Monday, December 17, 2012

My friend, Lewis Watts, Professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz sent these great black and white photos of a jazz funeral at the Charbonnet Funeral Home and they begged to be shared ... .

... found myself wishing that he'd been along on this pilgrimage.  My photos are still in my camera, waiting for me to find the installation disc to free them from lock-up. I've acquired a new computer recently, and the software isn't able to make them accessible, so I've been scavenging whatever others have sent until Olympus or those Mac geniuses answer my calls for help!

Lew was reading my blog and it reminded him of the unforgettable experience of his first jazz funeral, so he sent his images along.  Hope he doesn't mind my sharing them.  They'll be included in his soon-to-be-published photo book on New Orleans life.

R.I.P. Uncle Lionel Batiste Funeral Fri, July 20, 2012

I want to share this amazing video. It almost defies logic, but is the work of my cousins at the Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home in New Orleans ... .

"Uncle" Elliott Batiste was an old jazz musician who's family decided that they wanted him to be standing up at his service (he was laid to rest in a casket the day after the viewing).  He was "second-lined" for 3 days after, according to my cousin Armand, co-director of the mortuary.

This is a fine example of cultural differences between white and black religious traditions.  There is little distance between the sacred and the profane in African American culture.  It's all a part of life and to be celebrated in the cultural language of the deceased.  The funeral procession with its somber dirge-like cadence of Amazing Grace contrasted with the spirited jazz once the procession reaches the Mahalia Jackson Auditorium in Congo Square is a fine example of this.   The traditional, "Oh didn't he ramble" is a favorite of the second-liners, and in the case of Uncle Elliott's funeral -- it's clear that every jazz musician in town was in that procession.   According to cousin Armand, "they second-lined him for 3 days!"

The Charbonnet brothers have never revealed how they managed to pull this one off, and it remains a mystery to this day.

We Charbonnets do rise to the challenges though, right?

Uncle Lionel Batiste's Last Stand

It occurred to me that new readers may need some context through which to catch up with my stories, thus the re-posting of "This is Us" ... .

This was produced about 3 years ago by PBS, and gives a fairly good portrait of my work with the National Park Service. 

This Is Us! Betty Soskin

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Musings on the 2012 WWII International Conference in New Orleans ... .

Thinking about that audience of WWII historians, authors, veterans, and descendants of that generation.  I've mentioned that I seem to have outlived my rage without losing my passion, and never has that been more true than now.

In the dark of evening -- long after we'd left Arnaud's restaurant in the French Quarter where the presenters had been wined and dined with elegance by our hosts -- the sorting out was well underway. Seated to my right was author historian, Nigel Hamilton, who wrote the definitive book on JFK: Reckless Youth and the authorized biography on Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, among others.  To my left, my co-presenter earlier in the evening, Jerry E. Strahan, author of Andrew Jackson Higgins and the Boats that Won World War II
I'd just been photographed standing with the grandson of General Omar Bradley, a tall distinguished kindly man of grace and humility.  These were the giants of that history; all men of great accomplishments.  I felt honored to be among them.  I've rarely experienced greater respect.  I was treated as an equal in every way.

I've mentioned that I was the only person of color among the 500 participants in the 2012 International Conference of the WWII Museum.  But the reasons were  obvious when I'd had time to give it some thought.  These were the descendants of WWII at a time -- 3 years before the desegregation of the Armed Forces by executive order from President Harry Truman.  That would not happen until 1948.  Separation of the races was clearly their reality, and it could hardly have been otherwise, given the seriously-flawed social system under which we were living at the time.  No one knows better than I of the importance of telling that story as it was lived in order to provide a baseline against which to measure how far we've come over the 70 years since.  Any revising of that history would rob us of the truth of what has been endured over time, and of the gains we've made in the process of making the much-needed corrections.  By re-visiting those years with eyes wide open, we can find the hope needed to complete the transformation to true democracy over the years ahead. 

When I started to speak on Friday evening, the first sentences that came to mind as I looked out at those white faces in the audience were, "... what gets remembered is a function of who's in the room doing the remembering." I repeated those words to provide emphasis -- as the truth of that experience rose to consciousness.

