Saturday, June 27, 2009

Bless all ye saints and sinners! I'm a published author with a cover article yet ... !

I'd almost forgotten it was out there ... the piece written for the California Historian last spring. But this weekend was the annual gathering of the Conference of California Historical Societies this year held in Martinez. The issue was printed and distributed " time for everyone to have a chance to read it before our visit to Rosie the Riveter National Park today," (according to editor, Mary Ellen Jones -- formerly of the University of California's Bancroft Library). And here were all 6 pages in fine print -- with pictures -- of the article I'd had so much trouble editing for space! All 6 pages! The editors didn't lay a glove on it except to improve the headings a bit -- and give it a better title.

You have no idea how honored I felt last night seated at the head table with President and Mrs. Richard Kimball, Ms. Jones, Ms. Andrea Bachman, my NPS colleague and archivist Carola DeRooey and husband, John, -- just like a "regullah" author with a resumé and bio and all.

Not only that, but during the lovely dinner Ms. Jones reached past my wine glass to slip into my hand a brochure and what appeared to be a press release for an about-to-be-published book by a noted author saying, "... Betty, I have the dummy copy of this new book in my car, and was wondering if you'd be interested in reading it and writing a review for me?" It is being published by HeyDay Books (publication date October, 2009), a publisher of progressive California authors. I remembered that Elaine Elinson, communications director of the ACLU of Northern California, was a guest on one of the bus tours I'd guided a few years ago with Ranger Lucy Lawliss -- and how enthusiastic she'd been about the experience. I also read the short paragraphs from two other reviewers, Dr. Robert Allen, author of The Port Chicago Mutiny and actor Mike Farrell, a leader in the anti-death penalty movement. Pretty impressive company to be in, right? This was a serious proposal being requested of Betty Reid Soskin, newly-acknowledged somewhat over-ripe fledgling author at the absolute top edge of life.

Wherever There's a Fight
How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers, and Poets
Shaped Civil Liberties in California

Elaine Elinson and Stan Yogi, co-authors

Looks like my kind of folks, right?

Never has "better late then never" held more meaning than now.

The magazine is a limited edition that I believe is distributed mainly within the organization and perhaps to history museums and libraries, but I've been given multiple copies for our NPS staff. This issue also carries a fine article about one of our other parks, the John Muir National Historical Park, so it becomes a twofer for us.

This Saturday morning I will not wash clothes and match socks. This is a day to do something of relative significance. Maybe Dorian and I will take a trip over to the new Aquarium in Golden Gate Park. Been intending to do that for some time -- and this is the day to reward myself in some meaningful way. There's no better way to rein in one's ego than to bear witness to the wonders of the natural world; especially in watching such wondrous life forms as giant jellyfish and/or watching synchronized schools of silvery smelt slithering silently through the water in their primordial dance ... . Been thinking about that since Tom and I chatted recently -- mulling over the possibility of a visit there before my work schedule intervened, again ... .

Now I'll call my daughter to see if she'd like to go out and play with me today. No one will be able to see my invisible C-List badge of celebrity, but I'll know it's there on my lapel. Maybe I'll even wear my celebratory hand-painted Dorrie-designed happy jeans. (You'll notice that I've moved myself up a notch from the D-List.)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

During a long conversation this morning with Jerome Smith, community activist and poet ...

I recalled what I now recognize as a remarkable story from years ago:

My friend, Joan Adams Brann, had received a federal grant to conduct a drug prevention program in our South Berkeley neighborhood. Joan's program was actually kicked off by an invitation to Washington where she met with First Lady Nancy Reagan who named the program, "Just Say No." Remember?

Joan had recently returned from an amazing adventure -- having been named as the head of the State Department Reception Center in San Francisco by President Jimmy Carter early in his term of office. After he left office Joan served for several years as head of an African Institute in Washington, D.C. This would be her return to South Berkeley, the community where she'd grown up. She'd come home.

By this time I was sole proprietor of Reid's Records, the little business Mel and I created years before in an area that had since become a hotbed of poverty and criminal activity. The streets were filled day and night with young hustlers pushing drugs and old men feeding on their misadventures.

There were often RV's parked along the street in which gambling was openly being conducted and prostitution was probably being pretty broadly practiced. It was a scary place to be -- yet here I was, attempting to conduct a legitimate business in the heart of the drug trade. It was crazy! Not only that, but I'd invited my friend, Joan, to move her newly-funded drug prevention program for kids into a corner office in my building and she'd accepted.

