Saturday, December 27, 2014

Blessings ...

This amazing work was produced by my daughter, Dorian.  Though developmentally disabled, she is confirmed in her sincere belief that her full identity is that of "artist."

This piece measures 22" x 29" and is in pen and ink, black and white.  The level of expertise developed over the years is evident here in the depth, shading, layering of images, and deserves framing and a place on the wall of my living-room beside the work of the professionals that I've managed to collect over those same years.  She found her soul through the self-esteem acquired from exposure to the outstanding artist instructors (ceramics, textile work, painting, drawing, etc.) who've devoted their lives and careers to working with "outsider" artists who share life at Richmond's National Institute for Artists and Disabilities (NIAD). 

I'm off to the art shop on Telegraph Avenue to have it matted and framed  for posterity!

Were it not for such balancing features to life on earth, I don't believe I'd want to wake up tomorrow morning ... but with such blessings to be searched out and treasured ... we'll settle for at least a few more eternities!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Does aging give one the power to see the patterns of the past ... to connect the dots?

 ... or am I simply suffering from one of the delusions of the onset of dementia?  It all seems so clear to me.

In this most recent resurgence of yet another pulsation in the centuries-old struggle for human rights   being witnessed on our streets, am I the only one making the connection between our never-ending military adventures across the world and what is happening between law enforcement and a disproportionate number of young black men in our country?

Is it because we're not looking deeply enough at those connections?

Can we not see that for decades now -- ever since WWII -- we've been engaged in small and large wars across the world, and that we've systematically been turning our youth into killers?

And, upon their return to civilian life we've been giving our war veterans preferential hiring into our law enforcement agencies in every city in every state.  They've been seen as prize catches since they've been seen as pre-trained to the keeping of the peace in our cities, protecting privileged Americans from the perceived enemy -- young black males who've never been fully integrated into the greater society.  Many of whom have criminal records before they've reached their 21st birthday due to drug convictions or unfair conditions that limit opportunities for a good life.

In recent years we've been arming our veterans with more and more surplus military equipment, super-vehicles, uniforms, armaments, and turning them loose with many still suffering from PTSD or  perhaps insufficient retraining for civilian life due to a failing mental health systems.   

Given the systemic racial biases that have never been mitigated -- remember, we've never truly processed the Civil War -- which still dictates white privilege as the rule of the day, our streets in some communities have become war zones.  Our police forces have in a growing number of instances become executioners in relation to young black and brown males.

Deadly force is now the rule of the day.

... and has anyone noticed the irony in the fact that -- in this week's escalation of street violence those two young NYPD police officers died so tragically as victims of profiling?  Their humanity was overlooked by one too deranged to notice that these were fellow-human beings.  In his warped mind they were only dehumanized members of the hated uniforms so feared in black neighborhoods.

Is it possible to prevail as a self-appointed police force to the world by turning our children into killers and not risk what we're seeing now -- a frightened army of law enforcement young men and women who see their role as that of protecting the privileged from those they seem to see as the unwashed?

... and can we do that under a democracy that continues to be unclear about the concept of what constitutes torture?

All this at a time when American arrogance wastefully defends the use of our precious Right of Free Speech in a vicious racist depiction of the violent execution of the ruler of another country!  A comedic right?  I'm not amused.  And. yes, I do understand and appreciate the need to protect our freedoms to even insult the leader of another country -- but decry the insensitivity when doing so creates bitter resentment at a time of international instability.  Is common sense no longer an essential element in our troubled lives? And at a time when the Internet is rife with undeserving disrespect for our president and his family; for the office of the presidency itself,  and led by some members of Congress and the rich and powerful of this nation.  This risk is taken despite the fact that we're sending our youth off to fight for democratic principles that we're willing to allow them to die for but by which we stubbornly refuse to live!

There is hope in the fact that we're beginning to see real conversations occurring in our boardrooms, our educational institutions, and most importantly on the Internet between opposing factions.  That we're seeing people of all ages, races, genders, dealing with the hard questions, marching together on the streets of America -- wondering aloud about the direction of our future ... .

Maybe the only thing good about these troubling days is that dim glimmer of hope in an otherwise frightening world that clouds our reality with scenes of horror -- and wakes me from deeply troubled sleep.

Is the one prevailing hope that world peace must be at the top of our concerns if we are to cease turning our children into killers of other people's children, whether within our own borders or beyond?  The world cannot possibly be sustained in its current state which pits the use of conscienceless sophisticated drones against marauding bands of brutal men who commit primitive be-headings in an operatic exercise of testosterone-driven unspeakable cruelty!

Can we really expect to solve the civil disturbances within our borders if we don't actively take on the establishing of ...

Peace on earth and good will toward all?"


Wednesday, December 03, 2014

She was a tiny sparrow of a woman -- maybe 4'9" and surely not more than 85 pounds ...

She came to the Visitor Education Center with her granddaughter for my two o'clock presentation,  arriving early enough to introduce themselves.  The grandmother was visiting from Israel and knew only a few words in English which were used up within the first greeting.  Her granddaughter wanted me to know that she'd brought her at the older woman's request -- but she wanted my permission to translate during my talk and didn't want to seem rude.  I have no idea how this elder had learned about me or my work, and probably never will, given the language barrier.

I assured her that this would not be a problem, and quickly forgot about it and immediately walked away to greet the day's audience.

It wasn't until the end of the talk -- in the usual exchange of greetings and comments that normally follows -- that I noticed them again lingering at the rear of the theater.

The grandmother was smiling broadly, and the younger woman told me that after the first few moments there was a tug at her arm and finger to lips in the universal gesture of "be still!"  She did not want or need translation, but apparently simply wanted to experience the room and whatever it was that was being said and felt.  She was obviously pleased, and warm hugs were exchanged before their taking leave.

That was a week ago.

Yesterday as folks gathered for the two o'clock ranger talk, both turned up again, this time with  another relative in tow.  This woman described herself as an historian, but with what institution of learning she might be associated with never became clear.  There was no the time to delve any deeper.

"My grandmother is returning to Israel in two days and wanted to return to hear you again before leaving."

What in the world this 90 year-old  -- whose only language was Yiddish -- could gain from a repeat performance is a mystery.