At the time  -- early in development of Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front Historical National Park --  I had to give up any notion that my story was omitted from history through some grand conspiracy.  My stories had simply slipped from memory through neglect.  There were no villains around the table of planners in the early stages of park development.  I was the only person of color in those days, acting as a field representative for a member of the State Assembly, and the only one with a memory bank that included so much of that forgotten history.  I recall how shocked I was upon realizing that we were about to create a national park that would enshrine sites of segregation, and that no one else was aware of it,  or had any reason to be.

It should be no surprise that these good folks of the WWII Conference had no awareness of the need to include the descendants of the Tuskegee Airmen, the highly-decorated 442nd Americans of Japanese descent -- in some cases drafted to serve out of relocation camps to fight the bloody battles in Italy; the heroic All Black tank battalion, the 761st, that fought so valiantly under General George Patton in the invasion of Germany.  Were they included, that room would have looked very different.  But whatever places of honor that have been established to honor their service are still separated by the racial barrier from the mainstream -- as represented by the WWII Museum.

... and I saw no villains in that ballroom, either.  Just an unknowing of the need to present the complexity of those times, and that by sacrificing that complexity, they've omitted a substantial portion of "Truth."

Photo:  by Sandra Colomb
My father, Dorson Louis Charbonnet
About that anger sensed by cousin Paul as the first words of my speech began to form ...

Earlier in the day I'd visited the Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home on Claiborne and St. Phillips with my first cousin, Armand Charbonnet.  He is a co-director with his brother, former Louisiana State Senator, Louis Charbonnet.  They are both among the notables of the Creole world of New Orleans.  Together, they are the  team known for the legendary jazz funerals of New Orleans.  This impressive family enterprise was established in 1893, and has survived even Katrina, when it was inundated by 4 feet of flood waters.

He'd gathered me up at the WWII Museum on that day for a lunch of stuffed shrimp at Dookie Chase restaurant in the 7th Ward -- where there were huge photos of both President Obama seated at a table feasting on one of the specialties of the house, and George W. Bush doing the same.  This was storybook New Orleans Creole cuisine with art-to-die-for hung from the walls of the newly-restored building; post-Katrina.

Grandfather, Louis Charbonnet
During the visit I learned the answer to a question I'd wondered about all of my life.  Why on earth was I born in Detroit, Michigan?  My parents were both from families firmly-rooted in New Orleans, yet both my sister, Marjorie, and I came into the world in Detroit.

Armand:  "It was awful! Your daddy, Dorson, was working on a job with our father when a white man approached with a question for your grandfather.  Now -- as was the custom that no black man ever addressed a white person by their first name, and only by the surname.  On the other hand, no white man ever addressed a black person by their last name."

On that particular day, the white man spoke to my proud grandfather and in so doing called him, "Louie."  On that note my equally proud father, Dorson, called him on it saying, "... do you know who you're talking to?  And followed the impertinent question by using the forbidden first name of the offender.

click to enlarge
"Our father had to rush him out of the State, and to Detroit where your mother had relatives (the Breaux/Allens) until it was safe to come home."  That must have been in about 1917 and my mother was probably pregnant with my sister, Marjorie.  I was born 4 years later in 1921, and we returned to New Orleans shortly thereafter when my grandfather's health failed and the end was in sight.  My father joined with his brothers to complete work on St. John de Bertrand's Convent, for the first Order of Black Nuns in this country -- the Sisters of the Holy Family.

These photos tell the story, I believe.  I'm not sure there were ever two more prideful and handsome men.  The little business card served as my grandfather's resume, I suppose, and provides a picture of his eminence in the community.  He was a legend in his time.

Hearing this unknown ('til now) story just before having to face that audience of white faces in that grand ballroom of the Astor Crowne Plaza -- in the place where it had all happened -- was almost unbearable.  I stuffed it down into a corner of my brain until I could get through my speech, then cried myself to sleep upon reaching my room that night.  It was only in realizing the full impact of how much the human condition has changed with the times, and that some of the angst and hurt could be washed away by the triumph of the event in the grand ballroom earlier in the evening, that I was able to "let it go," and continue to exalt in the present.

