Saturday, June 30, 2007

In that eerie way that some sixth sense moves me from some deep place now and then ...

Today I found myself -- for no particular reason -- absently putting "Charbonnet" (my surname) into the Google search bar and -- there it was among the many listings offered up; an obituary for someone I didn't realize had survived into these years. This was my aunt. The wife of one of my father's younger brothers. She passed away only a few days ago, at 101. I saw her over 30 years ago when she and my uncle made their only visit to the S.F. Bay Area when my father was critically ill. Or perhaps it was late in the 1980's when Bill and I stayed at their home on a Mardi Gras visit home.

Myrtle "Ma Myrt" Labat Charbonnet Passes
posted by Laureen Lentz on June 26, 20007

In a city where funerals are revered as one of our unique cultural experiences, the passing of Mrs. Myrtle Labat-Charbonnet is of particular historical significance. The Charbonnet funeral home is at the center of St. Phillips St. and Claiborne in Treme. Under Myrtle's encouragement they rebuilt after Katrina. Their hard work has encouraged the property owners around them not just to rebuild but encouraged larger investment along Ursuline and N. Robertson Streets. They have been a catalyst to the positive work being done in Treme.

I used to go to second lines. Now, I go to the funerals too. In this case, it's a neighbor who has lost a Mother. But at the service, I learned so much more about this legendary family from Treme.

Jazz Funerals don't just happen. Bands, carriages, programs, limosines, caring and guiding staff, horses and their guides, police escorts, the repast at the end. It is very complex when you consider all that must happen, all the while serving a grieving family, not just the second line most of us enjoy.

The Charbonnet Funeral home owns the elaborate carriages for which New Orleans is known for as part of our unique Jazz Funeral tradition and they are stored in Treme. Myrtle Labat-Charbonnet inherited the funeral home from her Godfather at a young age. It suffered a tragic fire in 1962 and Ma Myrt and her husband, Louis, rebuilt. Ma Myrt was born in 1906. She lived in New Orleans when it was all horse and buggy. She attended the Bayou Road School as a child and told her family how she was able to ride a horse from Treme to the River. I learned many compelling facts about this strong and fascinating lady today from her handsome family. For instance, Ma Myrt was declared the oldest voter in her precinct, never missing an election.

As her obituary points out, she was a very active member of her church and community throughout her life. Even though she was in a fragile state of health and remained in Baton Rouge she insisted that her children work to reopen after Katrina. They fulfilled her wish and gave our neighborhood hope in the process. Charbonnet supported their first post-storm service in October of 2005 and reopened the public areas of the funeral home in a limited capacity in June of 2006 and now are operating in all the space on their site.

Today, due to its rich legacy, the Labat-Charbonnet Funeral Home is one of the most highly-regarded funeral homes in the entire state. This was evident by the presence of many state-level funeral, embalming and mortuary professionals at the funeral today who offered their support to this legendary family who have supported thousands of New Orleans families through their darkest time throughout their 124 year history.

Louis, Jr., her son, gives the neighborhood organization (HFTA) use of rooms at the funeral home for meetings in Treme. He broke down in tears today as he explained that Ma Myrt never made it back home to New Oreans after Katrina. He said, "We were so close, until she suffered a fall. When they discharged the hospice ...

So many families have been unable to get their elders home since Katrina, but today, Ma Myrt is home. It was a great honor to be there today."

Photo accompanied the article above. This was the funeral procession for Aunt Myrtle.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Another video interview and the usual early-morning post mortem ...

The pattern is pretty well set now. I've gradually become more comfortable with the public attention, but there are some unanticipated problems. I've not yet learned to take full advantage of my newly-found limited celebrity well enough to allow for my also newly-found "outrageous 'lil ole lady" status to take fuller advantage of the limelight. I may need some boldness lessons. Example:

Yesterday I taped two half-hour shows with Dr. Barbara Cannon for later viewing from the City of Berkeley public access channel studio. I was invited to share thoughts about California's Black Pioneers in one piece and the African American WWII experience in the other. Easy. That's my thing. No need for preparation since all of that sits behind my eyes waiting to spring when evoked. It's simply truth-telling at a time in history when those truths can be heard -- and spoken to an unseen audience for whom it is previously unknown information; the perfect scenario.

It's only in the early morning hours after the fact that I realize how much I am still self-censoring; protecting the listeners(?); "...first do no harm"? Is that what I'm doing?