Tomorrow she will board her plane for the long flight home, and I'll never learn anything more about her.

... that is -- unless her granddaughter stops in again at some future time and there will be some answer that might shed some light ... .

I've spoken about that magical thing that happens during these presentations, and I'm reminded that I've never quite found the answer to just what that is; and whether it's related to what I do, or, what I am?  Whatever it is is surely not dependent upon language.  Interesting?

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

I am devastated by events in Ferguson ... and any attempt to write about them seems futile ...

Everything seems so obvious ... the pattern so clearly established by repetition ...

What's to be said?

Tonight I watched a high-level representative from the Ferguson police force; all decked out in riot gear standing beside a heavily armored military vehicle with more weaponry hanging on various straps and belts on his person than should be allowed in a civilized society.  With so much personal protective gear, why are they so in fear of our young black males?  In light of events, his words were incongruous!  In the background were the still-smoldering embers of some family's version of the American Dream. 

"This violence must not be allowed to continue!" shouts he ...

... with little recognition that those words are precisely those used by the rightfully angry mobs in the streets seeking retribution and change through questionable acts borne of the original violence.  Why can no one see that it has become circular and predictive, and that it will take all of us to break out of this tragically destructive cycle?

... and the young mother who -- when interviewed on camera stated ironically;  tearfully, 

"... they can't tell me how to be oppressed!"

Maybe the operative word in his sentence is "This", because the original violence occurred in the lives of black families as they've had to face the brutality of a justice system gone mad and the tragic loss of a young son, unarmed and vulnerable.  Shades of Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant and a growing list of other young black men who were sacrificed to fear and ignorance in these times.

Maybe the only positive thing we can take away from the insanity is the fact that the protesters across the country are of every religion, age, race, and ethnicity.  Maybe that counts for something, but it's of little comfort in dark times like these.  These are not out-of-control black folks creating senseless havoc on these streets .  The outrage is shared by people of conscience across the barriers of their differences.   

... and then came the news of the police killing of that 12 year-old youngster with the toy gun in a city park... . 

... and it isn't over yet.  Just watched the video clip of the young African American minister  (Rev. Carleton Lee) reporting the fact that, his Flood Christan Church was burned down last night, a church to which Michael Brown's family belonged, and that stood on the other side of town from the rioting.  This, after receiving threats from White Supremicists who were offended by his standing up publicly for the Brown family in their hour of need.

Depression, thy name is Betty.

I'm feeling particularly old tonight, and old is more than just a stage in later life.

... maybe old is another name for unmitigated sadness ... .

(Note:  For donations:!giving/cd48 - to see his NBC interview go to his video -

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Photo by Tom Debley
Maybe being validated by an eminent Kaiser Permanente historian will suffice ...

As my bi-monthly public bus "tourists" gathered at the entrance to the Visitor Education Center on Tuesday I noticed that recently-retired Kaiser historian Tom Debley and his companion were among them.  That was noticeable because they had both been along on our last tour only two weeks before.

I remembered that this had, at least momentarily, caused a few seconds of concern -- as I wondered briefly if my remembrances of the era of WWII would  stand up under his professional scrutiny of the period over the many years that he headed the Kaiser Heritage Department.  After all, I've come lately to the field, and -- though I don't pretend to be a formal "historian," I do speak with authority -- but only after using existing studies from scholars (Quivik, Litvak, Archibald, etc.)  who have published doctoral papers and masters theses -- combined with my own memory of those dramatic times.

I need not have worried.  Within the first half-mile of my interpretation, once we boarded, I'd completely lost the fleeting discomfort and was well into my presentation without losing the rhythm or my confidence.

The tour takes roughly two-and-a-half hours to cover the many scattered sites that bear the history of  the Kaiser home front story with a running commentary that places me in context of the experience.

It ends with a return to the Visitor Center for a viewing of the 15-minute video that specifically tells the history of Richmond during those years.  It's entitled "Home Front Heroes," and fills in any gaps that may have been overlooked on our tour.  This is followed by a 15-minute commentary as I place my personal story in context and bring us into the present.

By this time I've forgotten that Tom and his companion were among the guests, and that this was his second tour in two weeks!  Had I thought of that the "willies" would have surely returned.

As my talk ended and the Q&A invited, Tom was the first to speak:

"Has anyone yet videotaped your talk, Betty?"
I allowed myself to fully appreciate the implications of his comment.  I savored his words. He was expressing his approval, and an appreciation of the fact that I am doing good work.

... and at 93 I'm still developing new edges to grow from!

Who knew?

Sunday, November 02, 2014

What is there about the aging process that brings earlier thinking into such sharp focus ... ?

I'm aware that there's the danger of over simplification to consider, but something else previously unaccounted for appears to be present.

Maybe it's that I'm working so much in full public view these days; finding myself doing some deep analyzing while giving my presentations before audiences in our little theater as the "Ranger on call," every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.  Hearing my thoughts being uttered without previously chewing them over and giving them proper form.  A risky way to work, surely, but I find the risk may provide an aliveness that wouldn't be present otherwise.  Each new audience freshens my presentation, oddly enough, while I might have expected the opposite to be true.  The trick is to have the house lights turned up high so that I can see the eyes and faces as I speak.  The new revelations often arrive without prior warning, except for what happens here in these musings ... .

Blogging provides the way to shaping that which rises to the surface as I speak.  That, and paying attention to what happens behind my eyes just before falling asleep at night ... .

Now and then they're freshened by an insight so startling, and so (seemingly) profound that -- as I hear myself delivering the re-shaped element I find myself wondering where those words are coming from -- and with such confidence in their veracity?

Case in point:

I've begun to mention the fact that Jim Henson and his Children's Television Workshop and Mr. Rogers are members of my pantheon of civil rights heroes, right along with Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and Fanny Lou Hamer et al.  That they humanized many generations of America's children now grown up and sitting in corporate boardrooms all over the nation; staffing the State Department and all agencies of government; while having effected the social fabric of our country irrevocably.  I truly believe that.

Yesterday I came close to bursting into song with the line from Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods, "Children will listen ...".  It would have startled my audience. The brief line from those lyrics came so close to leaving my lips in making my point.  The temptation was so strong that I lost my train of thought and experienced a long silence as I tried to move on.  Maybe in the days ahead ... .

