Thursday, March 15, 2007

Betty in the Balcony ... bitchin'!

I was so excited at the prospect of viewing this upcoming documentary by one of the great documentarians of our times; filmmaker Ken Burns. Maybe my expectations were simply too high -- after all, I've been pleased and eventually bored out of my wits by both his "Civil War" and "Jazz," and more recently by a repeat telecast of "Baseball." I keep forgetting how excruciatingly slowww-ly his work unfolds and of how frustratingly maudlin it sometimes becomes in the telling. Forget all that. I was open and willing to adjust my sails and join him for another saga of American life. After all, this was one I knew a little about ... this time I'd have some means of comparison with others ... something of importance to me, personally.

However ...

At the very outset Burns appeared on stage before the curtain to announce that he had quite deliberately chosen to tell the story of World War II from the standpoint of four American cities; Burlington, Connecticutt; Mobile, Alabama; St. Louis, Missouri; and Sacramento, California. Until we arrived at the theater that evening I had no idea why the all-important San Francisco Bay Area had been bypassed for Sacramento since we were surrounded by points of embarkation; the Alameda Naval Air Station; the Oakland Army Base; Oak Knoll Naval Hospital; four Kaiser Permanente shipyards in Richmond; Oakland's Moore's Shipyard and Hunter's Point in San Francisco; Marinship in Marin County; the Letterman Hospital and the Presidio at the edge of the Golden Gate; Port Chicago's arsenal; Lawrence Laboratories where the atom bomb had been developed; Camp Stoneman in nearby Pittsburg; and ultimately the creation of the United Nations just across the Bay in San Francisco only a few years later. All that, plus all manner and means of war-making enterprises and the amassing of man- and womanpower to "do the work" in numbers previously unheard of in all of history. Why then Sacramento?

As if in anticipation of an often-asked question from his pre-screening audiences -- in his first spoken sentences to the sold-out house he said, "We chose Sacramento in order to tell the story of the Japanese who were living in that area and who were interned for the duration of the War; and in some instances fought and died in our armed forces in segregated battalions." There it was. The great filmmaker had gone for the low-hanging fruit, and ignored the story that brought greater socio-political change to the nation than any period since the Civil War of the mid-last century.

He stated quite frankly that he had deliberately chosen to tell the Japanese story over the telling of the African American experience in order to relate the stories through its effects upon a series of individual American families. I felt my heart sink ... but that was only the beginning:

As we watched the footage (fairly long film clips of the 14-hour segments) unfold, I watched in a quiet rage as he pictured from the air -- a long shot of a Japanese internment camp (Manzanar?) to the music of Duke Ellington's "In my solitude ..." as the sound track! Later in another segment showing a village in the Phillipines, and from another shot from the air comes the voice of Billie Holiday singing, "... every time it rains it rains, pennies from heaven." How could this be?

I have no idea how much black music was used (as "American" music, of course) in the telling of this history -- expropriated for the telling of the stories of others -- while the black experiences had been intentionally set aside.

I sat in that balcony feeling marginalized in much the way I'd felt marginalized at twenty as I participated in "The War" from the sidelines in a Jim Crow union hall a few miles away from the building of the great ships. What irony! Was I to give credit for Burns' having captured the period so accurately that those feelings of disaffection returned, authentically, as a part of my truth?

Was there no awareness -- not even in the mind of this talented present-day young documentarian, that the great Duke Ellington and the legendary Billie Holiday could not stay in the hotels where they might be allowed to play as they traveled through the south and beyond in those years? Did he not know that even these now revered historic figures of the music world were consigned to the back of the bus, could not enter the front door of most restaurants, and had to use separate restrooms and find "colored" doctors in times of need while traveling? How could he have been so unknowing as to usurp their music for the telling of the stories of others without understanding that the phantom pain for those of us who lived those years might be reawakened by his insensitivity?

But of course he knew. How could he not after having produced "The Civil War," "Jazz," "Baseball" or even "Mark Twain"? Burns knew but choose to ignore in favor of telling the (also compelling) story of the Japanese-Americans. His right, of course, but in so doing he missed what may have been the crucible of our times -- the time when the baseline was created against which we now can measure the nation's socio-political evolution of the last half-century.

