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 ... .