Found myself delving deeper into the meaning, and realized that at the base of this new discovery there was a new idea forming that may be important.

If and when we ever find world peace it will not be through mathematics nor the hard sciences, it will be through the Arts.  It is through the Arts that we learn empathy.  The fact that our nation has moved further and further away from the funding of Arts and Culture (with the virtual de-funding of the NEA) that I'm certain of a relationship between the fact that we're in an age of unrelenting violence with mass shootings and endless wars.  These faceless and demented young males whose suicidal acts of unspeakable gun violence surely attest to their being bereft of empathy -- the ability to identify positively or to see themselves in others.

Let's compare the budgets of other nations with ours:  Germany spends roughly $20/per capita on Arts and Culture to our 41 cents!  Canada supports its Arts to the tune of $841 per citizen, and spends double on the performing arts than on sporting events.  Neither of those countries has experienced the numerous acts of mass violence that the US has over the recent past.  

How long ago was it that we began to drop or reduce arts programming in America's systems of public education?  How does that correlate with the mass killings in our schools and other gathering places?

Can such a simple answer be relevant to such a profound problem? If so, why hasn't it occurred to anyone in high places -- someone with the power to walk us back through to this simple explanation?

I recalled --  --just before falling asleep last night that there was a time -- when I was married to Bill Soskin (Dr. William F. Soskin) brilliant research psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley -- that I would sit cross-legged on a zafu in our living-room high atop the hills behind the campus and look around at those eminent leaders of their various academic fields who would gather some Sunday mornings to exchange their latest breakthroughs over coffee and bagels ... and think to myself, "... if I know that, think of what they must know?"  I was so in awe of those great minds.  They tolerated my questions with respect and good humor, and at times seemed really taken with some of my speculations on their theories.

... now I find myself wondering if these "Betty" theories aren't over-simplifications at all, but truths that are deceptively elegant, but not yet given the attention they deserve?

Maybe, had he lived longer, Bill would have ordered up a research study with hypotheses and justifications and cohorts and graphs and outcomes -- and would find it to be true.

I suppose I won't be around, either, to know.  Meanwhile, I'll just keep delving and sharing and maybe there will be someone in my audiences one day who will pursue the answer and save us from ourselves.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Awesome thoughts in the middle of the night ...

I woke suddenly somewhere around one o'clock in the morning with one of those flashes of insight that occurs when least expected.

Maybe it was noticing the picture of my great-grandmother, Leontine Breaux Allen, which hangs in my hallway -- as I was setting into place a beautiful plaque awarded to me by members of the California State Legislature at the recent Central Labor Councl of the AFL-CIO.  It would be hung next to her photograph and just above that of an Allen/Breaux reunion photo taken some years ago.

Whatever it was, somewhere in the night she "visited" through a dream and I was awakened to a state of aliveness that rattled my psyche!

In my talks I always end with my personal timeline which starts with my great-grandmother's birth into slavery in 1846; travels through her gaining of freedom at 19 by the Emancipation Proclamation and living until her death in 1948 at 102; proceeds to my mother's birth in 1894 and death in 1995 at 101; then to my birth in 1921 through to the present.  The story ends when I was 27 years-old and the mother of two children at the time of my slave ancestor's passing.  When I describe the sequence to my audiences -- I can see their near-disbelief in realizing (as do I) how quickly those years passed -- how fast time flies!  The story of three women who lived from the years of slavery through to the Mars probe -- and were adults together at one time.

Suddenly found myself imagining that sequencing of our combined lives into a template, moving that template forward by 100 years -- starting in 1946 and moving into the present.  The chilling mind picture that formed was disturbing of any further sleep.

Those warnings of climate change, global warming, rising sea levels now undeniably happening as we speak, were suddenly italicized!

It is the current generation -- by those things we either do or fail to do -- that will determine whether our grandchildren will inherit a livable world.

My work suddenly took on a new urgency, and a rightness previously unseen by me,  and surely not fully understood.

There must be others who share this sense of immediacy -- this feeling of helplessness and frustration in a world too caught up in the quest for personal wealth, political power, and the need to control others  -- and without the will to collaborate and cooperate in a common effort to save ourselves and the planet Earth.

... but tonight I'll attend a San Francisco State banquet in San Francisco as a guest of my friend, Careth Bomar Reid, with whom I work on Fridays on the E.F. Joseph photo collection -- and try to convince myself that those street corner evangelists of my childhood -- with the sandwich boards shrieking of the "Signs of the End of the World" were not right, and that  --whether or not we come to terms with the need to end our dependence on fossil fuels -- was not related to his warnings ... .

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Wondering about so many things ...

not the least of which is the nagging suspicion that my feelings about black identity need upgrading in light of a changing nation and world.

I mentioned after returning from the trip to Atlanta and Tuskegee in August, whether I didn't need to reconsider something that had begun to creep into my theater presentations of late; the feeling that African Americans may be settling for less than we should when we actively promote Black history over encouraging the inclusion of our story into mainstream American history.

The trip south weakened my resolve upon the re-discovery of the richness of Black History while visiting the beautiful red brick campus at Tuskegee University; walking through the George Washington Carver exhibits; through Booker T. Washington's gracious home; riding through the magnificent greenery of the historic 54 mile drive from Montgomery to Selma; standing on Pettus Bridge; etc.  It was so much more powerful than I'd ever imagined.  On returning home I began to wonder just how much power might be lost if our collective truth were to be de-emphasized in any way.

I'm no closer to an answer, but something came up in the course of the tumultuous political campaigns in our city -- of the two candidates in the mayoral race one is white, and the other black.  The white candidate is loosely associated with the Progressive wing of the community, and the black candidate is running a brutal campaign with unlimited corporate financial backing.  The black candidate expresses conservative views on just about anything that comes before the city council, of which both are currently members.  The white candidate might best be described as a political moderate with a good and years-long record of public service. The rough and tumble shape of the election cycle is predictable with few surprises.

