Sunday, September 19, 2010

Been procrastinating shamefully about a project that has been seething in the back of my mind for several years ... .

It has to do with a feature of the Home Front Festival that the NPS and partners will co-sponsor again this year.  This fourth annual festival will again celebrate the enormous contributions of the great civilian mobilization from the years 1941 through 1945. That historic period consumes my days as our park continues to evolve, and I with it.  One would think I'd have made peace with that world as we lived it then, but apparently not.  It takes little for those embers of outrage to billow into full flame as memories flare anew.

I've come to terms with my painful personal history as it relates to the home front narrative.  Facing  those conversations at the Rosie Memorial as we guide visitors through the plaques which so movingly etch that history into minds that have either never known it or have forgotten the complexity of the times, should have become routine by now.

On the evening of October 1st, the commemorative USO dance will be held in the Craneway of the historic Ford Building.  As before, it will feature a big band playing the songs of the times, and there will be re-enactors in full regalia -- and there will be little recalling of the fact that -- in a city with a black population of about 30% there will be few people of color among those attending. Remnants of racial hatred are still suspended over the City of Richmond and other inner cities like a pall, but for the most part, those ghosts go unrecognized by today's black communities except when reminded -- as in this instance.  We Americans will have all but forgotten that during WWII Black and White Americans did not socialize together even during "the war to save the world for democracy".  The USO as an organization was racially segregated.

What has this to do with me?  As it turns out, my discomfort with the concept of the USO has been stifled (by me).  It was filed away in that corner of my mind that always fell silent on the Pledge of Allegiance with the words, "...with liberty justice for all."  That is, until January 20, 2009 when they were finally given full voice at the presidential inauguraion.

I've not been involved in the planning meetings for the festival this year, and for that I've been grateful.  It was awkward to sit in the room with these gnawing feelings of being the only grownup in the room as the Chamber of Commerce-led committee planned its USO dance.  How could they not know?  How could anyone have forgotten that I could not have attended had I wanted to, or, that I would have had to attend the one across town where the black USO hostesses served punch and cookies to black servicemen and women? And that Glenn Miller's "Tuxedo Junction" or the Andrews Sister's "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy", brought no wartime memories of either patriotism or youthful exuberance.

I solved that by holding my silence and simply not attending after the first year.  But as with the Pledge, I was sure that others around me were unaware and that I needed to be forgiving -- and silent.

However, I've been asked to plan a tribute to Lena Horne for this year's event.  Lena Horne, who created one of the most memorable incidents of political activism long before such stories of black resistance were reported in the national press.  But Lena Horne also was one of the few African Americans with enough acclaim that she was invited to the Kaiser Richmond shipyards to star in the launching of the SS George Washington Carver, one of the 17 ships named for prominent African Americans.

But let her daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley tell you:

"A USO-sponsored junket to Camp Robertson, Arkansas, stopped Lena in her tracks  She was scheduled to give two performances, one for the white officers, and one for the black men.  She was surprised as she glanced out at the audience in the pre-show darkness at the second performance, however, to see the first two rows of white faces.  "Who are these soldiers," she asked.  "They're not soldiers, they're German war prisoners" was the reply.  "But where are the Negro soldiers?"  Lena asked.  "They're sitting behind the German POWs," was the answer.  To that Lena replied, "screw this!" and walked out of the auditorium to find her black driver and say, "Take me to the NAACP!"  The NAACP's lone Little Rock representative was a woman, Daisy Bates, future heroine of the 1950's Little Rock school crisis.  After Lena and Daisy Bates drafted a  statement of protest regarding Camp Robertson Lena returned to Hollywood and hot water.  She was censured by the USO and was kicked out but continued to visit black army bases at her own expense."
Have we really forgotten that Lena Horne was in Jackson, Mississippi, entertaining at a fundraiser for SNCC with Medgar Evers the night before he was fatally gunned down in the driveway of his home?

I've rarely been so torn.

I feel so honored to be chosen to help in the honoring of this no longer living beautiful and universally-celebrated artist (Antoinette Perry Award, the Drama Desk Award, the Critics Circle Award, the Handel Medallion, the Actor's Equity Paul Robeson Award, the Kennedy Center Honors, and the NAACPs Spingarn Medal, to name a few).

There will be a lovely young jazz singer, Robin Gregory, who will sing as "Lena," and there are suggestions of just how a display might be created to give an honest portrayal of this complex woman whose life was scarred by the limitations of her times (and ours); but I've not yet figured out just how that can be, or if, indeed,  this is the appropriate venue for honoring her life -- or the ironic sponsorship under the banner of the USO.  Or, if I'm the person to try to make whole in our times that which we barely survived during those painful years; or if anyone could?

'Tis a dilemma.

In preparation for this assignment I've read "The Horne's -- An American Story" by her daughter, and am starting to read another biography by James Gavin, "Stormy Weather," that may be helpful.  But time is running out, and  so far all that seems to be happening is that my anger and outrage are being refreshed.  At times I'm energized by these feelings, and at other times paralyzed by them.  Then there are times when I fear that those powerful emotions will consume me.

... but then I remember that it is this quiet rage, properly channeled, that fuels my work -- and perhaps it will this time, too.

Photo:  Top, Lena at one of the African American USOs.
             Bottom:  Taken at the launching of the SS George Washington Carver at the Kaiser Permanente Shipyards in 1944 which makes this event in Richmond an appropriate venue for bestowing a belated honor.