Saturday, January 31, 2009

Martha and I arrived at Dulles airport late Sunday evening, January 18th ... .

The flight was pleasant -- the plane filled with Californians flying in for the Inauguration. At landing, the pilot sent back a message over the PA system welcoming us to Washington and the great event. A general round of applause went up from throughout the plane. We were all on a mission!

We had the evening to settle into our little apartment and a full day before the historic ceremony. On Monday we rose early expecting to preview tomorrow. I layered on "smart" wool long johns with a specially-insulated long-sleeved top, added a black cashmere turtleneck sweater then the down inner-lining that zipped up inside my green trench coat, plus black wool scarf, plus ear-warming woolen head band topped by a pure wool beret and wool-lined leather gloves. I was ready for whatever lay ahead. We took off to brave frigid 17 degree weather for the 4 mile walk toward the Capitol Mall. We would visit museums and galleries -- all new for me. Martha had spent considerable time in and out of Washington recently, and had lived there for a time while doing a 3-month detail for the NPS. In the bitter cold, that day, we walked the entire length of the Capitol Mall from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. Having her as guide removed all signs of fear at being in a strange city among greats crowds of humanity (I'm seriously claustrophobic). Anticipation pushed all of those distractions away. Being phobic just wasn't an option. Not this day.

During the walk I was able to put names on many familiar Greek-columned federal buildings that gave a majestic feel to our walk. Martha provided identification for the rest. We were taking the time to scope out where we would be sitting/standing tomorrow; where the security stations were; to marvel at the thousands of PortaPotties that were standing in wait (all locked tightly to prevent folks from sleeping in them overnight, we were told). We would learn on Tuesday that many had camped out in the cold the night before, and that tens of thousands had arrived on the Mall by 5:30 Tuesday morning.

Learned from the PR staff at National Park Service Headquarters on the day after the Inauguration that the crowd was estimated to be the largest in Washington, D.C.'s history. The next largest being at the gathering on the Mall of the Promise Keepers some years ago. Though the official count published by the Washington Post and accepted by the NPS was 1.8 million, the actual count had to be far higher since tens of thousands never made it onto the Mall to be counted. Martha would be among them since her standing-room space (purple ticket) never made it at all (along with many others including many legislative aides and campaign workers who'd given two years of their lives to see this day). But that's a sad story for another day.

On day two we visited the World War II Memorial and made the discovery of the bas relief that are relevant to the homefront story. By prearrangement we were able to have an NPS guide who filled in much information that was new and which made the visit really memorable.We stopped in to hear a presentation by a trio of African American gospel singers singing songs of liberation at the Museum of American History. I was struck by the huge numbers of young people (teens) among the listening crowd. There was also something intangible but nonetheless clearly evident in the fact that half the visitors to these museums were African Americans from everywhere who would never before have explored these important resources with the new sense of ownership that was now clearly theirs. Whole families were wide-eyed and actively involved in "our" nation's history. In the near future we should anticipate a huge increase in visitation at the country's historic sites and that bodes well for us all. Education will finally hold real relevance to ordinary young children of color. There is now the feeling that -- after a long and painful past -- America's promise has finally been kept. I remember silently hoping as I watched eager young faces -- that the warmth I was experiencing in those moments could be radiating from here out into world ... .

On the Mall were elaborate "encampments" for the news media. It was interesting to note that the largest crowds were gathered 'roun the MSNBC facilility. ABC has a similar arrangement but at that time there was no program in progress and it appeared deserted. Watched for a few minutes when Andrea Mitchell was anchoring a roundtable featuring prominent African American leaders. It was fun to see Usher ( teen idol) for the young who crowded around the trailer that was serving as a Green Room. They were obviously hoping for autographs. It was one of those times when I felt old and irrelevant because I no longer am able to spot current celebrities and am still haunted by the face of an older gray-haired man that I was sure was someone important but I simply could not put a name to. I might have lined up for his autograph had I been able to call it up from memory ... .