However, none of this is the issue that's giving me cause for concern; it's this:

The base out of which the Black candidate emerges is an organization called B.A.P.A.C (Black Americans Political Action Committee).  One day last week as I held a scathing flyer distributed  online by that group in an attempt to detract from the white candidate's reputation,  I found myself wondering what might happen should the white candidate have a base called " W.A.P.A.C. (White Americans Political Action Committee")?

Setting the obvious aside for a moment, I need to say that not that long ago 40% of Richmond's population was African American.  At this point however, according to the last census, 40% of this city is now Latino, with African American families having moved on deeper into the small towns of the upper San Joaquin Valley and Solano County.  The black demographic has been reduced dramatically. There was a time when there would have been a  significant black constituency to try to attract in order to garner political power, but now -- in a non-majority State -- where no one holds the edge, "Black" labeling may be fast-becoming outdated, and will soon no longer be viable as a magnetic force for change.

Were I a member of the large European,  Laotian, East Indian, Asian/American, or Latino subgroups who share this community I'm not certain that I would be quick to align myself with a group so labeled.  It may not be through any sense of disrespect, but given the label Black American Political Action Committee, I just might wonder if its concerns would be broad enough; that its membership would have the capacity to care about my culturally-specific issues.

In a nation on the verge of becoming a non-majority society, coalition-building must become the rule of the day, right?  This is uncharted territory, and I'm only beginning to see the implications through this election cycle. My brain is engaged in some editing, upgrading, changing, and the concept that involves including black history into mainstream American history may be a natural progression, but at this point it's unclear. I may not have time on the planet to see this through to its conclusion, but meanwhile I'll keep gnawing at it.

... maybe that's why I'm attracted to the Richmond Progressive Alliance wing of local politics at this point; an organization less "moderate" than I, surely, but that reflects the wish of what used to be called "Liberals" to act together on those things upon which they can agree (across racial lines) as they cast aside for further discussion those things seen differently; and all in mutual respect. 

I suggest that B.A.P.A.C may want to come into the 21st Century and begin to build anew its political base -- this time with inclusion. The organization may want to re-design its mission, re-think its direction toward something that better reflects the multiracial, multicultural society we're evolving into as a city and as a Nation, instead they appear to be rebuilding the racial barrier earlier generations gave up so much to overcome. This is hardly worthy of their well-meaning organization. The only thing being accomplished by current attitudes (which excludes all others except for black males), brings divisiveness into the unity some have struggled to gain over time.

... and make no mistakes, I see continuing need for African Americans to come together socially and culturally in order to strengthen the ties that bind us as a people. What I'm beginning to wonder about is just how far we can take the Black designation into politics and prevail in a time when it will become more and more necessary to coalesce with others for mutual gain. Maybe we can't stand alone any longer in a fast-changing nation without losing something very precious to the continuing development of the Democracy that we are all trying so hard to bring about.

New thoughts.

Old doubts ... .

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Photo by Shirley Butt
Balancing my career self (with the limitations imposed by the Hatch Act ) ... .

... and my very political private citizen self has been challenging over past weeks.

This election cycle has been so volatile in my city (Richmond, California) since the passage of the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Citizens United which grants corporations unlimited opportunities to participate in -- not only national and state -- but in city elections as well with obscene amounts of money.  Here in our city corporate largesse is overwhelming our local candidates.  We're reeling from the effects of that ruling, and I've been diligent in respecting those limitations, but adamant in expressing my rights to participate in the electoral process as a private citizen.

I've agreed not to ever appear at a political event in uniform (a requirement), and to try to avoid ever being identified in my official role as an employee of the federal government.   The local press has been very cooperative and I've been able to enjoy relative freedom to express myself and my political interests with the consent of those to whom I'm responsible.

All that being said, I'd say that I've done pretty well, all things are considered, and -- being photographed with the dynamic Senator Bernie Sanders and two of this year's candidates was accomplished without identifying me at all.  Senator Sanders is a brilliant man, and a great speaker.  His strident advocacy for our shared goals is heartening.

I suspect that I'm firmly enough identified by the amazing amount of public exposure I've had over the past months so that labels would not serve any purpose anyway.

It's a wild ride to November 4th!


Thursday, October 02, 2014

(welders tool is embedded within)
Just every now and then I begin to feel overwhelmed by an increasing amount of public attention ... .

... the past several weeks have been just such a time.  Everything seems larger than life as I'm been living it over the past decades, and waaaaaay beyond the edges that used to hold that life.

I tend to withdraw a bit, do some reassessment of the landscape, and (if possible) gradually move back into the foreground.

A few months ago I received word by a phone call that the Central Labor Council of the AFL-CIO was holding their annual banquet in the Craneway Pavilion -- a vast cathedral-like venue in the Ford Assembly Plant which abuts our Visitors Education Center here in Richmond.  The reason for the call was to get me to hold the date of September 19th since I would  be one of this year's 3 honorees that evening.  Rep. George Miller would receive the Life Achievement Award, and the Legacy Award would be given to me.

The evening arrived and every standing or sitting public official from State, County, City, and from the Labor Movement itself was present in that cavernous room.  Every declared candidate for any political office in this election cycle was also present and accounted for.  It was a grand evening!

The drama of the evening, for me, was not the "Who's who" in that grand space, but that this handmade crystal 15 inch (lighted from within!) beautiful one-of-a-kind trophy was presented by a group of of today's Boilermakers Unionists who stood with me on the platform to make the presentation.

Rep. George Miller and me
The bronze plaque gives, after many decades, status to the little Jim Crow segregated Union, Boilermakers Auxiliary #36, created under the flawed social system of the early forties -- the time of the greatest mobilization of workers since the building of the pyramids or the Great Wall of China. 
By their action (through me) that powerful Union legitimized our participation by closing the circle (finally) with all of us enclosed within.  Rev. Willie B. Smith, Secretary Mahlon Roles and his wife Marguerite, Spencer Jordan, Zola Adams, Christine White, Martha Ford Montgomery, plus thousands of black shipyard workers who gave their all without fairness of opportunity or recognition, and I,  are now counted  as legitimate contributors to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Great Arsenal of Democracy after more than 70 years.  The little temporary office building that held us was unceremoniously torn down immediately at the end of the war, so that past has been obliterated as most or all of those other lives passed into eternity over time.  I believe that I may well be the last one standing ... .

