Thursday, April 10, 2014

What on earth is there about Minstrel Shows these days ...

... and why are they hounding me so?

But my adventure as guest speaker at the Blackhawk Guild's monthly meeting in Danville turned out incredibly well, with enough goodwill to spare.  In fact, I'd say that some line was crossed yesterday that probably de-toxified the entire matter of Minstrel shows for all time

Maybe this is what young rappers are saying; something that I've failed to hear, about their ability to move past the "N" word by owning it and by using it deliberately thereby stripping it of its power.  We elders continue to be so traumatized by it and continue to cringe each time it gets used in our presence -- even when that use is couched in some arts or cultural context.

It happened to me yesterday at the Blackhawk Auto Museum -- a most magnificent edifice housing the collection of the most luxurious automobiles on the planet!  What a dream it was just to be there under that dramatic lighting -- with so few descriptive words to draw from that could possibly express the splendor of the Museum or the two floors of glamorous million dollar vehicles that had been once owned by Hollywood celebrities and other Titans of the World in their opulent lives of Eras past.

I'd been invited by the Museum Guild to make a presentation before their membership in a
monthly meeting.  Never having visited this wondrous place, this venture into the world of privilege  turned out to be beyond my wildest dreams.

The audience was beyond respectful, but was really warmly welcoming to both my granddaughter, Rosie, and her Ranger grandmother, and at the conclusion of my talk stood on their feet in an enthusiastic standing ovation!

The highlight of the day, and the greatest triumph, however, was not that moment, but a bit earlier when I stood beside the legendary stage and screen star, Al Jolson's, grand convertible to have a photo taken (Aha!  The Minstrel!).   I found a gaggle of giggles rising in my throat that threatened to take over my entire body in a grand guffaw that would surely have embarrassed Rosie!  But the setting; the event; my role in it; the historic WWII period that my talk deals with, and that comes so alive in the present -- all combined to suddenly illustrate how hopelessly ridiculous it all is!

I am by now so far past any semblance of that negative history that it has lost its power to inflict pain.

The irony in considering how a white man (a Jew in this instance) could be catapulted into such stardom by blackening himself to parody a person of color -- a creature who at that time was barely considered human -- and to do it so successfully that he would be able to live such  a  life of luxury speaks to something I'll never hope to fully understand.  I can still hear him singing, "Mam-my, how I luvya, how I luvya, my dear old Mammy," and I now remember that the child I was at that time liked his act!" 

Like most of the public, my family, too, enjoyed Al Jolson, at a time when childhood innocence made me oblivious to any darker meanings of his performances.  But then I can remember my family gathering around the radio to listen and laugh at the antics of Amos 'n Andy, Lightnin' and 'da' Kingfish (Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, two white men in black face), not ever considering that these characters were being seen by the nation as representing all black people, and that  life and death national policy was being made based on those images of our being sneaky, lazy, untrustworthy, and -- most of all -- hopelessly stupid.   In my world colored people were laughing and enjoying them, too, but as comic characters in a play.  In the old radio show, The Goldbergs, Molly surely was beloved by everyone without anyone assuming that she was the Jewish community personified.  In another generation and at a somewhat higher level of culture, artists like Elvis Presley and Mick Jagger et al would just skip the burnt cork and continue to expropriate black culture in their successful bids for fame and fortune.

... but I really suspect that, yesterday, the ambiance, the obvious positive energy expressed by really good people who were open to my words -- expelled whatever doubts that may have existed in that grand space.

Love wins another one, as unlikely as that may seem ... .

I'm looking forward to the Guild's visit to my world, in late spring.   

Sunday, April 06, 2014

It's not easy bein'  green (with envy, that is) ... .

I've been wondering just why Phyllis Gould -- whose persistence with successive presidential administrations over many years sent her pleas for recognition to the White Houses of Presidents Bill Clinton (twice), and George Bush (twice), but in the Obama years, only through the highest ranking white person in the administration, Vice-President Joe Biden?  Is it really possible to "dis" the Leader of the Free World and have it go unnoticed?  Apparently so.  I suspect racism rising from the entitlement that goes with white privilege, but it was just a fleeting glance of an idea -- and I suspect it rose from envy.  But why Joe Biden and not the President whose grandmother had served as a "Rosie" at Douglas Aircraft during WWII?  What other explanation could there possibly be?