Tomorrow cousin Paul and his wife, Shirley, who were my hosts on this trip -- would take me to St. Louis cemetery where we would locate the tomb of our ancestor-in-common, Amable Charbonnet, b. 1790 d. 1833, and reset our personal histories to take us into the future in truth.

More to come ... .

Challenges of entering WWII examined

Challenges of entering WWII examined

Down the rabbit hole once more ...

Where does one start?  Maybe with the culminating event of the WWII International Conference at the Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel on Canal Street -- just outside the French Quarter.  Yes, we'll work our way from there:

After three days of presentations by eminent scholars and historians from a list that boggles the mind, plus noted authors and military experts from every branch of the service, and all of them male save one -- a Holocaust survivor who was interviewed by her son.  I had just about overdosed on "The War!"  In order to see the presenters in the grand ballroom (500 attendees), we had to peer through a veil of testosterone dense enough to obscure  all but the most obvious.  And the most obvious was that there were no other people who looked like me in that audience.  Only the hotel maids, bellhops, clerks behind the reception desk, and other assorted service staff were African American.   But it was also true that there were some hotel guests of color at the time, just not connected with the Conference.

I was reminded that it wasn't all that long ago that my relatives could only be admitted to such a hotel in the city of New Orleans through the back entrance, and only if they were providing a service or making a delivery.  That's a kind of progress, right?

...but this was the third day of the Conference, and my presentation would occur between 5:00 and 6:00 that evening.  I would share the lectern with Dr. Jerry Strahan, author of a book on Higgins Industries, and a charming and very personable man -- who gave me an autographed copy of his book on the French Quarter at the end of the evening.  The inscription is to be treasured.  Higgins was the New Orleans version of our Henry J. Kaiser, but he built PT boats.   I was later to learn from my first cousin, Armand Charbonnet, that 3 of my uncles had worked for Higgins on those boats.  They were super craftsmen.

With Omar Bradley Beukema, grandson of General Omar Bradley
As usual, I'd prepared nothing and there were no meticulously-ordered notes to lead the way -- only whatever truth I could bring to the surface in the moment.  I've learned over the years with the National Park Service to trust my memory in combination with an innate ability to read audiences.  But this was "prime time,"  after all Tom Brokaw had been among the presenters in 2011.  Whatever was I thinking?  I felt a moment of panic as Jerry Strahan brought his prepared sheaf of papers to the lectern and preceded my talk with 25 minutes of well-delivered facts about his subject.  I would depend upon my inner clock to tell me when to stop talking, and (hopefully) the words would come when summoned.

As the applause ended for Strahan, I walked to the lectern and stood silently for what seemed an eternity while waiting for the thoughts to get organized like metal shavings against a magnet.  I opened with the fact that I was a 20 year-old file clerk in a Jim Crow Union hall in Richmond, California; that I'd not ever seen a ship under construction, but that being a clerk was a step up from the only opportunities available to me as a woman of color -- working in agriculture, or, as a domestic servant.  (Later cousin Paul Charbonnet told me that I sounded angry during those first few sentences of my talk.)

I'd brought along "Lost Converations" my little 4-minutes video created with NPS Ranger Naomi Torres, in the early days of my service.  I'd handed it to the technicians prior to my presentation, but it felt like overkill, so I didn't give the signal at the point where it was to be inserted into the program.  By the silence in the room, and the looks on the faces as the words began to flow -- in much the way it does in our little theater in my afternoon talks -- we were as one.  There were suddenly no strangers in that vast room.  The magic was at hand.  And, as usual, it was an overwhelming experience, and I felt that I stopped more abruptly than intended as I realized how fully engaged they were, and of my obligation to fill the silence with meaning.

... then the thunderous applause, and the rising from the chairs in a standing ovation that still rings in my ears in the silence of the night.

But that's only the beginning ... .