Sunday, June 08, 2014

Jackie and Rachel Robinson's wedding by E.F. Joseph
After more than ten years of blogging, I'm suffering my first prolonged case of writer's block ... .

... and it's a serious problem.

There has never been a more eventful time of life for me; so much to write about, but this weekend I'm beginning to face the fact that there is a profoundly important background story that has been many months in the making, and it has now become so dominant over everything else that I can't move beyond it.

Maybe if I can share it -- even in its sheer enormity ...

It is this:

Several years ago, running concurrently with all else that's happened in my life, I learned of the story that now dominates all else.  It was when my long time friend, Careth Bomar Reid learned -- quite accidentally -- that the Carribean-born African American photographer, Emmanuel F. Joseph's, widow was in the Bay Area from New York to settle his estate.  In the process she'd come to his Oakland studio to dispose of a lifetime accumulation of negatives and other photographic paraphernalia collected over many decades.

As background, Joseph had lived in the Bay Area since the Twenties and into the Seventies when he'd migrated to the East Coast after the death of his first wife and very able assistant, Alice Joseph.    They had been known throughout the area and the state where he had contributed to the national black press over many years, and where we all considered them close family friends.  Anything that happened in the Greater Bay Area and beyond has been photographed by the Josephs.  Because Joseph had War Department clearance to photograph in defense prohibitive zones, he left a fairly comprehensive record of the WWII Home Front years for posterity.

The upshot of all that was that when the second Mrs. Joseph came to Oakland to dispose of his assets after his death, in many huge trash bags in that studio neatly recorded in now brown-age-stained manila envelopes were at least 7 generations of life in the black community.  The negatives had been collected by his widow to be sold for their silver nitrate content -- and Careth had learned of the impending sale and dared to intervene to save them.  Her offer of $1200 was accepted, and those precious negatives were removed for storage and eventual cataloging.

If you can imagine that there are upwards of 10,000 negatives of weddings, funerals, christenings and baptisms, head shots of women, men, children, public events of all kinds, fraternal dances, family reunions, corporate conventions, church doings of every denomination, the opening of the United Nations at the San Francisco Opera House as viewed through the lens of a photographer of color; the launching of ships at the 4 Richmond shipyards in Richmond; sorority and fraternity social dances, USO parties during WWII; picketings for civil and human rights and labor disputes;  NAACP activities over decades, sports events featuring black athletes,  etc., every aspect of black life as it happened for all those years had been recorded.

Lena Horne, Jimmy Lyons, Thelma Carpenter, Frank Sinatra 
E.F. Joseph was no Annie Liebowitz or Richard Avedon, and his repetitive poses and boring group shots with everyone lined up in neat rows looking into the camera are certainly not exciting when so much more is possible as we look through the lenses of our point-and-shoot hand held cameras, but for content -- as we've worked with those negatives -- I'm now struck by the importance of this work.

With permission of my superintendent who trusts my judgment, I've been devoting one day each week to helping my friend (who is 89) laboriously process those negatives by helping to identify as many as we can, and putting them into whatever subject  order as she deems appropriate and by now -- though we've been working as time allows for a long time, we're not nearly halfway into the process.   Neither of us will live to see completion of this work.   We know that.  Each envelope has been identified as to names and dates; as often as not by the subject, but often by the name of the person who ordered the prints -- so it isn't a slam-dunk even with some pretty meticulously-kept records.  The negatives are in fairly good shape despite their age and conditions under which they've been held, and some are hopelessly stuck-together and impossible to save, but we've done a pretty good job with at least one developed photo attached to each packet of negatives with whatever info was given by the photographer.  One wall of her home now holds many 10"x18" plastic containers on bookshelves (floor-to-ceiling), each jam-packed with packets that have been processed and cataloged as well as we can manage with limited human resources.

My blog has been peppered over time with many of those recovered Joseph photos, and they've made
Launching of the SS Robert S. Abbott, 1943, Kaiser Shipyards, Richmond, CA.
possible our being able to depict black history in connection with the WWII Home Front history.  We've tried to set aside those dated 1941-1945 as we go.

... however, what is becoming overwhelmingly clear after much work and re-discovery that there is at our fingertips a fairly complete picture of the cost of racial integration to our world as we knew it.  Yes.  That's quite a statement.  I know.  It's the enormity of that possibility that is beginning to crowd out my ability to even think about what's here ... .

At a time in history when -- it is believed broadly -- that there are fewer and fewer young blacks entering higher education, without being halfway through this huge collection -- there are already four separate tightly-packed packets of Greek fraternities and sororities with each packet containing group photos of social events.  At a time when Boalt Hall at the University of California had but one black student enrolled the last I heard, the past history of our academic aspirations are quite evident.  In those packets I would guess that -- with each plastic container holding perhaps 200-250 packets of many individuals in large groups -- what would you say the number might be?   These fraternities and sororities probably represent only Bay Area colleges and universities, but probably hold some members from historically black institutions, but our social lives were dominated by this social world when I was in my senior year of high school and my husband-to-be was in his senior year at the University of San Francisco.  In the Bay Area, higher education was the norm and was inspired by those who'd come here from a segregated South and historically-black colleges where black culture was proudly passed along through generations of caring black educators.  Many of those educators were left behind as the result of the integration successes -- not being felt properly educated for mainstream institutions to employ.

This complex life with all aspects of social and economic development represented ...  what do you suppose we gave up to gain entrance into the mainstream of American society?  What did we walk away from in societal gains for that admittance?  Because we were prohibited  by racism from being served by white institutions -- we had to create our own -- so every major black community had black pharmacists, doctors, dentists, attorneys, morticians and undertakers, insurance companies, restaurants, entertainers, schools for cosmetology,  realtors, media promotion,  independent businesses of every kind, etc., and when those doors were forced open by the efforts to integrate racially, all that black professional and commercial life was abandoned to white institutions that had many decades of advanced development and with which our fledgling institutions simply could not compete.  And at that point we began (and continue to) blame ourselves for not supporting our inadequate black businesses and institutions, adding to our senses of guilt and disloyalty.  The separation between our upper and middle classes from those still struggling to exist in Black America began to grow as the top level achievers were siphoned off into the mainstream economy with others left behind with dwindling resources in an underground economy often fueled only by the drug trade. 

The enormity of that cost screams out at me every Friday as Careth and I open each fragile packet that contains the record of our lives through to the Seventies.  We've both seen so much change, and we view it through the lens of two women who lived almost our entire lives under an integration mandate -- one that we both fought hard to bring about for the generations to follow.

Black scholars far smarter than I will use this collection to establish the truth of what is suddenly becoming obvious to me -- that here in this historic Joseph Collection is the possibility of getting some sense of the cost of having sacrificed the integrity of our black community for what now seems a paltry sum, and not nearly as valuable to us as to the humanizing of those in power over the past century.  Remember, guys, this is a nation that went to war to save democracy with a segregated armed forces; a war in which 54.8 million lives were sacrificed worldwide -- while deliberately ignoring the obvious contradictions.  African Americans were not seen as the saviors of the democracy this nation claimed to believe in enough to fight and die for, but by which it stubbornly refused to live; yet that is the truth of it.

The turbulent Sixties was the attempt to change all that, but at what cost? 

Maybe it's a developmental thing, and necessary for the sustaining of a Democracy bent upon replicating itself around a world looking for salvation and redemption.  As an American, that may be a worthy thing to have participated in, but as an African American -- I'm beginning to question the wisdom of the choices we've made over time that cost us solidarity and collective progress that has -- in many cases -- cut us off from ourselves.

But then, what were the alternatives?