But then maybe it's just the complexities that make truth-telling so difficult. When talking about racial bigotry, how on earth does one distinguish between those sins so firmly embedded in our system through cleverly-designed and deceptive legislation and the more apparently enlightened policies that I, along with all others have benefitted from over time? Have those inequities become so much a part of the fabric of governance that we can no longer even identify them except when they effect us personally? Who other than African Americans can better afford to challenge the selling of an imperfect system of democracy to other nations seduced by the myths we impose through the barrel of a gun? Who better knows the tragic hippocracy of our American lives? And ... when will I stop falling silent while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance when we reach ... " and with liberty and justice for all"?

Given the system under which I grew up "American" (before becoming a hyphenated-American), I might well have never risen above my status as that 20 year-old file clerk in a Jim Crow Union hall instead of the multi-careered and many-talented elder that I've grown into despite the inequities. It was this thought that crashed into my psyche and woke me this morning: Have we any idea how huge has been the loss in human potential -- how monumentally high has been the cost to the human enterprise -- costs of maintaining the illusion of white supremacy?

I now look back on a childhood and youth that contained much of the same pride and arrogance as any other American child. In my case it was based upon the heritage of a New Orleans Creole ancestry -- two brothers who came to this continent to escape the French Revolution -- in the 1700s, before the Revolutionary War and long before the Louisiana Purchase in 1805. Firmly centered in my DNA is all of the arrogance that goes with that -- having followed in the souls of each of us young Charbonnets after the catastrophic floods of 1927 -- of the city of New Orleans. It was then that we traveled west to join Papa George in Oakland. The pride was packed in with the brownpaper carefully-wrapped packets of filet (fee-lay) for gumbo and dried shrimp for jambalaya. It may have been all we had left of the family possessions. Pride was all that had survived. This was the gift of legacy provided by my name. Since my culture was strongly French Creole and my parents were both bi-lingual, my African bloodlines were muted. I'm certain now that each of my young second-generation European and Asian friends came with their own versions of the New Orleans flood story originating in some far away land. We were far more alike than different in many ways. They appear to have forgotten that, over time. Clearly, we haven't.

My mother's Breaux bloodlines were similarly French, but her roots were more populist, springing from the Acadians ("Cajuns") who -- as an agrarian people -- had a long history of working the fields with their slaves and building inclusive lives with many marriages that overwhelmed even the restrictions of slavery and were sanctioned by the Catholic Church. My greatgrandmother Leontine Breaux Allen's parents were a Cajun planter, Edouard Breaux, and his slave and long time partner in the fields, Celeste "of no last name" (according to their marriage license written in French and hanging on the wall of my study). I am an American. Pure and simple. How dare anyone think otherwise?

Small wonder that -- armed with this sense of pride -- resettled Creoles along with earlier settlers from many black cultures from Haiti, the Carolinas, Caribbean Islands, Cuba, and elsewhere created a multiplicity of languages, cuisines, arts and music which provided us with a rich social environment outside of the mainstream. I knew of the terms, Geechee and Gullah without any notion of what the words meant.

We were ill-equipped to deal with the ugliness of racism that descended upon us with the Declaration of War in 1941. We simply didn't feel "less than." Up to that time we were probably under the impression that we were grouped together as a large affinity group that simply preferred its own company! We really didn't feel particularly envious of our non-black friends who were for the most part second generation Portuguese, German, Greek, Italian, Irish, Japanese, Russian, Chinese, also from working-class families with their own special cultural events and facilities that honored those things their parents had brought with them from other lands. Sarah had her B'nai Brith and Hadassah, Maria had her Columbus Day at the Holy Ghost Hall on 71st Avenue, beautiful little Lillian Oka and her colorful lacquered fans and paper parasols had her celebrations to the Japanese Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, -- and we had our Linden Street (black) YWCA, we had Ella, Duke Ellington; the magnificent and unconquerable, "Brown Bomber", Joe Louis; the Black baseball barnstormers and so much more. Each group retreated into its own culture when schools closed at 3 o'clock and "real life" began. It meant little more than that. We hadn't yet entered the worlds of contrived "Multiculturalism." or the strident calls for "Black Power."

It might have taken an additional 30 years for the cauldron of crippling racial hatred to spill over into the Sixties Civil Rights Revolution had it depended upon those of us already settled in the West and for whom life was at least tolerable. We were radicalized by those black folks who dragged us kicking and screaming in various states of denial when they migrated west to answer the nation's call for home front workers to fulfill the wartime labor demands -- and by so doing -- to make a better lives for themselves and their children, and ultimately -- for us all. It was they who gradually ignited the fires of protest for full equality over the 20 years following World War II when life failed to live up to its promises.