After watching for a few moments we proceeded past those gathered around one of the many JumboTrons where re-runs of the Sunday Dr. King concert were being viewed. I was captivated for a time by the giant image of Marian Anderson singing "America" on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial long ago. I stopped for a few minutes to watch and listen. Almost dissolved into tears but the feeling was fleeting. The coming together of so much history was overwhelming. Disorienting. Surreal. Found myself wishing I'd picked up one of those little flags from one of the many vendors along the way ... or that I'd at least have worn the little lapel flag pin that was still sealed in its little plastic bag, in my jewelry box back home.

It's all so different now; as if the world has shifted noticeably under our feet and that a total re-balancing is in process.

I was beginning to understand about "patriotism" in ways previously unknown to me. It is love of country from the inside.

Bottom right photo: Taken at the Lincoln Memorial where my friend, Ranger Kawther Elmi, ( we met at Albright Training Center at the Grand Canyon in February) gave us a grand tour. The Washington Monument in the background stands at the head of the reflecting pool that was frozen over.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Several weeks before we were scheduled to arrive in Washington ...

Martha managed to secure a small basement apartment for us to rent for our 4-day visit. It was just about a mile from the Capitol in reasonable walking distance. It wasn't sheer luck but required some diligence on her part to find a place at a time when there were no hotel rooms left between Washington and Baltimore! It was located on East Capitol within the District of Columbia and was just a block away from Lincoln Park where the Freedman's statue as well as that of the great black educator, Mary McLeod Bethune were located.

The Freedman's statue was new for me. It was commissioned and financed by former slaves to honor Abraham Lincoln. The campaign was launched by a woman who contributed the first five dollars that she earned once emancipated. The plaque is so moving (see below).

I've now lived long enough to have memories that include encounters with iconic figures who are now a part of history. Mrs. Bethune is one such.

I remember being a teenager when she visited Oakland as a guest of a church group or PTA (I'm not sure which), but I recall hearing her speak at the Highland elementary school auditorium in our neighborhood. All I can recall of that day was that she looked an awful lot like one of our neighbors and that she wore a big hat and had a booming voice. I can hardly imagine that one day I'd be standing before this great sculptured likeness in awe of her contributions to black life.

It is the same way that I remember hearing the late great Langston Hughes read his poetry in that same humble setting. Can't remember that I was all that impressed at the time, but then how in the world would I have known that I was listening to greatness? Makes me wonder who among us today will be memorialized one day in statuary and murals 80 years from now? Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt or Steve Jobs and Maria Montessori? Could be.

In preparation for the trip I'd picked up a portable DVD player and a copy of the 7-hour video of John Adams; the HBO documentary. I intended to watch it on the flight in preparation for witnessing the Inauguration ceremonies. I wanted to prepare myself for this adventure in every way possible so that it would be as meaningful as I could make it. Heaven knows there's enough information in every form so that there was no excuse for not being prepared. What little I knew about the life and times of the founding fathers had atrophied over time, and I was about to witness the inauguration of the 44th president of these United States, and needed to know what that means in relation to the original intent of those men who laid the groundwork for this progressive, inventive, colorful, painful, dramatic, and sometimes horrific history that I am so much a part of. John Adams might be key to that understanding. It worked magnificently. I watched succeeding chapters each night at the end of long days of museum and gallery visits ... and, of course, on the night after the Inauguration. I felt that I pretty well understood the intent and the process before falling asleep exhausted but ecstatic at the end of that memorable day, at least to the extent that one could capture all that in a 7-hour series.

Text of plaque:

The idea and first donation for this monument was by Charlotte Scott a freed slave from Virginia, who was residing in Ohio. Having heard of Lincoln's assassination, she told her employer "colored people had lost their best friend on earth". She told her employer that she wanted to honor Lincoln with a memorial and to donate the first money for it. Along with the first $5 Ms. Scott had earned as a free woman, the employer forwarded her request on to the Western Sanitary Commission in St. Louis where the suggestion was taken up enthusiastically. The commission then offered Thomas Ball the work for the $18,000, which had taken two years to collect, all from freed slaves. The slave statue was modeled after Archer Alexander, who is said to have been the last man captured under the Fugitive Slave Act.
Still chewing on that Bi-racial thing ... so before I let it go ...

I remembered why it's so important to me.