Did he not know that -- within four years after the great explosion at Port Chicago where so many young lives were lost, and largely because of that tragic event combined with the outstanding but unrecognized wartime performance of the Tuskeegee Airman in the skies over Europe -- President Harry Truman brought an end to racial segregation in the armed forces by proclamation and started the country on a decades-long course of incremental change? Was Burns not aware that the seeds of dramatic social change were sown in those years -- seeds that led to the great Civil Rights Revolution of the Sixties 20 years hence -- that opened the doors to the social movements that would bring new energy to the struggle for women's rights; gay rights; and that brought about restitution for the wrongly-interned Japanese-Americans, and even today -- to the review of immigration policies of a new group of freedom-seeking peoples from outside our borders? Could he not have known that -- rising from the World War II experience and the resulting social changes introduced through the black experience on both the battlefield and the home front -- life began to change for us all?

All the way home I kept reminding myself that I was having feelings that were inappropriate to the occasion. After all, Ken Burns had created an epic 14-hour series that was about "The War," and not about "The Home Front." His series was about death and destruction and displacement and more death and destruction -- in the way of earlier works about D-Day and the Landing at Omaha Beach and the Bombing of Dresden -- and my responses were emotional and unfair. I was seeing this cherubic filmmaker suddenly as overly pious and a bit precious with his little-boy-British-haircut and prep school blazer and I was being critical in ways that I'd regret tomorrow as unnecessarily narrow and cruel.

But -- most of all -- I was again feeling that unfinished -- awful -- unrequited need for that apology. Understanding. Attention, maybe! And most of all, some sense that in some way someone will notice the staggering and debilitating on-going agony of the black youth of our times and make the connections with times that predicted their tragedy by ignoring the societally-inflicted wounds of the past they have no way to remember; except when the documentarians, the filmmakers, begin to tell their stories through the telling of the heroic and sacrificial stories of their parents and grandparents -- and tell them honestly, comprehensively with full disclosure -- as a major force in American history. Or, to forever consign those stories to insignificance by the simple act of omitting them from the record.

How dare he!
I'm in the throes of adjusting to the time change and I'm only now waking from a long and restless night of tossing and turning ...

It's almost 10:00 a.m. and I'm just now becoming alive again. Through the fog of half-sleep I heard my little clock radio pop on somewhere just before daylight -- it was a string of announcements about this weekend's demonstrations demanding the end of the war in Iraq. My early morning radio is always tuned to our Pacifica radio flagship station, KPFA-FM, and today was no different; except that ... .

I was suddenly wide awake and sitting up with a start that dropped the television remote (stashed under my hand in sleep) to the floor with a downstairs-neighbor-disturbing thud. The announcer was talking about Saturday's schedule of anti-war activities. There would be marching in the streets, locally, for those who can't make it to Washington, D.C., or any of the nearby population centers. These are my people. Never mind that few of my contemporaries are any longer able to show up -- but there had been that call from "Grandmother's For Peace" that I'd not returned. I marched with that group in a protest against the war to the downtown Oakland recruitment office last year; joining with friendly faces from various parts of my past. I'd planned to do the same this year -- but in the busyness of my extraordinary life I'd lost all thought of just when that would be. This is that weekend.

The day is here -- Saturday -- and I'm scheduled to be standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier delivering a 15-minute statement in honor of Women's History Month at that very hour! On the deck of the USS Hornet; and doing so as a representative of the World War II generation of women. What irony!

I must now pick up the telephone and place a call to the events planner for the Hornet and either announce my regrets -- given my anti-war position -- or let her know that my comments may not be in keeping with the occasion. Or, do I simply seize the time and make my "End the War and Bring the Troops Home Now!" statement? Where would I find a more opportunistic forum -- and right there in the belly of the beast? Would I be risking being unceremoniously escorted off the ship brutishly by the civilian version of the shore patrol? Do I dare risk losing my job because I felt compelled to act out my anti-war feelings in a public forum? But then I remembered that I'm a private contractor and not really a federal employee at all, so (except for the judgement call) I'm my own agent. I've surely done this before - but I was far younger and prettier and better able to confront power in ways that may simply be unbecoming to an older woman ... .

But I've left out an important entry in my blog that may explain the dilemma far better. It has to do with having attended the PBS/KQED-sponsored Ken Burns preview of his epic 14-hour documentary called, "WAR!," to be aired in the fall. It was shown to a packed house in the Castro Theater in San Francisco two weeks ago, and included a Q&A with the filmmaker at the end of the screening -- plus a seething Betty seated in the topmost row of the balcony wanting to scream in protest to what was being shown and what had been deliberately omitted!

But suffices to say that the experience served to build a fire under my reaction to this early-morning string of announcements of anti-war activities played against my upcoming appearance on that panel on board the USS Hornet on the same day they're gathering at Justin Herman Plaza readying for the march to the Federal Building in San Francisco!

... but I may need to let some of the angst settle before I write more.