Then I remembered that I'd written a post on April 23, 2004, when invited to Washington as a member of the delegation seeking congressional support for our park.  Our superintendent was Judy Hart at the time, and I was acting as a consultant to the park under development.  We were to testify before Congress, I believe, and I was to be the guest of Rep. George Miller.  It would have been my chance to visit the White House, right?
Has there ever been a more awkward embrace?

I refused to participate explaining that I did not accept George Bush as my president, and therefore would not attend.   It was shortly after the Supremes selected him to be our president after the debacle of the Florida challenges. Of course, it wasn't racism, but was it any more justified than the suspicions I'm laying on Phyllis?  Could it be simply that I was uncomfortable with there being only white women in this delegation, and no women of color -- for whatever reason?  The National Park Service would surely have preferred this were not so, but it was a private adventure, so there was no choice in who those representatives would be.  But this delegation surely was an accurate representation of life as it was lived in the WWII era.  Being historically correct is painful, even when that is not what was intended. These things are really complex, and often tainted by hidden factors.

It may be enlightening to check the archives for that post of 2004 (see the archives for post of April 23rd).

I don't know the answer, but the fact that I've made such a big thing of rejecting the label of "Rosie the Riveter," declaring that this was a white woman's story and not mine, may be a contributing element in this twisted tale.  I would have only agreed to go as a ranger, and even now -- would surely not have attended as a Rosie had I been invited.

There, I've said it.   Feels better to not have to carry such feelings around in coming weeks.  I like these women, and am genuinely happy for their good fortune.  It must have been a glorious week for them!

And -- tomorrow two huge Semi's will arrive from the East Coast.  They'll pull up to unload the permanent exhibits -- and we'll be opening another chapter in the development of Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park.

The Blues, the Envy, Climate Change and Rising Sea Levels will all be forgotten as we embark on the next round of park development!

I can hardly wait!

The Rosies took the White House by storm ... and I'm envious as hell!

You've all read about the five Rosie the Riveters who (through the hard work of Phyllis Gould, one of the group) had wrangled an invitation to the White House through Vice President Joe Biden.  It turned out to be a once in a lifetime grand adventure for 5 deserving elders who served their country well by answering the call when needed in the wartime workforce during WWII.

Phyllis is one of the Rosies who are still serving as volunteers at our Visitors Education Center in Richmond.  They're on site from ten until two o'clock every Friday to interact with the public and share their history as the first women hired into non-traditional roles during WWII.  She has been working on getting invited to the White House and national recognition since the Clinton Administration -- through two Bush terms -- and now into the present.  Vice President Biden finally responded positively, but the invitation didn't cover travel expenses so several agencies stepped up to sponsor their adventure, including Virgin Airlines who booked only female pilots to fly them -- first class -- to Washington where they enjoyed a week of festivities!

And, folks, I do truly appreciate your concern that I was not included in what was a private party, but I've had more than my share of notoriety over past years, which included an invitation to witness the Inauguration of President Barack Obama, and though I've had my recent moments of envy -- I'm not the only crayon in the box, and this one was not meant for me.

I'm taking comfort in the fact that so many of you were outraged at what they believed to have been an oversight of the White House.  Not so.  

Congratulations to Phyllis on her persistence in finally gaining the recognition she's been seeking for so many years!

Feeling depressed -- and far beyond the ordinary late winter blue periods that have dogged the dark days all my life ... .

This one seems different somehow ... deeper and less focussed ... .

It started one dead of night when I woke suddenly in a sweat -- though the room was cold.  Maybe it was related to something from the National Public Radio program that penetrated my consciousness as I slept.  I'd fallen asleep in the middle of listening ... but the words had risen from some place within me.  It was not something I'd heard someone say.  I knew that.  It was a primary original truth.

The words are still ringing in my brain, "... I will not believe that the world is serious about climate change and rising sea levels until some agency has published the carbon footprint of War.  That was it.

Those few words thundered with authenticity in my brain.  They stayed with me all day, and all the days since. 

At one point -- in an attempt at ridding myself of the hopelessness they've triggered -- I posted the sentence on Facebook.  Then to Twitter.

... and still they echo through all else.

Peace, be still ...