In my post mortem this dawn, I was suddenly aware of how insulated I'd been as a child -- having been allowed the privilege of growing up as any other second-generation American with full expectations that I, too, would someday move into the mainstream and take my place beside my second-generation peers of other races and cultures. It was ordained in the stars and guaranteed by my diploma from Castlemont high school.

World War II was a crushing blow to those dreams, but it failed to fully quench the fires of pride and arrogance that gave us the belief that we were equal to anybody; that we could be the Tuskegee Airmen and the heroic 761st Tank Battalion which -- with General George Patton, led the Battle of the Bulge -- ; that we black women could fly the planes (like Bessie Coleman) and develop the powers of blood plasma as did Dr. Charles Drew, etc. Fortunately for the nation, we prevailed after a fashion and 20 years of ardent and perilous protest with Dr. King and Rosa Parks. And that (in the case of my young 4th generation California-born husband, Mel Reid) we could refuse to be messmen in the US Navy when we volunteered to fight for this country!

But we've never fully completed our ascent into full equality.

I realized with a start that one of the exorbitant costs of continuing false beliefs in the concept of white supremacy may be that the individual who will someday save the world from the now irreversible doom of global warming may at this very moment be a black youngster trapped in a failing system of public education; may be sitting in a prison cell trying to read his or her way out of despair through laboriously mastering the dictionary -- reading through the encyclopedia (as did Malcolm) -- studying correspondence courses that rose from barely detectable hints of a better world glimpsed through the illusions brought on by a drug hit that opened wide the doors of perception in some inner city back alley... .

It might very well be -- and we may never know until we free those minds through humane rehabilitation. Perhaps this is one way for the nation to begin the process of healing the wounds we together inflicted upon ourselves and others merely because of differing skin colors beginning with the horror of physical enslavement from the 15th through 19th centuries and continuing through the travesty of drug laws that unfairly prolong that psychological enslavement into this, the 21st. We'll never know until the doors of opportunity are open to all at a time when gradations of skin color no longer determine one's ultimate station in life.

Maybe this is one of the lessons of ordinary-extraordinary lives like mine; lives of those of us who -- despite externally-imposed limitations -- have lived to contribute meaningfully to the lives of others and to the destiny of the planet in increasingly significant ways; even when we're unaware that we're doing so. When we only sense that we're leaning into the winds of constructive change along with countless unseen others, trusting and hoping that this powerful perception is enough to change the world.

... and that we may have loved humankind deeply enough to forgive because we refused to believe the delusion of white supremacy.

Photo: 1) Daughters of the proud early pioneer Reid family whose ancestors arrived in the S. F. Bay Area during the Civil War. These are my husband, Mel's, aunts -- Leila; Charlie Reid's first wife, Irma; Ruth , and Alberta, seated on a hillside in Berkeley. This photo was taken in September of 1919, two years before my birth.

Photo: 2) Taken sometime in the Seventies at a committee meeting at the San Mateo home of Archdeacon John Weaver of San Francisco's Grace Cathedral. It would be hosted by the Vallombrosa Conference of which my husband (Bill Soskin) and I were participants. Vallombrosa was advisory to the Northern California Diocese as the Club of Rome is to the Vatican. This occasion was the planning of the Bicentennial celebration of 1776. I recalled being troubled by how many family relics were brought that night (John Weaver's ancestor's musket, someone else's heirloom quilt, etc.) I, suddenly dissolved into tears at one point, wailing "...and what was I to bring, my ancestor's leg irons?" I remember the hushed and embarrassed silence in the room in response. It was a grave reminder that I would have been chattel, owned, and enslaved at the time being celebrated by my country.

This miraculous thing called the mind: I can close my eyes and still hear that conversation and see everyone in that room. Maybe the blinding irony of that moment seared the scene into my brain. I thought of all those for whom the Bicentennial would have been totally outside our ability to comprehend. Native Americans? Did anyone consider that? That night -- we did. This was when I discovered that our dear friend, the Episcopal Bishop J. Kilmer Myers ("Kim") of the Northern California Diocese had an adopted African American daughter. I'd never met his then teen-aged children. He understood my tears and dawning confusion, and together we lifted the level of debate and made it relevant to the times.