This tribute may have come in my name, but it is really a tribute to today's International Brotherhood of Boilermakers who went back into their past to own that blighted history; to forgive themselves; and then continue to open the way to greater unity.  I'm told that today's Boilermakers is the most racially diverse division among all of today's Unions.

The plaque reads:

    Betty Reid Soskin
         Boilermakers Auxiliary Local #36
in honor of your Home Front service
and your dedication to preserving
a transformative chapter in U.S. history
for women and people of color

(signed by the international president of
the Brotherhood of Boilermakers Iron Shipbuilders
Blacksmith Forgers and Helpers)

In all of our names, I am so grateful for this recognition.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Busy back at work so haven't followed up on my report on the trip to Atlanta and Tuskegee ... .

Photo taken at Tuskegee Airfield after Women's Equality Day Address
... but I was trying to wait for my colleague to provide her photos so that I could share them, but she is also back at her desk and hasn't gotten around to making the CD yet.  I brought along my camera but, unfortunately, I simply forget to take photos even when it's right there in my hand.  I guess I just don't want anything to stand between me and an experience.  We'll just have to wait for Sue's pics.

It occurred to me that the one thing I haven't yet reported on is the event that brought us to Tuskegee in the first place, the address for Women's Equality Day at the Airfield.  The truth is that I was so deeply moved by all that surrounded it, that I'm not sure that I could tell you what I said in that speech.  It faded into the background as the other experiences took over every cell in my body.

Moten Airfield is a scant 4 miles from the university campus, and is also a National Park System site, one that has been faithfully restored with impressive exhibits, both of the ghost buildings and those that could be restored. Those no longer standing are represented by skeletal metal footprints in the exact measurements of those now missing.  I've never seen that done before, and it does the job quite well.

In addition, the hangars have been restored and are rich with blow-ups of the Airmen, including everyone who served in any capacity (pilots, mechanics, instructors, etc.) now being considered "Tuskegee Airmen."   This was no surprise since our park considers anyone working on the Home
Front in any capacity as a "Rosie."  I was told that one woman who is seen in one of the giant photos huddling under the wing of a plane with pilots -- a mechanic -- is still living in the area but was too frail to attend the event.

The audience was made up of NPS staff, volunteers, and at least two elected officials, one who with his spouse, had driven all the way from Mobile (a 3-hour drive) to attend.

We visited the historic hangars, followed by a sumptuous lunch in the Sky Club where young  officers had gathered for recreation -- with a jukebox of the times playing music of that era.  We would then take off for the drive along the historic Selma to Montgomery Trail and Pettus Bridge where another stunning NPS visitor center has been established in a rehabilitated bank building.  What had escaped notice by virtue of the tragic and dramatic events of Bloody Sunday was the serene beauty of the Alabama river that meanders lazily below in silent testimony to those long ago horrific scenes.  The nation responded with shock and shame, and those images on our television sets changed the fate of what had been a seemingly failed social revolution up to that point.

The town of Selma appears to have changed little over the years; and could be well-used as a movie set of that painful era.  One would hope that the same would not be said of those still living there.

... and I just noticed that the report on my talk has gotten itself buried again.  Maybe I'll just have to let it all simmer until it's ready.  Maybe by the time Sue gets back to work from her backpacking trip at Yosemite and can transfer the photos from her camera to a CD.  Maybe then I can recapture the part  that I played in last week's journey ... maybe.  But when put in context, my contribution was probably the least important aspect of a memorable trip back in time.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Home for a few days of extended vacation before returning to work ...  

and still feeling the effects of having plunged back into a past of so much pain -- but with a sense of victory as well.

I believe that I will find new power in the words to "We shall overcome" after having experienced the Montgomery to Selma Historic Trail with Superintendent Christine Biggers of the Tuskegee Airfield site.  Seeing it all through her eyes so enriched the adventure and brought such vibrancy to our day together.

To see Berkeley's Tuskegee Airman Wendell Lipscomb's photograph among the trainers of pilots was a strong reminder of how closely-lived was my world to that history.  I knew Wendell, and was aware that he'd served his country in that way, but more because he returned to the University of California afterwards where he became a noted psychiatrist specializing in the development of programs to combat and control alcoholism.  To see his huge image exhibited on the wall of Hanger #1 made it all surreal.  Our Armed Forces chose the best and the brightest, obviously, men who didn't disappoint, but served their country with honor and distinction as the "Red Tails".

When I slipped into my handsome red Tuskegee Airmen's jacket (a gift from Christine upon our departure), it was in honor of Wendell, Kenneth "Bunny" Hernandez, Francis "Frank" Collier, and Les Williams (of San Mateo) -- all airmen I'd known at the time, and dated before the US Army Air Force discovered them and accepted them for service.  I must have been all of 17 and 18, in my last year of high school and eager to enter adulthood.  On May 24 of 1942 -- months after war was declared -- I married Melvin Reid whose friends were already enlisted and serving.

It appears that the Air Force and I had similar tastes in men!

Now to spend some time processing those unforgettable days of last week, and sorting out just how to incorporate the new learnings into my presentations.  I'm no longer inclined to downplay Black history in favor of blending it into American history "since it was something we all lived."  Not sure how to do that -- but my talks will surely have to be edited in some way to include some new thinking.  The issue is far more complex than before these new experiences.

After all, I've been saying all along that when we give up our complexity, we sacrifice much of our truth.

This is where those words get tested.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

On Tuesday we started the day by visiting the National Park Service Visitor Education Center to see the George Washington Carver exhibits ... the founder of Tuskegee University ... .

... a most beautiful campus of all red brick structures -- bricks made of native materials and by Tuskegee students over the years.  It is not only a magnificent campus, but every brick stands for independence, morality, steadfastness, and pride -- and from the verdant grounds to the stately trees -- everywhere one looks is living history.

