Friday, June 05, 2009

Where is film director Robert Altman now that we're ready for him ? (Oh yes ... I'd forgotten) ... .

Some years ago an email arrived from a member of the white Charbonnet clan -- a branch of the family I'd not ever expected to hear from. I think it's probably fair to say that they simply never existed for me. It's like ... we have no black ancestors prior to the dropping of the slave curtain around the time of the Civil War, and no white descendants since. Funny. An illusion but quite real; defying logic. I suspect that this is a common and perhaps defensive attitude among African American families, but I don't recall ever discussing it with anyone.

Paul was writing to confirm something I'd written in my blog about the casual nature of the family relationships that existed between his (white) father and my (colored Creole) dad's younger brother, Louis. Both were contractors working throughout the city of New Orleans. My father and his seven brothers followed in the footsteps of their talented father, the highly-respected elder Louis Charbonnet, inventor, millwright and builder of note in the city. Many of the Creole Charbonnet men were expert craftsmen and had been for generations. Paul wasn't sure, but felt the story likely. He certainly was aware of our side of the family. In later generations Uncle Louis's eldest son, another Louis, would enter the Louisiana legislature as a state senator which must have brought more prominence to the family. But my dad, Dorson, had settled our family here on the West Coast long before that happened, as the result of the great flood of 1927 which followed the bombing of the levees.

Unknown to me, Paul has apparently been following my blog for years, and had become familiar with the genealogical work that I'd completed and posted online. Since the family tree (under the Betty Soskin Pages link) tracked ancestors whom we shared over many generations (since the 1600s). The family story must have become more important to him over time. Our Creole branch emerges in the mid-1800s when a member of the family (said to have been trapped in an unhappy marriage) left his wife and chose a woman of color as his mate. Their union produced 9 children; children who were obviously educated and trained and none of whom were enslaved. Uncovering that history proved to be difficult but finally -- through Lisa, a researcher in Atlanta, surfaced from some arcane code of silence created by the taboos associated with crossing color lines. She somehow managed to break through it while doing some research for another member of our family whom I've also never met.

All that is to say that a few days ago Paul's note came suggesting that we unite the black and white branches of our families by bringing my genealogical work onto a new all-inclusive family website which he would maintain. I was stunned! I am also wildly pleased since I'd always intended that my work might become the foundation upon which others would eventually edit, correct for errors, build upon, and continue the research into the future.

After many generations of Charbonnets descending from two brothers who arrived on this continent at a time before the Louisiana Purchase, for the first time since before the Civil War -- we will come together to begin the work of becoming one family. Through the wonders of technology, we can do that virtually, and -- in time perhaps ... .

I've been lying awake the past two nights dreaming of the possibility of having an interactive website designed in such a way that Charbonnet descendants in all of their permutations can sign themselves in in some way and become known to one another. There are by now hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of us scattered through the country and the world.

The exciting prospect is that Paul, his wife, and I, will meet -- symbolically uniting our historic American family across the lines of racial separation -- in San Francisco, perhaps soon. He suggested that possibility in our last exchange, and I am thrilled!

We're moving quickly to bring the new website into being. It will be linked to these pages, of course, but will take on a life of its own.

Life continues to unfold -- and to grow into wherever our colorful Charbonnet past will continue to lead us -- but perhaps now it will be -- as the one great American family that we are.

Photo: My father, Dorson Louis Charbonnet, 1894-1987; My grandfather, Louis Charbonnet, Sr. (died in 1924)

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Life is moving by at such an accelerated pace that I think of things I must write about and before I can reach my computer 3 new even more exciting events are taking place ... .

First, there was a bus tour last weekend that brought together assorted folks from near and far (3 from Tucson, Arizona). It was the first tour I'd conducted for months -- not since we'd been overwhelmed with so many requests that we eventually found ourselves staring at a wait list of over 400 enthusiastic "tourists." Until about a year ago I'd been conducting interpretive tours with partners, but rarely alone. My work mostly consisted of the taking reservations and recording confirmations, etc., and going along as a kind of specialist on the African American nuances while Lucy or Naomi would mainly carry the interpretation. My work has recently become more and more centered in public speaking and community outreach.

At one point we were discovered by the press and several prominent stories appeared in the dailies and the race was on! We are so young in our development at this point that we simply lacked sufficient staff to accommodate the numbers we were attracting. Our little 15-passenger bus has to serve the four sites that operate under one management team and sharing it and a single driver became too much to cope with.

Over the past year our staff has grown a bit, and with new edges opening up -- we're going to try again. Though the respite may be short-lived since one of my tours this week, on Tuesday, was arranged at the request of the San Mateo PBS affiliate, KTEH, that brought a 4-person film crew to shoot the tour plus an on-camera interview that will be one 9-10 minute segment among others -- in a one-hour production being developed to accompany this fall's Ken Burns 12-hour special on the National Parks.