It has always been beyond understanding that the country continues to see the issue in future terms -- as if some dire circumstance will befall humanity at some future time, if we don't take heed and maintain those walls of separation between the races ... .

Silly! There's nothing new here, folks, we're as old as time itself.

For as many centuries as we've been deploying armies throughout the world, we've been creating mixed race children. We did it during slavery when the importation of African slaves was outlawed -- slave masters began creating their own "livestock" by impregnating black slave women and eventually selling their own children (yes!) into slavery. After every one of the endless military invasions and occupations in every corner of the world, we've left children behind -- often to be abused for being different from homogeneous populations. And you can bet, in the many foreign countries where today's armed forces are based, there are mixed-race children being born and -- as often as not -- abandoned when occupation ends and servicemen return to the United States, England, France, Holland, Germany, etc., when the dread of non-acceptance back home wins out over honor and responsibility. I do, however, believe this is diminishing in our time.

There are Mulattoes, Eurasians, Indo-European, Mestizos, Creoles, and every other conceivable racial mixture on every continent where conquering armies have ever lived for any amount of time in occupation. Many children were conceived from unions based upon love, but many more were born of sexual exploitation -- as a part of the spoils of war.

Is there really anyone out there who doesn't know in their hearts that we long ago broke through those walls of separation, and that any attempt at restoring or clinging to racial purity is beyond any hope of attainment?

Why, then, is there so much fear of miscegenation when it is a simple fact of life?

That being said ...

Photo: My granddaughter, Rosie, an example of poly-racialism. (See her blog under Creolebelle's weblog listed in the links above the archives.) Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey, Jessica Alba, Hallie Berry, and Keanu Reeves, Tiger Woods, all of my beautiful children and grandchildren, and a host of other public figures can be counted among the bi- and poly-racial population.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The last day of the Grand Adventure ...

There is no possible way to describe the past week's events and communicate what it was like. You've read all the obvious things already, of course. CNN, MSNBC, and the New York Times has covered it all. Never has an event been so completely reported. What more can be added? Except, that is, what my experience was like and what it meant to me. And, having said that -- how on earth can I ever get all that into mere words?

But I'm reminded that "words" are all we have, really, and an important part of my experience involved the utterance of no more than ten sentences that were returned to me yesterday in a PodCast that would surely deny the ineffectiveness of "mere words."

On Wednesday, the day after the ceremonies at the Capitol, Martha and I visited the National Park Service headquarters at the Department of the Interior. It provided an opportunity to see the heart of this huge system of parks, monuments, historic sites, and wilderness areas and to meet those who are the senior planners and administrators for the entire system. It was amazing!

During a visit to the public relations department a young woman entered the office to tell us that they were working on a PodCast of very brief interviews of park staff that would express reactions to the Inauguration and the NPS's participation in all that occurred. She asked if I would be willing to say a few words for their camera -- to add my impressions of the experience for their piece. Of course. With that she ducked out and returned a moment later with her equipment and -- in a matter of no more than perhaps ten sentences -- twenty at most -- I said my piece on the fly. No planning. No rehearsal. One take.

Yesterday I received a link to the NPS website where the completed PodCast has been placed with access to the entire NPS system. I was stunned!

Those "ineffectual" few words had been transformed with dramatic images that brought tears! It is beautiful, and true, and real, and wholly the work of creative and imaginative skilled technicians. It will be available at some point perhaps on the public pages. When I have the proper linkage I'll post it here. The title is The National Park Service - "Where History Happens."

I will never again underestimate the power of words nor the ability of media experts to interpret them with such sensitivity.

Tomorrow I'll try to begin to describe the week and what it meant to me -- this time with more of Martha's pictures to illustrate and the words that are beginning to form themselves in ways that just might do justice to the experience. After watching that lovely piece, I'll never again underestimate the power of the spoken word when enhanced by appropriate images.

I'll try... .

I must; for my family, at least.

Photos: Top left with Martha Lee, Superintendent of our 4-park consortium, Rosie the Riveter WWII/Home Front National Historical Park and Acting NPS Director, Dan Wenk.
Middle photo: I'm standing before a beautiful mural of Yosemite National Park that graces the entrance to the National Park Service Headquarters.