Loni Hancock was mayor at the time, and South Berkeley was the political football that got kicked around every four years as each local politician opened their campaigns by coming down to this small yet infamous crime-ridden mostly black community to make grand promises, usually to order up new studies of just how to bring peace and order to those who had no choice but to live within its borders. Though it would be on Loni's watch that the rehabilitation of the community started under Mayor Gus Newport would be completed. I strongly suspected that almost every urban area like ours gets used as a magnet for federal moneys that go into the general fund never to be expended as promised. If it were ever to be actually cleaned up, the magnet would be lost so the problems of the inner city tend to be perpetually "studied" and never really addressed. Such thoughts are cynical surely; but with a strong suspicion that they were more true than not.

The office was newly-painted and furniture moved in with bright posters in the windows and on the walls. Joan would run films for the neighborhood kids; provide activities of all sorts, and see if she could put a dent in the fatal draw of the negative street activity. It was a brave attempt doomed from the start.

Saturday would be the grand opening with punch and cookies and introductions all around. Joan's stature insured that the town's political figures would surely attend. I was determined that we would make this work. For several days I walked up and down Sacramento Street personally delivering colorful printed invitations. I approached everyone in sight; some I knew by name but most were strangers. The streets were always teeming with activity and every street corner and storefront was populated with those idle from lack of employment and few alternatives. I was greeted with both surprise and pleasure.

I think that it's fair to say that most "uptown" folks avoided this part of the city as much as possible, and that the mayor probably as much as anyone -- and for good reason.

Saturday came and the party was scheduled for about two o'clock. At about noon the streets began to clear. By one o'clock there was not a single soul within sight. It was as if someone has gone along the street and spread the word that Miss Betty was expecting company and things needed to straighten up. This was in no way anticipated; a total surprise to me.

By the time the mayor's entourage and other dignitaries arrived, Sacramento Street and the folks who hung out there were invisible. Apparently those invitations were accepted gratefully. The community had gone home and gussied themselves up and at two o'clock they began to arrive in family groups. They were dressed for church -- women were all prettied up and men were freshly-shaved and dressed in Sunday best. Little girls were wearing lace-topped bobby socks and ribbons in their hair. It was impossible to tell that these were the same people we'd been seeing every day partying in doorways and peddling drugs.

I remember wondering at the time if the hundreds of thousands of dollars paid out to clean up neighborhoods and fight crime can ever equal simply inviting everybody to the party? I thought about that today while Jerome Smith and I were exploring just how we would go about reclaiming the Wisdom Tree site and bringing it back to a place where those who gather there can do so in the spirit of the past -- when it was an important male bonding site for perhaps 100 years of Richmond's colorful history? When did we stop seeing those rituals as socializing and begin to view them as places of loitering? It surely can't be anything so simple as the fact that the skin colors of those men changed from white to black and brown over the decades?

It can't be anything so simplistic as that. I'm far too smart to believe such nonsense -- but there's the germ of something important here that may have been overlooked ... .

Next week Jerome and I will meet again and by that time maybe I'll have fleshed this out into some kind of workable ... .

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Are the spirits of the ancestors doing cartwheels in St. Louis Cemetery?

Word arrived midweek that -- due to a critical illness of someone dear to them -- our newly-discovered Charbonnet cousins have had to cancel their trip to the West Coast in July. I am devastated! Had already sent out word to local members of the family to expect an invitation to a no-host reception at a picturesque hotel in San Francisco. Everyone was psyched up for the grand reunification of the Charbonnets across the racial divide. But it is not to be; at least not yet.

When the message came I felt cheated -- who knows just how much longer I'll be around to see this miracle occur? I so want it in to happen in my time!

After sitting with the disappointment for a few days, Sunday morning I searched through my e-mailbox for the contact information he'd sent earlier -- picked up the telephone and dialed the number -- that of not-yet-met Paul in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Suddenly his voice was on the line and it all felt so natural; as if we'd been friends for a lifetime. "But you sound like someone in her twenties," says he in disbelief. Not sure what he expected, but surely not the sound of my voice.

We chatted like old friends and when the conversation ended I was sure of one thing. That we will meet when the time is right. That his emergency situation will end and that when it does -- either here or there -- the "Twain shall meet"!

In the dark later just before sleep, I visualized the white Charbonnet ancestors slipping out of their shrouds and their eerie above-ground vaults in St. Louis Cemetery to dance in celebration that (for the moment at least) the separation twixt the family's white and brown branches would hold. I can only imagine that the brown Charbonnet ancestors were clinging tightly to their crypts -- wondering just what kind of mojo was operating that would have allowed these upstart generations to believe such a thing to be possible anyway? After all, you know what happened to Plessye v. Ferguson, right? ... and right there in New Orleans.