It was an intensive 5 hour period of being "on," but I do admit that I seem to be getting the hang of this D-List celebrity thing. I was relatively relaxed throughout, though really really tired when evening came. There's an emotional component to these things, I think. Kind of like that old primitive suspicion that the camera actually drains life from its subjects (the old theft of image thing). There may be something to that after all. I don't recall feeling particularly strained during the filming, but at the end of the day ... .

During the long day I became reacquainted with something I'd almost forgotten: It is that this park, unlike others in the NPS system owns nothing. It exists in the partnerships and relationship with the City, the Chamber of Commerce, local corporations and businesses, nonprofits and County entities. That being so, it's a park more closely related to people and their stories than to the sites and structures scattered throughout the city and named in the legislation. Richmond resembles Lowell, Massachusetts, in that respect. Lowell, also a waterfront town, was the home of the long-abandoned textile mills. Richmond holds the greatest number of WWII still-standing mostly abandoned structures in the nation through which to interpret the story of the emancipation of women, and the story of the greatest wartime industrial mobilization in the nation's history. Both cities were wounded by the passage of time and catastrophic technological change. Lowell has been reclaimed as a successful National Park site brought to live again as a performing and visual arts center. The city itself, is "the park."

What I rediscovered over the past week is how true it is that this park will be built one story at-a-time and that those stories are evoked in conversations as people remember fragments of the lives of their elders now gone. Each time something precious is revealed and another "park co-builder" emerges -- someone who promises to go home and root around in those old trunks and attics for more stories and artifacts. After each tour the calls and emails arrive telling me about a book I should read or deepening my knowledge about one or more of the sites we visited on our tour.

I learned, for instance, that Brooks Islands which stands only a stone's throw from the shoreline and -- which I've been describing as "the little island previously owned by Bing Crosby and Vic Bergeron (of Trader Vic's restaurants), and had been stocked with wild life to be used for target practice." I learned on Tuesday that this little island is not only a wildlife preserve owned and managed the East Bay Regional Park District (I knew that), but that it is also an important archealogical site, has a 3000 year-old history and was an important Ohlone Indian site. I learned that a retired researcher who engaged in digs there is now my age and living within the city still. ( did not know that.) Mr. George Coles may prove to be an important resource in the telling of the stories of this emerging national park. Brooks Island lies within a short kayak distance from the shores where our under-development Visitor's Center is located. It should be completed by the end of next year.

On a schedule a bit ahead of the park's, I think I've grown into my role now, and the work has taken on an importance and vitality that is truly rewarding.

Maybe that is worth filming, maybe.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Been musing a lot about bi-racialism since the Channel 5 panel discussion was aired recently ... .

Find myself wondering why that discussion continues to have resonance into the 21st century when humankind has been creating mixed race people since before recorded history?

We continue to talk about us as though we're some dire condition that will befall the human race in some future millenium when we've been here evolving all the time! Certainly since tribes invaded other tribes has this been true. Any place on the planet where armies have occupied lands and dominated populations, mixed-race children have been the outcome. Since long before the Trojans Wars to the present this has been true. The Eurasian and Amerasian children born of WWII and Vietnam can be seen everywhere throughout Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia. In this country the slave trade produced millions of us; some from obvious sexual exploitation but a great many from courageous and often defiant young people willing to cross unimportant lines of separation for the sake of love and being together despite societal taboos.

The wonder for me is just why we continue to be seen as an aberration rather than the natural outcome of mobility and social progress? Though tanning salons are still the ultimate in luxury and bronze skin tones most desired by many Europeans, those of us without tan lines are suspect. When cosmetic surgeons are artificially thickening lips to emulate black features there is cause for wonder. At a time when there are actually lip puffer-uppers on the market for those unable to afford silicone treatments. This proved silliest when one day recently I purchased what I thought was lip gloss and got one of the lip enhancers instead. I stayed in the house most of that day -- laughing at myself -- while waiting for the swelling to go down and the slight tingling to dissipate.

Yes. There are some conversations that need to happen in order to free ourselves of some of the hypocrisy that marks our lives and may be preventing the normalizing of relations between the races.

My awareness was sharpened this week when I underwent some comprehensive blood work in connection with my annual physical. When the results came back there was one that gave the results with a racial designation (something called glomerular filtration rate, African American). At this point in my racial complexity how in the world does my physical body make that political distinction? How does one read that test result? Now that's the kind of conversation that we need to be having with our physicians, right? For the sake of my beautiful polyracial grandchildren, I'm planning to do that soon. My politics do not follow me into the examination room, nor will theirs.

Photo: Two of my grandchildren, Tamaya and Alyana, who exemplify our world as it has always been; made up of beautiful mixed children born of love and grace.