Over the years since former slave Dr. Carver founded this historically black college, it has stood as one of the most highly respected institutions of higher learning in the nation.   The Dr. Booker T.
Louis Charbonnet
Washington home on that campus was a revelation for me.  It suggested a more gracious and elegant lifestyle was lived by black leaders of the day than I was aware of.  I learned more about these two men than I'd ever known before.  I recalled that my paternal grandfather, Louis Charbonnet,  a noted engineer and millwright of New Orleans had studied his crafts through correspondence courses from this very institution.  Over the next few weeks I plan to check through the Tuskegee archives for those records.  This experience added to my sense of being the link twixt then and now.

It occurred to me while lying awake that first night (with every nerve-ending vibrating!), that the National Park Service might best serve the cause of racial unity by insistence that young rangers of European descent -- where possible -- spend at least 6 months on such historically black college campuses -- on detail -- where they can have the experience of being in the minority in order to learn about white privilege.  Yes.  White privilege probably can be best learned experiencially in a context where there is no question about social, intellectual, and educational equality.  Since the National Parks have created these visitors centers on such sites, putting them to such use could be life-changing for rangers-in-training in ways that cannot be taught otherwise.  What an opportunity for learning such experiences could provide.

It is impossible to not feel that -- for the past hundred years we, as a nation, have been trying to fix black folks.  It's quite possible that it's not black folks who need fixin'.  Thinking back over the past half-century it seems that black folks have shown more compassion, respect for human rights, fearlessness in the face of indescribable cruelty in many cases, and have done so while insisting upon the right to lives of peace and productivity in a country in which they firmly believed, but which has never seen fit to fully accept their participation in the process of full citizenship. 

Maybe it's time to start fixin' white folks.

Tuesday's 4-mile trip to the Tuskegee Airmen's field from the campus; the 54 mile drive to Selma to stand on Pettus Bridge; visiting the heart-wrenching exhibits of the heroic marchers of 50 years ago; the drive back to the Capitol at Montgomery with Jefferson Davis's statue guarding the entrance; the old Confederate White House just a block away with Morris Dees' Poverty Law Center another half block from that; with Dr. Martin Luther King's Dexter Chapel just across the street from the Capitol; stopping at St. Jude's where the church and convent hosted the marchers and a concert featuring Joan Baez and Harry Belafonte at the time.  The marchers had been allowed to pitch their tents on the expansive lawns of St. Jude's while preparing for the historic March for Freedom.

The proximity of all of these historic sites of opposing forces was something I was not prepared for, and the realization of it -- when it is full-blown in one's consciousness -- was an emotional experience not ever to be forgotten.

On the drive along that stretch of highway I was reminded that -- what is now a divided highway with 2 lanes in each direction with a grassy neutral ground running full-length down the center -- it was at that time a narrow 2 lane country road with no shoulders to retreat to, and with the marchers competing with hostile motorists along the way ... for 54 miles which they covered in 4 days, only to be confronted by Sheriff Jim Clarke and his fire hoses and police dogs ... .

It all became more real than is comfortable in the telling ... .

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Where to begin?

Landing at the Atlanta airport is an adventure of great significance -- and had it not been for the fact that I was escorted by Sue Fritzke, deputy superintendent of our 4 parks --  I may have had to spend the rest of my life riding up and down on the most amazing set of escalators on Planet Earth!  Wiser heads had prevailed, and the decision to not allow me to descend on Atlanta alone was fortunately made by caring staff.

We arrived early Sunday evening and spent the first of several sleepless nights of anticipation of the most spectacular set of experiences one might ever expect to live through.  It was an emotional roller-coaster that threatened to overwhelm me at almost every turn.   I was on the verge of tears much of the time, and before full recovery could take place -- another heart-stopping moment would occur!

I'm not sure that anything could have prepared me for the 3 days of unimaginable heart-rending vignettes that I will be re-living for a very long time.

Ranger Judy Forte, Superintendent of the NPS King site was a gracious host who set everything aside to provide personal guidance to a far larger King campus than I'd ever imagined existed.  She was joined by Ranger Tim.  There was the National Park Service site (shown above); the Martin Luther King, Jr. family site that adjoins it; the Birth Home -- with more than hints of the gracious lifestyle of the elder King family.  The  lovely home has been faithfully restored and lovingly preserved.  We visited the fire station with its fire engine of the times; the original Ebenezer Baptist Church where the elder Pastor Martin Luther King, Sr., had held forth, but that now rings with the familiar recorded voice of his illustrious son; the tragic hero of our times.

The rangers who escorted us were unstintingly generous with their time and well-versed in the stories, large and small.

The King campus is so much grander and the stories so much more comprehensive than I'd had any reason to expect.  There were undiscovered aspects to stories that I thought I'd known before.   The previously mythical has now become real.  I've now stood in the places where those lives were lived; and things will never be quite the same.

I am so proud and grateful to be associated with the National Park Service in these years when Civil Rights history is being given its due after being marginalized for decades.  But I'm re-thinking my recently-proclaimed statements to the effect that "history should not be ghetto-ized, but that black history needs to be blended into American history."  Such a statement may be more glib than reliable.  Not so sure about this any more, but more about that later.

Got to meet the only person I could claim to know in Atlanta (one I'd only met online).  Lisa took time from her job (only 5 blocks away from the King Center) to meet me.  We'd connected some years ago when engaged in a genealogy adventure.  Again, that feeling of the magic of technology that brought the virtual together with the actual -- and I could feel the friendship of long-standing in the embrace -- feelings that transcend the "real" and moves it onto another plane of existence -- one that I may not live long enough to ever fully understand.

Monday, August 18, 2014

A link to a recent interview with Farai Chideya of Public Radio International: Living History, Exploring Nature

... and by the magic of technology despite the distance between, (Farai in New York and I in Richmond),  it turned out to be a real conversation.  She is a great interviewer, and probably equally as good an editor.  I've listened to Farai on and off for years and have followed her career with great interest, never dreaming that one day I might become a subject of one of her programs.  We've never met, but she plans to visit the Bay Area in October and I'm looking forward to that happening quite soon.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Not posting?  Didn't have the heart to in light of Ferguson ...

... another unarmed black youngster senselessly cut down, and just as he is about to begin life.

Today I met with a filmmaker at Lucretia Edwards little shoreline park to do a 45-minute interview that may (or may not) be edited into a full length documentary he is creating about Rosie the  Riveter -- for whom our park is named.

