servicemen and women. The armed forces were not yet racially integrated. From time to time, we opened our little Sacramento Street (Berkeley) apartment to these youngsters (like ourselves) who were far away from home. It was just such a day. There were a number of Port Chicago kids (Mel and I were in our early twenties) like ourselves in the mix. I only recall the name of one, Richert, and I'm not sure just why that is, except that he seemed far too young to be serving and admitted to being only 16.

Because of the dim-out that we lived under and the defense-imposed curfews, those young men were all on their way back to Port Chicago and Camp Stoneman by 8 o'clock. At a bit after ten that night, the blast that registered on the Richter scale was heard and felt throughout the Bay Area. It was awful! The first reaction was that it was an earthquake. The next was that the Japanese had finally made a successful hit somewhere in the vicinity. That it was the munitions ships being loaded around the clock at Port Chicago never entered our minds; or that those youngsters who only a few hours before had been dancing and laughing and teasing and flirting -- would have been blown to bits!

But they were.

After a number of speakers raised their hands to take the microphone to share memories, I felt my arm drifting upward as if being pulled by an invisible string. I knew what was wrong with those two front rows. Dr. Allen had interviewed mature men who were survivors, and many years after the fact. I had experienced not men, but boys in my little apartment at the time of the explosion. Allen described the eldest of the group of "mutineers" as "... Joe Smalls who had evolved as the leader of the group because he was the oldest of the bunch, at 22." DrAllen gave the ages of those young sailors as "...16 to 20."

The disconnect I was experiencing yesterday in those moments before I stood to speak was that those 202 youngsters who were being mourned had not lived long enough to have left survivors. Most were too young to have married or produced children. I had met them not as men but as boys -- and that's how they've remained in my mind for all these years.

Those first two rows were taken up by survivors of the Port Chicago Explosion from the no-longer-existing town of Port Chicago. These were white former residents who were speaking of the impact on their lives of the awfulness that still resonates after 62 years. And, of course, it is quite real. With the exception of two black survivors and the daughter and son of another, those who were here today were recalling how the blast had effected their lives.

" blown in and walls imploding and splinters of glass flying through the air -- everywhere..."!

In that moment -- an insight: This, then is how history gets written. There need be no dark conspiracy to censor the black stories. Suddenly I realized that within a few more years only those who'd lived nearby in the tiny town of Port Chicago and/or their descendants will be sitting in those two front rows as the carriers of the lore. It will be the majority story that will overwhelm the minority story and only that will survive. Those two front rows will hold no more black survivors and the tragic story of their loss will have faded into the past as if it never happened.

If we don't advocate for the final exoneration of those men who were convicted of mutiny; if we don't advocate for those 202 who were lost before they lived long enough to create survivors of their own -- they will be forgotten. Time will fold in around these memories, and the truth of their effects upon all that followed will have been lost.

What we will remember of Port Chicago on July 17, 1944 will be the implosion and collapsing of the wall in the movie house on main street, and little else. It is this that will become the stuff of legend for future generations.

That will extend the tragedy and lose an important part of the story of this nation, the story of the beginning of the social revolution that changed a nation and altered the course of history -- and -- that started on the piers just off the tiny town of Port Chicago -- not in the south, but in California -- on the edge of the Pacific, at the edge of the continent. A place that -- in that horrific moment in time became the cutting edge of social change.

The mission of the National Park Service may be our only defense against such a loss. This is the repository for the nation's collective memory. That agency is charged with the preservation of the places and stories that tell of who we are and of what matters most to us all. I'm awed by being able to be a part of the process.

Photo: Self-evident, I guess, except for the second photo that shows Dr. Stanton and another dignitary in the process of laying the wreath upon the waters of the no-longer existing Port Chicago munitions pier.