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Speaking engagements are now frequent enough to begin to provide some confidence that, "yes!" I can do this ... .

Lucy and I spent the morning meeting with a group of young people in the adult education program of the West Contra Costa Unified School District. Their ages were (with one or two exceptions) between 18 and 22. Interesting bunch; mostly male.

I'd received a call from teacher, Nancy Ng, a few weeks ago inviting us to meet with her students in relation to Black History Month. She wanted them to learn something about the local history. As it turned out, last month was a busy one and we couldn't meet her schedule. This morning, here we were, a few days late but ready to give it a try.

Lucy started out by providing the more scholarly information about World War II and its effects upon the Bay Area in general and the City of Richmond in particular. I always enjoy her impromptu presentations and learn something new from them each time. We've fallen easily into a kind of casual ad libbing kind of presentation that goes wherever the expressions on the faces of the audience leads us. It's always fun when there are interruptions; questions that tell us the kids are involved -- and we're happy to veer off course to take advantage of the interest in the side bars.

I tend to become one of the "interrupters," in that I pop in when- and wherever there's an opening and Lucy recedes enough into the background to make room for my bits and pieces.

This morning I found myself relating to these young people as a kind of "peer" in that it was easy to drop into one of the many people that I am or have become over all these years -- which allowed the 20 year-old Betty to rise to the forefront and join the other 20 year-olds in the room. Strange.

I heard myself saying to them that they were in the process of making history right this minute -- history that could only be viewed in retrospect years hence -- just as I was a little file clerk in a Jim Crow union hall some distance from the frenetic day-and-night building of the great ships of war. That I never saw a ship during those years, and still I was a part of a history that shaped the world.

It is important to note that during those years countries went to war. Now armies do.

It was an interesting morning, and those youngsters caught the spirit of our presentation. We took photos together at the end, and they were invited into the "building of a national park" along with our park staff -- and -- I believe we will see them again at some point.

On Saturday I will be one of the speakers in honor of Women's History Month -- on board the USS Hornet, the aircraft carrier now a museum on the shoreline -- moored in Alameda, California. Not sure who else will share the dais with me, but it will be another adventure -- and I'll get to see that giant war vessel along with the crowds, and feel the now-sleeping but awesome power in that huge ship after over sixty years of knowing them only on film.

Tomorrow we will make a presentation on Richmond's history for Ma'at Environmental Youth Academy. These are teens who will be hearing most of what we have to teach for the very first time. If they're anything like today's group, it will be great fun. This same bunch will be taken on a bus tour on Saturday morning (prior to the visit to the USS Hornet) when we will visit some of the World War II-related sites that are now a part of the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home/Front National Historical Park.

It would be so easy to get caught up in the glorification of war and forget that mine is not the story of war at all -- but simply memories of a time of great confusion, of fear, of not being sure just who the enemy was, of learning that I was less than ... , and the experience of participating in the sowing of the seeds of the great Civil Rights movement of modern times. It would be so easy to lose all of that in this work. What a pity that would be ... so sad if I begin to forget the futility of killing in the name of forcefully exporting democracy through the barrel of a gun -- democracy that has not been realized at home, even now. So sad if we get caught up in heralding old wars and forget the lessons learned so cruelly, and without conscience and born of greed and avarice and the arrogance of the empire builders! How can I admit that I feel a revulsion -- even in the face of the reality of some Hitlerian figure rising -- when I hear someone speak of, "...the Good War"?

Will it be possible to remain true to myself in this process of national park building? Will it be possible to celebrate the gains won through those struggles and still remember the explosion at Port Chicago not as a blast that destroyed a small town and collapsed the walls of its small theater -- but as the place where 202 lives of untrained and unprotected young black navy men were lost tragically and needlessly?

Will it be possible to join with my community in planning next fall's first annual Home Front Festival -- to help in the planning of the commemorative USO dance when I know that I would not have been allowed to attend during those war years? Do I become a spoiler when I remind the dance committee of the Chamber of Commerce of that disturbing truth? Has enough time passed so that I can set aside those painful memories (and that the reason I recall Port Chicago and hearing that terrifying sound and feel of the explosion on the night of July 14, 1944 is because that small group of servicemen were guests at a party in our small apartment in Berkeley because they could not attend the USO dances. Their young bodies were most probably among the dead when the smoke cleared. We never knew their names ... .)

The greatest challenge of this work may be whether I can keep my perspective clear and clean and not lose the lessons of these past 60-odd years in the noises of the present ...?

Nothing comes easy ... but then, life is complex ... and therein lies the magic.