It seems that he had completed most of his work of a couple of years, but began to feel some discomfort -- having taken one of my bus tours in the recent past, and learned some alternative views on the conventional stories that ordinarily spill forth when Rosie is being researched.

I don't think that he was aware of what he was looking for today.  He'd driven up from Los Angeles -- calling ahead for an appointment -- but he came unscripted, I suppose hoping I would provide a lead so that some new angle might surface ... .

His first question had to do with the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, and just how did I feel about it?  It appeared to me to reveal a certain level of insensitivity, and I found myself going off on a tangent ... reluctant to share the pain of reopened wounds until I'd had a chance to worry myself through still another such tragedy.   This latest is only a few days old, and still raw; unprocessed. Having raised 3 sons in the previously all-white suburbs (prior to our arrival) with fear and trepidation over many years, the thing that comes up for me now are the lyrics of one of the earliest songs I ever wrote on the occasion of one of those sons, as a very small boy, being stoned as he rode home on his bike from Slo Sam's grocery store that lay at the crossroads of Saranap, the unincorporated rural area where we lived.  It happened not 500 feet from our home.  I kissed his forehead, wiped away his tears of small-boy outrage (tilting his face downward to avoid the unanswerable why in his eyes), and sent him off to some distraction before breaking into tears of utter helplessness that blurred with my cup of lukewarm tea:

Where is my brown-skinned heart to hurry?
Where will I find my song?
Why must my mind be just for worry:
To whom does my dream belong?

What are my hands to hold this morning?
Where is my place in the sun?
With what shall I fill these days of yearning?
Whose will shall be done?

The fruit of my labor will tumble in soon
in search of my love and my lead.
Gave all I had when they left this morning ...
Do they not know that little souls bleed?

Where is my brown-skinned heart to hurry?
To whom does my dream belong?
Why must my mind be just for worry?
Who will hear my song?
That song comes to the front of my mind each time another young black man is lost to the ignorance of the Times.  It's curious to note that -- what is expressed holds less bitterness than one might expect, but continuing sadness and that profound sense of helplessness.  I suspect that at some point and in some cases this is transformed into the rage that we're witnessing on the streets of Ferguson tonight.  Maybe, when enough of us reach that level of outrage across all of the lines of separation, change may begin to occur -- but at what cost?

...  and how long must we wait?

I came home to an email from PRI commentator, Farai Chideya, announcing that the interview that we did together some months ago was now up on the website.  I listened with an intensity borne of today's interview with filmmaker Ken Stewart -- and -- for just a moment there, wondered how I will feel tomorrow giving my hopeful message from the front of our little theater?

I loved her piece, and found myself lifted by being reminded of that evening in 1965 at Grace Cathedral listening to Duke Ellington's magnificent jazz mass and Come Sunday and closing my eyes and
imagining Bunny Briggs dancing across the nave like a  delicate black butterfly -- in that great marble edifice with its stately columns upthrusted to the heavens --  and was able to still the trauma for at least another day ...

... and remember, this was 1965 just months after Freedom Summer of '64, and in the throes of the Civil Rights revolution of the Sixties.  This memorable concert was central to the healing, and gave hope to the struggles that lay ahead -- and into the unknown Now.

"Lord, dear lord above, God Almighty, God of Love -- 
please look down and see my people through"
                                                (words from Come Sunday.")

The hopelessness lies dormant, again, at least 'til tomorrow ...

... wondering just how many more of our children must die violently at the hands of the ignorant before ....

Just don't know ... . 

Duke Ellington from A Concert of SACRED MUSIC at Graece Cathedral (1965)

Monday, August 04, 2014

Learned through an email exchange that plans for my proposed trip to the Tuskegee Airmen's site in Alabama is proceeding on schedule ... .

... and that I'll be flying out on Sunday, August 24th to arrive a full day ahead of my presentation for Women's Equality Day.  The trip will also include visits to Selma and the King Center in Atlanta before returning to the Bay Area.   Never in my wildest dreams did I ever anticipate such an adventure!

Ironically, a week or so ago an invitation arrived from noted author and environmentalist, Audrey Peterman, announcing that along with a stellar list of outdoorsmen and women of color, I was being invited to attend an event on August 25th at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to which the "Prince of Rangers," Yosemite's Shelton Johnson, and I would be honored guests.  To have my name linked with Shelton's -- in the same sentence -- is beyond imagination. Would you believe that the two events were only 15 hours apart and that there was no way for me to do both?  Frustration of frustrations!

For months now I've been silently carrying around just a smidgen of resentment since the 5 "Rosies" from our park visited my president in the White House and I was not included in their grand week-long adventure of being celebrated throughout the Capitol.  Okay, so I wouldn't have gone anyway (I really don't identify as a "Rosie), but to not have been asked is still irksome -- though no longer actively so.  I only seem to parade it out when I need a reason to deal with inexplicable ill feelings that need something to piggyback on.

... but before this administration's term of office ends, it would be such a thrill ... .

Maybe there will be another opportunity at some point -- before I hang up my flat hat for the last time  ...

Let us pray ... . 

Sunday, August 03, 2014

After several weeks of continuing public exposure ...

... after all, I'm been under scrutiny since late October at the time of the government Shut Down -- and after 10 months -- it continues still.  I finally was able to find a few days off to escape to scenic and serenely quiet Mendocino.  I'd forgotten how much that two-and-a-half hour's drive to the northern seashore is rejuvenating.  So beautiful!   Why on earth I don't do this more frequently is a mystery.

Over past days Lu, my colleague, and I paired in a StoryCorp 40-minute interview for the National Archives; I'd done a 30-minute phone interview for Geico Corporation out of Toronto (and, no, I'm not replacing the gecco); and a few days ago completed another for VIA, the magazine produced by California AAA to be published as a Q&A in the November/December issue.

I'm guessing that -- with so many Boomers approaching their golden years -- there is a growing demand for stories on those of us who've survived into our eighties and nineties.  Maybe we're becoming the lodestars -- guides into the future for those who will soon replace us on the planet.

