Friday, October 12, 2007

It only took a moment ... and then decades of misguided impressions dropped away... .

Standing as tall as I could stretch my five-foot-three-inch frame, gave me just about enough heft to get myself through the lobby and into the elevator of the War Memorial. I'd removed my fedora just as I entered -- but once in the elevator -- placed it back on my head for just a bit of extra courage. It worked.

Once on the second floor I walked the long hallway to another that led to a door standing ajar and the sound of genteel voices that grew louder as I approached. Their meeting was in progress and I slid as quietly as I could into a seat just inside the door to await my time at the lectern.

It was soon evident that there was little to fear in this room. Whatever was to come could be handled. These were clearly lovely mostly Southern(?) ladies tending to business. And the business was reverence for God, country, and home -- in that order. Despite the initial feeling of being a jarring element in this orderly setting, I found myself relaxing into the mood of the room.

When a flyer was passed around advertising the upcoming Kentucky Social which promised mint juleps and Derby Pie I felt the last of the up-tightness melt away and in its place came a silent giggle of curiosity and warmth for this sisterhood that seemed both at home and absolutely alien in San Francisco. Funny. It was only "alien" in my everyday world; surely not here in this most cosmopolitan of world cities with something for everybody. Surely this Southern -- all White -- sisterhood was just another collective under the diversity tent. Just a few blocks over in the Fillmore there might well be an all-Japanese tea ceremony going on; and a few blocks beyond that -- an all-Black group preparing for a Gospel Concert over barbecue, mustard greens, and macaroni-and-cheese while planning next year's Juneteenth celebration! It occurred to me that the operative word here should be authenticity; the art of being precisely who you are. This is the common denominator for all such cultural groupings.

I could do this. Martha was quite right. It only took a slight shift in perspective.

When the business of the meeting ended and a touching candle ceremony held -- it was my turn.

Not sure just how I opened my remarks, except to introduce myself, my Great-Grandmother Leontine Breaux Allen, and my mother, with a statement that I'd arrived with much uncertainty about their expectations and just how I might fill them. "Did you understand that I was an African American?" No one ever really answered the question ... but it ceased to matter.

After a brief bio of sorts and some personal history of my WWII past, I looked around and spoke directly; " know ... such conversations across these barriers were not possible 20 -- maybe only 10 years ago. We must have them now -- informed by all that has happened in human relations since the Martin Luther King era." It was true. With those simple words I'd placed us all beyond those damning social barriers -- placed us all on the same side -- and it felt right. Could it really be so simple after all?

I spoke for no more then ten minutes and we dissolved into chattering females, " what a beautiful hat!", and it was over. The room felt larger and the sounds softer somehow as we sipped tea and grazed the table loaded with homemade cakes and pies.

On the day after I received a lovely note from someone who'd been in the audience. It was enough to bring tears -- it was she who had visited my blog and discovered my references to Marian Anderson. She wrote about the event of long ago at Constitution Hall as her own history -- learned from her grandmothers. Were it not for a feeling that I would be intruding on her privacy I'd post it here, however -- she ended her beautiful note with these words:

“I really, really want a world in which the only time anyone's skin color matters is when they're picking out clothing and deciding what colors look best with it.”


Photo: Ms. Dixie Lee Mahy, Chairperson of the meeting. And, yes, that is a small metal cross in the center of her forehead, a unique expression of her faith. Though I seem to have been the only person to notice. Photo by Kathy Samuels of the DAR.

Monday, October 08, 2007

It was a most unusual day -- for any place but San Francisco. There it was the most ordinary of days.

I'd spoken briefly on Thursday with Regent Henriette Gordon of the DAR in order to confirm my appearance as the speaker at their monthly meeting at the War Memorial on Saturday. Until that moment I was unsure of what would be expected of me. How would I reconcile my "Woman of Color-ness" with this particular assignment? Were they expecting a speaker from "Rosie the Riveter World War II/Home Front National Park"? Surely there was little in my telephone voice that would suggest that I might be a woman of color. Did the group have any idea -- and if so - what might that mean? A few questions into the conversation and that was determined. They were interested in "Rosie." I felt a shiver as I realized that I might still be a surprise.

I would not wear my simple black crepe suit with mandatory string of pearls and black suede pumps (pure Betty) as planned, and would instead go in full regalia as Betty the park ranger -- hatted, badged, and properly uniformed. There was some comfort in that. I recalled a colleague saying that she was (at heart) very shy and that she could face public demands with far more confidence when uniformed. I needed to do the same in this moment of uncertainty.

At around noon I drove to the El Cerrito BART station, parked conveniently, checked to be sure that I'd remembered to bring along brochures and friend, Jane Stillwater's, newly-published book, "Bring Your Own Flak Jacket!" to read en route, and boarded the crowded train for the trip across the bay. It was filled with families from the surrounding East Bay suburbs headed for Fleet Week activities in the City. Remembered then that the Blue Angels would be streaking through the skys in another hour or so and hoped that I'd catch a glimpse of them, too. It could hardly have been a more beautiful day with a more perfect blue sky as a canvas upon which to paint their death-defying aerial maneuvers.

After boarding at the Del Norte Station and working my way gradually back through the many bodies blocking the aisle, I managed to find a place to stand where I could hold on. Being accustomed in recent years to having young people rise to offer their seats to me (the elder), it was a surprise to find myself standing all the way to San Francisco's Embarcadero station. It was the uniform! In my full regalia I surely didn't give the impression that I needed the particular consideration commonly held in reserve for the old and the infirm. I'd given up my senior advantage and felt silently amused. I stood just a bit taller in my boots which I planted firmly -- feet some distance apart -- and precariously balanced my way under the bay and into the city for the next twenty minutes.

Once out into the sunlight at the Civic Center I, again, marveled at the site of those magnificent structures that make up the site of the political and cultural life of this great city; walked past the Bill Graham Auditorium and remembered this colorful entrepreneur who lent so much color and character to San Francisco of the Sixties and beyond. Felt properly dwarfed by the huge S.F. Public Library on my right just before the scene enlarged into the mall across from City Hall with its usual collection of citizens gathered on the front steps marking something of importance by their presence ... then I saw them. The Mall lawn on my far right was covered by maroon-robed monks with their supporters (also wearing colors) chanting in support of... then I remembered the plight of Burma (Myamar?) and felt a chill as the first of the practice runs of the Blues Angels split the sky with their thunder -- a grim reminder of the world at war -- yet again.

Walked hurriedly past the Mall toward McAllister and Van Ness where a young man waiting for a bus stopped me to ask if I had (no, not money) something he could read. He'd seen my clutch of brochures held tightly. Ranger-like, I stopped to hand him one with a warm feeling. We made eye contact and in that flash of an instant -- made human contact. It felt good. The stranger's bus approached and as it noisily lumbered past there emerged -- less than 100 feet beyond -- today's destination. I had to stop for the crossing signal which gave just long enough to get the full impact of the gold lettering above the stairs that spelled out, " Herbst Theater, Art Museum, then -- the War Memorial.

Upstairs in Room 212 -- I, Betty Reid Soskin, "Woman of Color," would soon meet with the San Francisco Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and I'd (as promised) left Marian Anderson at home... .

San Francisco never disappoints.

Today would hold no exception.