Well, there's been a reprieve. Maybe they're expecting that we'll sober up and come to our senses now that there's been a break in the proceedings. Perhaps we were catapulting toward this in-gathering cavalierly with little thought of what it all means. Perhaps a little reverence here is in order.

I say time is on our side, and that the great Charbonnet clan will rise to the occasion and begin to do some serious planning about just how we'll bring this historic American family into the 21st century, together, disquieted ancestors notwithstanding. It's a serious undertaking, and one that deserves serious consideration. We must come to this willingly and with openness. That we all won't be ready for this step at the same time is a given. Some will need more time to ponder the over-turning of centuries of cultural mores and attitudes. Some will embrace the concept but find that they're simply not emotionally ready for the leap. All in good time. After all, we've been on this journey on parallel tracks for more than 300 years. A few more months can't matter all that much.

I'm so looking forward to wherever these first steps lead ... .

Maybe Paul and I will play drum major for awhile until the parade begins to form behind us.

I'm giddy with anticipation!

Photo: St. Louis Cemetery grave in the Tremé

Sunday, June 21, 2009

It's so hard to know how or when it will happen ... .

...that tiny spark that springs from mid-air from friend-to-friend and ignites the creative energy that always seems to be waiting in the spaces between ...

This time it was a casual conversation with my friend and author, Summer Brenner, Berkeley writer and all-around good person who has worked -- often as a volunteer -- in the Richmond and Berkeley schools and nonprofit programs for many years supporting the teaching of literacy. We were talking about the Wisdom Tree* that has stood proudly through many generations of Richmond's children and whose story is almost completely unknown; except for some of the men of the community who have been meeting in its shade for more than a century. Says I to Summer, "you should write a book about the Wisdom Tree for the children." Answers Summer, " ... perhaps I'll do that."

The last time we worked together was on another Summer-created project called "Where I'm From". This was a program conducted at Richmond High School that paired elders with teens and which I'm sure I've written about before (try the search bar). It was an imaginative project that ended up as a major exhibit featured at the Richmond Museum of History. The show is now making its way around the Greater Bay Area to be enjoyed by a wider audience, and most deservedly.

So said, at the book-signing yesterday -- Summer looked over to where I was perched on a library table along the side wall against the windows -- and in answer to a child's question about how she came to write Tales -- "... my friend, Betty, asked me to write about the Wisdom Tree and I wrote a note to myself on a little slip of paper; and over the months have been adding other little notes on little slips of paper about Richmond -- and finally I ended up with this book,

"Richmond Tales - Lost Secrets of the Iron Triangle,"
with illustrations by Miguel Perez.

(from the brochure)

Richmond Tales, written for 4th and 5th graders, is sure to appeal to a wider audience as the characters learn the history of Richmond, experience cultural differences, and explore the possibilities of Richmond's future. Literature rarely reflects the local experiences of our students in the West Contra Costa County Unified School District. This book seeks to provide relevancy and strengthen students' connection to the community. Undoubtedly, the story reaffirms that our community is powerful and that our students' potential is unlimited."

Funded by: CreativeWorkFund

The book was supported by the school district which purchased 5000 copies to be distributed to all of the fourth and fifth graders throughout the district. Yesterday the library was filled to overflowing with youngsters and their parents listening intently to Summer reading in her warm southern drawl and clutching their copies for autographing later with the lemonade. A big day in the Iron Triangle of Richmond, California.

The book -- through the protagonists, pre-teens Mario and Maisha, through a kind of time capsule trip through the history of this community-- the now decaying historic core of the city (but undergoing rehabilitation) -- from the 2000 years-ago era of the Ohlone Indians when this part of the city was largely made up of hills and wetlands; of the early settlers of the wealthy early Californios, the Mexican and Spanish ranchers; of Rosie the Riveter and the boom of WWII, (and, yes, there is a chapter on the Wisdom Tree), to today as a place of racial and cultural diversity moving quickly to a new 21st Century Green Economy. It's personal yet universal in its themes, and empowering to the lives of young children living in these times of uncertainty and fear so much of the time in a community under constant threat of violence.

And -- buried in one of the chapters is the original thesis, my "Wisdom Tree." It deserves its own book, I insist. A sequel? Meanwhile, this is a truly exciting outcome to just another ordinary conversation between friends.

(*post of Friday, August 25, 2006)