I arrived in Mendocino on the first day of the annual writers conference which brings together writers, agents, poets, etc., from throughout the country for a 3-day gathering.  The last thing I expected to do was to attend a public event of any sort, but since this one means a great deal to my friend, Tom, it was easy to simply say "yes," get into the one change of dress I'd brought along, and into his tiny but strangely elegant red Duchevot (sp?) for the short trip to a lovely private home where the opening reception was being held.  There we met friends, writer Norma Watkins and her husband the noted artist woodworker, Les.   We missed a new exhibit of his work only by days.  I'm in the middle of reading Norma's memoir, The Last Resort, and only regret that the audio book has not yet been published.  I have to imagine the sound of the words in sweet Mississippi-talk -- and that's a pity.   

The re-discovery that changing worlds can be surprisingly restful was a revelation.  Here I had no responsibilities, and could just coast and soar for a few hours out of context and into one where no one expected or wanted anything of me.  Being a mere observer was an almost forgotten pleasure.

"The Timbers"
On the short drive home to the Timbers, I was aware that here in this place the fog presents the world in single dramatic snapshots instead of panoramic view -- and was far more manageable than the world I'd left only hours before in my escape from the busy urban center where my life is being lived so publicly these days ... .

The lull lasted only two nights and I was back driving through magnificent redwood forests from Fort Bragg through to Willits and Highway 101 heading south for home early on Friday morning, and reporting to the Visitor Education Center on Saturday morning for a theater presentation before 35 eager freshmen from Mills College in Oakland at eleven o'clock.

... and it may not surprise you one whit to learn that this was precisely the place I needed and intended to be on a windy noisy urban shoreline in the thick of life once more!

Friday, July 04, 2014

Photo by Shirley Butt
Independence Day celebration at the Craneway Pavilion ... 

I love this priceless image of my Dorian's face as she listens to the themes from House of Cards by Oakland composer, James Beale, as played by Conductor Michael Morgan and the Oakland Symphony.   We were there with over 4000 members of the community last night for the 7th annual celebration of July 4th.

Sousa's grand marches were played as the ".. bombs burst-ed in air."  But the traditional 4000-voice family rendition of the music from the Sound of Music was the high point, and Dorian knew every word of the score despite a struggle with some of the notes -- but her enthusiasm made up for the dissonance.  She was loudly out of tune at times, but who cared?  No one, apparently.

... and what an exciting fireworks display there was at the end of the evening to the delight of the many children in the audience!

This is the face of my child-woman enraptured with music which needs no intellectual support but goes straight through the emotions -- to the heart.

Happy Fourth of July, everyone!

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Depression was, fortunately, merely a temporary state of affairs ... .

... and after two days of recovery, I'm back in the saddle and 'rarin' to go.

Small wonder that neither of my husbands were ever able to figure out the rhythm of my life -- and I'm sure that my co-workers are as much at sea as they were.

Oh, the anger is still bubblin' under the surface, but it can no longer sneak up on me with such explosive force, and I'm again "in charge."

That I may need to take some time off is obvious, and I plan to factor that in within the next few weeks.  I'd set a pace that was unsustainable, and every cell was/is vibrating!  Memories of Freedom Summer '64 could not have brought me to such a dramatic halt -- as if hitting the proverbial wall -- had I not been running on empty for weeks.  Lesson learned.

I did make a call to my old boss, Attorney Don Jelinek (now retired), then emailed an order in to Amazon for a copy of his book, Attica Justice, for reading on my vacation (one that I'll arrange just as soon as my calendar clears enough to chose some dates).

Need to look up our mutual friend, Dr. Hardy Frye.  I now recall that the last time we met was at the graduation ceremony for black students at the University a few years ago.  As I remember, he was having some health issues ... . why do we allow such friends to drift out of our lives?  It was at that time that I was honored by the graduating class with the Fanny Lou Hamer Award, and Hardy had served on the selection committee, and was in the procession walking beside me soberly 
black-robed and somber as his role demanded.  To be honored by a graduation class of students who were total strangers was one thing -- impressive enough -- but to know that Hardy, a SNCC veteran of Freedom Summer '64, had participated in the class's choice ... was almost overwhelming.

All of that figured in to my temporary meltdown, of course, with that award and the experience of the graduation remembered against the images of Ms. Hamer's heroic plea for the seating of her delegation -- all played into the drama being relived over the past weekend.

Small wonder things would all come crashing down!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Maybe it's time to remind myself of one of the songs I wrote during that period ...

Fanny Lou Hamer at the Democratic Convention
It was in the creation and performing of those original songs that became my way of processing and making sense of the terrifying history that we were living through at that time.  And, no, I didn't publish anything that I wrote; but all of those songs are still alive and ready to be called up at a moment's notice.   The voice?  Not so much. The intensity of that process remains as if lived only yesterday.

The song was based on letters 18 year-old college student Susan Sanford wrote home to her family, and that were shared with me occasionally.

She'd traveled to the deep South from her comfortable suburban home in California to participate in Freedom Summer by attempting to register voters and to teach in a Freedom School in Canton, Mississippi.  She was living with one of the host black families who'd risked life and limb to enable change to occur.   Being reminded of Susan and the fact that she was wearing my pearls under her tee shirts allowed me to feel a part of that change; at times it simply increased my sense of helplessness:

Song (written in the voice of the woman who shared her home with SNCC students):

Monday mornin'  ... streets are bare ...
seems as how dey don' want me nowhere
since ah went to the Courthouse and sign mah name to freedom.
                    daughta say, "mustn't run ...
                     sound the trumpets .. the Kingdom's come!
                     Mamma go to the Courthouse
                     'n sign yo name for Freedom".
Fields afire -- cotton flamin' 'neath the summa skies
Shrouds 'o White ...  no name namin'.
Dey don' know 'dis dream cain't die

Churches burned -- deacon dead
still ah know it's like daughta said
ain't no turnin' back now --
Got to sign mah name to freedom.

second bridge:

Young folks heah a'roun' mah table talkin' through the night
faces heah ah cain't label -- brown ones blendin' wid da white ...

Sunday mornin' ... church ain't there
bombed it Wednesday but ah cain't care
God was down at the Courthouse day ah sign mah name to freedom
Ma Lawd was down at the Courthouse -- day ah sign mah name.

Note:  During that period 37 black churches in Mississippi were destroyed by fire.