Thursday, October 21, 2010

Overwhelmed ... .

A week ago Friday, on my schedule was a bus tour of 18 for whom I'd planned the first of a specially-designed route with which to tell the Japanese/American WWII home front story.  It was one of two tours planned as a part of the 1st Blossoms & Thorns series that would feature a month-long schedule of events that would bring into focus the internment stories -- not for the Japanese/American community but with them.  A combined planning group which included the Richmond Art Center, the City of Richmond's Arts Commission, the Japanese American Historical League, and the National Park Service.  We'd spent several weeks working out the exhibits, film series, reception, and an exhibit featuring the work of 4 local photographers whose exquisite photos of the now-abandoned greenhouses with roses cascading out of broken rooftops are a haunting reminder of the tragedy of both the lost cut-flower industry that thrived in this city for over 100 years, and of those families whose lives were so fractured by WWII.  The descendants of those families returned and remain in the area since that time.

That tour started at 9:30 and lasted until noon, and presented the opportunity for me to begin what we hope will be the beginnings of bus tours that are culturally-specific.  My passion for the telling of the African American experience during the war years often dominates my interpretive efforts -- and this was my chance to grow beyond my limits.  It went fairly well -- my driver was able to follow my carefully-drawn new route -- and the tour was completed in the two-and-a-half-hours allotted time.

Unfortunately, it was not the end of my day -- nor was it my only tour that day.  For the first time, I'd booked a second tour in order to accommodate a family of 9 visitors from out of state -- the descendants of an historic figure who had launched one of the Victory ships in the Kaiser Shipyards in 1943.  These were two great grandsons (now white-haired) who were presenting the photographic collection of the launching to our collections and wanting to visit the site that meant so much to their family.  They were just little boys in the photos.  These were the descendants of John Swett, remembered as the father of public education.  It was their great grandmother who wielded the champagne bottle as great grandfather stood by proudly!

I'd somehow forgotten that -- unlike trained interpreters or formal historians -- I'm not drawing from a bank of acquired knowledge, but am taking visitors into my own past and sharing my own history on these tours.  Each one is improvised and dependent upon what comes up for me at any one time.  Because it's conversational and interactive, it varies in content -- with basic facts woven in and out of the narrative, but always digging deep into an often painful past that is shared black history.

What had escaped me until that day was that there is an emotional component to my work that I'd never noticed.  The combination of that and the actual physical demands of doing two tours with only an hour's down time served to completely drain all of the energy from my body, and left me feeling tearful and emotionally spent.

The second of the Blossoms & Thorns bus tours will happen on this Saturday.  It has not only filled to capacity, but there is a waiting list for another as yet unscheduled tour.

I'm certain that there are Japanese/American volunteer interpreters who can work with me on future tours who are as passionate about the narratives of their lives as I am for the untold stories of the African/American experience.  The thought that I might find one or more such presenters among these visitors one day is an exciting prospect.  I'll be watching and listening.  I believe that's the key.

But two tours in one day?  Never again.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

I suppose it just a matter of coincidence, but I woke this morning wondering ...

Several years ago while blogging I thought that I'd created the phrase "extraordinary ordinary people" to describe those who -- during WWII -- dropped their hoes in the cotton fields of the South; left the soup lines of the depression; piled families into whatever conveyance they could find to drive through southern dust storms; hopped freight trains to ride toward an unknown future to build those ships and planes for their country in time of national peril.  It was my feeling that the times brought -- not so much those considered "leaders" -- but the "7 at home for each 1 on the battlefield" who had never been properly recognized -- and whose contribution is now honored by the creation of Rosie the Riveter WWII/Home Front National Historical Park that I'm now helping to shape along with many others of the National Park System.

Perhaps Ms. Rice is reading this journal, perhaps not.  If we chose the same phrase for different reasons -- it would not be surprising.  Words are interpreted in countless ways. and perhaps her family can be described by this language.  I'm really not sure since serving as Secretary of State and growing up -- even under the limiting conditions of a relatively privileged member of a southern black family -- would qualify her to describe herself under my definition.  But then I may trying to expropriate words that have many meanings.  Slipping them into the search bar of Google made that quite clear.

When I first chose them as an apt description for that heroic generation of ordinary working-class Americans, they were accompanied by trumpets only I could hear.  They were so right.  They've become laden with more and more meaning over time -- as they've become a part of my story-telling on the bus tours.  By now they've developed a patina that sparkles with originality of a kind that only those songs that I composed at an earlier time share.  For me, they are succinct and poetic, and I do love them.

But maybe Secretary Rice's experience in choosing the title of her new autobiography was similar.  I'd hate to think that it was her editor who gave her book its title after a cursory search for something befitting -- and that my phrase, "extraordinary ordinary people" was simply deemed coldly marketable.

I do wish Ms. Rice's reviews were more glowing, but they're tepid at best.  Maybe it would have been wiser to not have stopped the writing just prior to the Bush Florida re-election debacle.  But, as a woman whose trajectory followed the highest arc of power in American politics, I need to read more than the reviews.  I'll order the book tomorrow.

However Pulitzer prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson's "The Warmth of Other Suns" is an absolute must-read.  It is a classic page-turner that I couldn't put down for the 3 days it took to read it (one of the reasons I wasn't blogging recently.)